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Turning the Tables in Minnesota

An enduring union-community alliance in the Twin Cities may be a model for progressive victories. The Twin Cities saw a series of labor actions, premised on the belief-the more disparate groups of workers unite in common cause, the more they can win.

Nursing home workers rally at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, March 5, 2024.,Nursing home workers rally at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, March 5, 2024.

Ninety years ago this spring, Minneapolis shuddered to a halt as workers and employers fought a bloody battle in the streets. The 1934 general strike was one of three that wracked the nation that year, with worker uprisings also springing forth in San Francisco and Toledo. The Minneapolis strike began when one Teamster local began organizing and striking all across town—behavior not then characteristic of the Teamsters, which was siloed at the time into discrete trade locals (milk bottle deliverers, beer barrel trundlers, and such), with few if any expansive impulses.

But one small Teamster local believed that by organizing drivers throughout the city, it could actually win a modicum of power for its workers. Led by three brothers who belonged to the Trotskyist Communist League of America, the local began to win support from other unions (notably, the building trades, which were among the few unions that then had a non-negligible number of members). After an attack by the cops and the hired thugs of the local business establishment that killed two workers and injured 67, virtually every other local union and just plain citizens joined the cause.

In the end, the employers recognized the expanded union. The Teamsters (including a young Jimmy Hoffa) learned that a region-wide trucking strike was far more effective than a strike of the neighborhood beer transporters. And the federal government realized that a law was needed to regularize collective bargaining and ensure that workers didn’t need to shut down entire cities to win wage increases. The following year, the feds enacted the National Labor Relations Act to do just that.

Last week, the Twin Cities saw a series of labor actions, premised like the 1934 general strike on the sound belief that the more disparate groups of workers unite in common cause, the more they can win. The key difference between 1934 and 2024 was that this year, the workers could build on the support they’d won in both city and state government, and use that support to build sectoral power in industries both unionized and not.

For the past 11 years, a number of local unions have been meeting regularly with themselves and with a range of community-based organizations (renters’ groups, environmental justice organizations, and such) to develop a broad common agenda and to coordinate their actions. (I reported on the beginnings of this process in a 2014 article for the Prospect.) At a rally last October, members of these various unions and their community allies gave notice that they planned joint actions in early March. Last week saw this “table,” as its members call it, stage a host of coordinated strikes: janitors, nursing home and home care workers, laborers, teachers, airport workers, park groundskeepers, and more. They were joined by other workers (most prominently, registered nurses) who weren’t on strike but took part in common cause, to rally for legislation that would better the lot of the health care industry’s workers and patients. 

Some of these workers won new contracts on the eve of the strikes, and some during the course of the week. Some of them, like the janitors who clean the office buildings of downtown Minneapolis, the teachers in St. Paul, and the laborers working for the Minneapolis parks district, threatened real strikes; some spent the week promoting city ordinances and state laws that gave them more power to have a say in their working conditions. But most of them showed up for all their fellow unions’ rallies and demonstrations, and all the public hearings. While some threatened to walk off their jobs until a settlement was reached, none of them actually did so. Instead, they staged what are called “ULPs”—unfair labor practice strikes—which lasted from one to three days (not an action available to their 1934 forebears, who would have been summarily fired for taking what was then a legally unprotected action).

The week began with a picket line outside the high-rise office of one leading local corporation, conducted by Local 26 of SEIU—the city’s historically militant janitors’ union—in conjunction with CTUL (the Centro De Trabajadores Unidos En La Lucha), an organization of immigrant workers who clean buildings, work on construction, and do other jobs in which immigrants are frequently exploited by low-road employers and contractors. When I wrote about the emerging Minneapolis table a decade ago, CTUL, in tandem with Local 26, was organizing the night crews who cleaned the city’s Target stores, a battle they won when Target told its cleaning-company contractors to treat those workers with some respect. Those crews thereby joined and were covered under a Local 26 contract, and the two organizations have worked together ever since.

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By midday, picketers had relocated to a government building where a number of them gave testimony at a hearing convened by the Minneapolis City Council. At issue was a proposed ordinance establishing a Labor Standards Board that would bring together workers and their representatives with employers and city officials, to recommend minimum-wage and work standards in the city’s downtown area. The council could then enact an ordinance based on their recommendation.

For CTUL members who clean those downtown office buildings and hotels without union contracts, such an ordinance would mandate wage, hour, and working conditions; for Local 26, it would mean that their own standards, won through collective bargaining, would likely become the model for janitorial work across the sector. “As we work to redevelop what the city looks like,” said City Council vice president Aisha Chughtai, who chaired the hearing, “we need to make clear just who it works for. This will make sure that high-road employers are not at a comparative disadvantage” for paying their cleaning crews adequately. (That standardization of working conditions, in turn, would presumably reduce non-union employers’ resistance to having Local 26 unionize their workers.)

Chughtai was hardly alone in her support for mandating higher standards. Four councilmembers attended the hearing, including the president, Elliot Payne. Mayor Jacob Frey had also signaled his support for such a measure. In the course of the hearing, workers—chiefly, but not entirely, CTUL members—told about what they’d experienced from low-road employers, including being fired for becoming pregnant and being cheated out of their wages on construction sites. Speaking in Spanish, one victim of wage theft, CTUL member Lisa Guerra, told the councilmembers, “We build this city. We are not expendable. We need this board now: We don’t want to pass this fight down to our children.”


“The state gave $300 million to nursing homes,” said one worker, “now it’s time that workers got their fair share of that.”  (Photo Amie Stager / Workday Magazine  //  The American Prospect)

The ordinance, if enacted, would be one of the various Plan B concepts that unions have developed in the absence of a Plan A: a reform of federal labor law to enable private-sector workers to organize into unions. For decades, employers have illegally violated the NLRA (since there are no serious penalties for doing so) by firing workers in organizing drives, thereby killing those drives in their tracks. In recent years, SEIU in particular has promoted worker boards at the state and city level, and had one established last year in California for fast-food workers, whom SEIU had been trying and failing to organize into unions over the past decade. The precondition for such councils, which exist in New York as well as California, is SEIU’s political clout in blue cities and states—particularly states, since Republican-run states now routinely pass laws prohibiting Democratic-run cities from enacting pro-worker ordinances.

In the 2022 elections, Minnesota became a blue state, too, with Democrats winning control of both houses of the legislature, as well as the governor’s office. In 2023, newly blue Minnesota enacted a range of laws empowering workers’ organizations. One groundbreaking law forbids employers from compelling workers to attend anti-union meetings; others laid the groundwork for labor standard boards that bring together workers, employers, and government officials (a table, if you will) in a range of industries.

The long-standing labor-community table paved the way for these new labor-management tables, and much else. “Ten years ago, that table set an agenda for a Democratic trifecta [control of the House, Senate and governor’s office] which we only got in the 2022 midterms,” says Dan McGrath, who, as the then-leader of TakeAction Minnesota, a statewide community-based group, played a key role in the operation. “That’s one reason why state government was able to act so decisively in 2023.”

The convergence between SEIU and CTUL that began a decade ago has extended beyond the building services sector to a more encompassing alliance. Members, says CTUL co-director Merle Payne, work together in advocating for better public schools and community services. CTUL members show up for union (not just SEIU) picket lines; unions (not just SEIU) are pushing for standard-setting boards in several industries.

Last Tuesday, nearly a thousand union and community-group activists rallied on the steps of the State Capitol in St. Paul for yet one more table: one that sets standards for the state’s nursing home workers. In this case, that table is already established and has considerable power. By state law, all nursing homes in Minnesota are paid by the state at set Medicaid rates, and by a new state law, wages and working standards at nursing homes are set by a tripartite board chaired by Jamie Gulley, who heads a union of 55,000 SEIU nursing home and home care workers in both Minnesota and Iowa. The rulings of that board are binding; they only have to go before the legislature if the dollar amounts exceed the Medicaid appropriations that the state has already made. 

Not that the current legislature isn’t friendly. In the course of the rally, both the Senate and House majority leaders came down the Capitol steps to speak in favor of the board’s pending decisions, which include raising the hourly wages of the workers to $25 and will almost certainly be approved later this month. “The state gave $300 million to nursing homes,” said one worker, “now it’s time that workers got their fair share of that.”

In addition to elected officials, other unions lent their support, including the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA), an affiliate of National Nurses United, which at various occasions in the not-too-distant past had been at war with SEIU. No such tensions were visible at the rally. MNA leaders spoke in favor of the nursing home rules, while pointing out that their own priority—increasing nurses’ pay and improving working conditions to alleviate short-staffing at state hospitals—was the subject of separate pending legislation. “A healthy Minnesota,” one MNA member said, “requires the state to step up to ensure standards are met both in hospitals and nursing homes.”

Amid the various picket lines and rallies, the table also sponsored daily leadership classes for union and community activists. On Wednesday, I sat in on one of those classes, held, as many such activities have long been held, in a church basement. Roughly 250 activists from a range of groups—among them SEIU, CTUL, the Laborers Union, and several renters’ organizations—were arrayed around the room, before breaking into several classes. I chose to attend the one on political theater, which was really a dress rehearsal for a performance at the Solhem Companies, one of the city’s premiere apartment building developers, set for the following day.

Backed by the other groups at the table, CTUL members who work in residential construction (an almost entirely non-union industry in the United States) and members of low-income renters’ groups want developers to empower an independent monitor to survey working conditions in the industry. Modeled after the program that non-union farmworkers were able to win in Immokalee, Florida, CTUL hopes to pressure companies like Solhem to agree to abide by a monitor’s rulings as they build new housing in the Twin Cities.

The players engaged in the rehearsal consisted of CTUL members and activists in renters’ rights groups. They moved in circles, one group carrying cardboard likenesses of red fish, the other of blue fish. Initially, I assumed the reds were workers and the blues were management. As with many of my assumptions, I was wrong. The reds were indeed workers, but the blues were renters; they were opposed in this instance because companies like Solhem have told them that if they pay their construction workers more, rents will rise and the renters won’t be able to afford them.

But the workers are the same people who want to rent. And so, even as the two groups warily circled each other and occasionally sparred, one worker fish and one renter fish began a fishy colloquy, and recognizing their commonality of interest, turned their cardboard placards inside out to reveal two purple fishes, combining red and blue.

The director of this pageant, whose job required combining choreography and method acting in the manner of Jerome Robbins or Lee Strasberg, was the leader of CTUL’s construction campaign, Carlos Garcia Velasco. He came by his multiple callings honestly; his parents were leaders of California’s legendary Teatro Campesino in the days of Cesar Chavez.

Throughout the week, strikes were settled and wages won. SEIU janitors won immediate hourly raises to $20. St. Paul’s teachers won a substantial wage increase, as did Minneapolis’s snow-plow maintenance crews and other city-employed laborers. Wage increases for the state’s nursing home workers looked to be a sure thing, and the immigrant men and women of CTUL who work in downtown Minneapolis’s offices and hotels looked forward to the creation of yet another table: a Labor Standards Board that will give them a voice in the conditions of their work.

“This is a beautiful country that we’ve come to,” Paulina, an immigrant from Ecuador who cleans office buildings in the Twin Cities, told Minneapolis City Council members at last week’s hearing. “We’re asking you to let us have our voices heard in the decisions that affect us and our families. And,” she paused, gesturing to a roomful of workers and activists, “we’re here as a bigger team. That’s how we hope to make this happen.”

Not a general strike, to be sure, but general enough to get results.

[Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.]

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Used with the permission. © The American Prospect,, 2024. All rights reserved.  

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