Minnesota’s Labor Spring Has Arrived. Here’s What’s Going Down.

Unions and community groups are uniting in a week of action to win broad social demands, from dignified work to public housing to better schools.

This article is being jointly published by Workday Magazine and In These Times.

MINNEAPOLIS—Minnesota’s Labor Spring has arrived. Thousands of essential workers and community members are taking part in a Week of Action in the Twin Cities to fight for a host of social demands they hope will build worker power and strengthen communities. They are calling for better union contracts and a labor standards advisory board, alongside social housing, environmental sustainability, and better schools.

The alignment of unions, workers’ centers and community organizations, and the broad scope of their aims, is being heralded as a model of social movement unionism, or bargaining for the common good. The effort, which emanates from more than a decade of organizing and movement building, is uniting under the motto, “What could we win together?”

March 2 saw a kickoff event and also marked the deadline that many of these groups set to see action on the issues they are fighting for.  Several unions—representing janitors, nurses, retail workers, and educators who have all been working without contracts—are striking or planning to strike, and holding picket lines and rallies at their workplaces, in downtown Minneapolis, and at the state capitol in St. Paul.

On March 4, thousands of janitors with SEIU Local 26 began a three-day unfair labor practice (ULP) strike in downtown Minneapolis. Property workers with Local 26 are also on a ULP strike against FirstService Residential.

Many of these workers on strike filled a conference room to capacity for a listening session with the Minneapolis City Council on a proposed ordinance to create a cross-sectoral Labor Standards Advisory Board. Workers say the board will give them a voice in their workplaces and opportunities for businesses and workers to come together to solve problems. 

Michael Rubke is an overnight building attendant at FirstService Residential who is on strike today. He handed Minneapolis city council members a petition with 150 property workers’ signatures. “It’s difficult to talk to a company that doesn’t want to listen to you. … they dismiss us, they wave their hands at us and shoo us away,” he says. “A labor standards board would do so much, not just for the people in my company but the working class in general.”

Maria Palacios testified alongside her daughter Jaqueline Flores. Both are members of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha (CTUL), a worker-led group that primarily organizes in Latino communities. “There are often times when we are fired and we don’t get the dignity of an explanation,” says Palacios in Spanish through a translator. Flores, who was holding her baby close in a fuzzy blanket, also spoke about the need for a labor standards board. She was fired by her employer after giving birth. “They didn’t give an explanation; they just gave me a piece of paper and said I was terminated,” says Flores. Another worker, Estela Tirado, was fired while pregnant. 

Joseph Bryant, the executive vice president of SEIU International, also gave last-minute testimony after flying in from California to see what’s going down in Minneapolis. “How is it right in 2024 that my sister gets pregnant and is fired from her job? How do we accept that?” he says.

On March 5, nurses with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa will begin a one-day ULP strike across the Twin Cities.

On Thursday, construction workers with CTUL will march to urge developers to sign on to a worker-driven social responsibility model.

Essential workers at the front lines of industries, who have faced pay cuts and heavy workloads before and during the pandemic, are utilizing a moment of expired contracts across multiple sectors to escalate their fights at the same time. This kind of cross-sectoral organizing is unique in the United States and has been in the works for more than a decade.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Michael Rubke, center, is an overnight building attendant with FirstService Residential. He rallies with workers on strike across the Twin Cities ahead of testifying at a Minneapolis City Council listening session on a proposed ordinance for a Labor Standards Advisory Board. At work, he is constantly available for whatever emergency arises. “I have been told by the residents,” he says, “that I work for that they greatly appreciate the fact that I’m there, they’re able to sleep well.”

Jaqueline Flores, holding her sleeping baby close underneath a fuzzy Winnie the Pooh blanket, testified at the listening session alongside her mother Maria Palacios. Her baby’s father, Ariel Salazar, who works at the Amazon warehouse in Brooklyn Park, came in support.

Minneapolis City Council member Aisha Chughtai, who represents Ward 10 and is a former organizer with SEIU, is one of the authors of the proposed ordinance for a Labor Standards Advisory Board. According to Chughtai, this ordinance is a way for the local government to support workers in its goal of revitalizing downtown Minneapolis.

Janitors rally and march on Monday, March 4.

Minnesota State Senator Jen McEwen, who represents District 8 and the city of Duluth and leads the Senate’s Labor Committee, spoke to workers at a rally outside of Ameriprise Financial headquarters in Minneapolis before workers led a march downtown. “Don’t let these bosses tell you that they can’t meet your demands. They can,” she says. “These are some of the wealthiest corporations on the planet. You make what they do possible. You deserve to have your most basic needs met.”

Unions in Minnesota began aligning with community groups over a decade ago, holding weeks of action to build solidarity and worker power across sectors. The current convergence strengthened with a launch event inin October 2023, and five months later, workers are fighting for and winning contracts that improve their conditions and help meet the needs of the broader community.

As government and business interests seek to “revitalize” downtown Minneapolis, essential workers like janitors who are tasked with cleaning offices and stores are making their voices heard in economic recovery efforts. Around 4,000 janitors walked off the job on Monday to participate in a three-day unfair labor practice strike against their employers, who are contracted by some of the wealthiest companies, like Target and Ameriprise Financial.

 César Mendez and José Carran are janitorial workers on strike with SEIU Local 26, hoping to win benefits like retirement pensions and paid holidays. Carran has worked cleaning Target stores for the past 24 years. According to the union, two-thirds of its members have zero dollars in their savings after decades of work. 

Staked into the ground in front of the Ameriprise office building in downtown Minneapolis are picket signs displaying statements that describe janitors’ economic realities. The workers represented by SEIU Local 26 are on a three-day ULP strike against companies like Ameriprise Financial that provide wealth management and retirement for clients, while the janitors who provide essential work cleaning company headquarters lack such protections.

Nursing home workers rally at state capitol, March 5

On Tuesday, around 1,000 workers gathered at the state capitol during the biggest nursing home worker unfair labor practice strike in Minnesota’ history. Agnes Cooper is a nursing home worker at Saint Therese Senior Living in New Hope, Minn., on strike with her union, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa. After 20 years of work, she only makes $18 an hour. Nursing home workers held a 24-hour unfair labor practice strike on Tuesday to demand a $25 minimum wage, safer staffing, retirement benefits and more. Cooper would also like to see some paid vacation time. “I’m from Liberia,” she says. “I would like to go visit my people.”

“When we fight, we win! When we win, we dance!” chant nursing home workers as they bust some moves on the state Capitol steps. Nursing home workers across the state have been facing low pay and understaffing leading to higher workloads and longer hours.

Nessa Higgins is a member of both SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa and UFCW Local 663 and has worked as a certified nursing assistant, a trained medication aide and a culinary worker. “I’ve been in the field 25 years and don’t have a retirement plan because they don’t pay me enough,” she says. “When you go home, your feet tired, your back aching and you’re working a double shift; you gotta get up the next day and be there at 6:30. Yet people standing behind desks are getting bonuses.”

Nurses with the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) showed up to support workers on strike. Shiori Konda-Muhammad is the first vice president of MNA and has worked as a cardiovascular intensive care unit nurse at North Memorial Health in Robbinsdale, Minn., for 17 years. After being in the ICU, many patients move to rehabilitation or longterm care. “I know burnout. I have experienced working in a Covid ICU, and our working conditions got exponentially worse,” she says. “We need safe and quality care in nursing homes so that patients don’t bounce back to the hospital.”

“The work that people do to keep our offices clean and open, to keep our patients safe, whether in nursing homes or in hospitals, is critical work, and without it, Minnesota doesn’t work,” says State Senator Erin Murphy (D-Minn.), a registered nurse and former nursing home worker. “There is power in collective action, and that power matches and, in many cases, exceeds the power of employers. The work that you do is critical, and with the absence of that work, people feel it.”

JW Moore III works as a custodian at Metro State University and is on his second day of the three-day strike by janitors with SEIU Local 26. He is at the Minnesota Capitol, rallying with coworkers and nursing home workers also on strike. “I went to the grocery store for lunch, it’s too expensive just to buy ingredients to make a sandwich,” he says.

Workers with UFCW Local 663 from Estates at Chateau and Villas at Bryn Mawr were also on strike. A delegation of Brainerd Lakes area grocery store workers who have been working without a contract for 94 days (as of Tuesday, March 5) and went on strike for five days over the Christmas holiday. In the blue sunglasses is Faith Molby, a front-end manager at the Pequot Lakes Supervalu, where she works in bookkeeping, general merchandise and pharmacy and runs gas pumps. She has been granted “special project union representation” by her union, a six-month leave from work, to mobilize her coworkers. “I believe in fighting for everybody,” she says.

After the rally, workers attending the unions’ week-long leadership school headed inside to fill the Capitol rotunda, where the Minnesota Grocers Association (MGA) hosts a yearly bipartisan “bag-off.” Four elected officials from the state legislature, two from each party, including the commissioner of agriculture, compete to see who is the best at bagging groceries and are judged on speed and style. The MGA’s “Bag Hunger” campaign seeks to partner grocers, industry vendors, consumers and community agencies to end hunger. Tom Hauser from KSTP 5 Eyewitness News emceed the event.

President of the Minnesota Grocers Association (MGA) Jamie Pfuhl hands Minnesota Senate minority leader Lisa Demuth first prize as workers wave picket signs and flyers. Each bagger received $500 from MGA to be awarded to a charity in their constituency, and a $2,000 check was also awarded to Second Harvest Heartland, a hunger relief organization serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. According to Pfuhl, MGA is responsible for one in 20 jobs in Minnesota. Workers showed up to the event expecting to see MGA board chair, Chris Quisberg, of S&R Quisberg, which operates grocery stores in the Brainerd Lakes area. Quisberg didn’t show up. Union members made some noise anyway.

Airport action, March 6

On Wednesday, the third and final day of the janitors’ ULP strike, hundreds of workers and allies rallied at the Minneapolis–St. Paul (MSP) International Airport, which is consistently ranked as one of the best airports in the United States. 

“Remember when they used to call us essential?” asks Brahim Kone, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 26. Kone says the local lost five of its members during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Christopher Haugabrook, center, has worked as a janitor cleaning MSP Airport for over a year. “I’m working with people who have worked here for 20 or 30 years. The wages and retirement that they are being offered is an insult to hardworking American families in inflationary times,” he says. “I hope that they come up with something better so these people can keep this airport alive and keep it the best airport in America.”

Pat Gores is a baggage handler for Delta, where he has worked for more than eight and a half years. He stands with the striking janitors and union activist and former baggage handler Kip Hedges, who was fired by Delta while fighting for a $15 minimum wage in 2014. Only the pilots and dispatchers at Delta have union representation, but flight attendants and mechanics are also organizing a union drive. “We know how much we’re losing out,” says Gores, who is inspired by the janitors. “A lot of people have a sense of rugged individualism, and that beats you down and separates you from the power we have. I have a lot of coworkers that are scared to speak up. I’m sure there was fear in these people at one point, but they understand the concept of strength in unity.”

Alana Cross is a healthcare worker with SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania who traveled to Minnesota to take part in the solidarity actions with workers this week. “Up with the workers!” she says.

During the action, airport police arrested 15 people, including SEIU executive vice president, Neal Bisno, in an act of civil disobedience after they refused to move from the street.

Dozens of airport police officers lined up to arrest the union activists, including SEIU Local 26 political director Samantha Diaz.

Janitors return to work Thursday morning and expect to be back at the bargaining table on Friday.

Gather for a green future, March 6

Cristina Melchor is a leader with Unidos MN who has lived in Minnesota for over 20 years and suffered long-term damage to her hands at one of her jobs. “Due to my immigration situation, most of the jobs that I have access to have been through temporary agencies,” she says in Spanish through a translator. “I hope that we are the last generation of frontline workers that have to harm our bodies to be able to bring sustenance to our families.”

On Wednesday, community organizations Unidos MN, ISAIAH, and Sierra Club joined SEIU Local 26 at Mercado Central in South Minneapolis to launch the “Block by Block” public initiative to bring clean energy and green union jobs to every neighborhood in the city. According to Diana Espitia, secretary of the board of Mercado Central, the marketplace was one of the first buildings in the Lake Street business corridor to use solar energy, and intends not only to eliminate plastic, but to commit to a 100% transition to renewable energy.

“We have the opportunity to impact an entire generation of workers, but only if we do this right,” says Chelsie Glaubitz Gabiou, president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, which is working with Unidos MN and New Justice Project on sustainable pathways to long-term jobs.

Last year, the Minneapolis City Council approved $10 million in a climate legacy initiative to pursue climate goals like reducing energy costs, creating green jobs and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

“Minneapolis needs a Green New Deal,” says Council Member Katie Cashman, chair of the Climate and Infrastructure Committee, inviting everyone to its next meeting scheduled for March 14. “We need to hear your voices so we can ramp up this investment from 10 million to 100 million.”

Around $1.4 million was also set aside for workforce development and another $4.7 million for weatherization. According to Council Member Jason Chavez, on the left, Block by Block is an opportunity to ensure these funds will reach  communities that need it most. Executive director of Unidos MN Emilia Gonzalez Avalos says that South Minneapolis is a sacrificial zone that suffers from historic disinvestment and pollution from nearby industrial facilities. Last year, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute and allies won almost a decade-long struggle against the city to prevent the demolition of the Roof Depot, purchase it, and build an urban farm with community services. Smith Foundry, an iron metal processing plant whose air permit with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is up for renewal this year, has also been under scrutiny for potentially violating the Clean Air Act.

Workers say that clean energy should not remain a luxury item reserved for the wealthy. “As renters, we would love a new modern electric stove and clean heat, but we can’t afford new appliances or upgrades,” says Spencer Polk, a renter with ISAIAH’s Young Adult Coalition, “and even if we could, we don’t have the power to make those changes in our building. Our city leadership is going to be essential to make the clean energy transition something that benefits everyone: renters, homeowners, residents and workers.”

Centro de Trabajadores en La Lucha (CTUL) rally, March 7

Members of Centro de Trabajadores en La Lucha (CTUL), a worker-led organization in the Twin Cities metro area, have been demanding that developers like Solhem Properties, Yellow Tree and United Properties, which have histories of working with reportedly abusive contractors, join the Building Dignity and Respect (BDR) program, a worker-driven social responsibility program aiming to advance human rights and end exploitation within the construction industry.

On Thursday, non-union construction workers who are members of CTUL, union members and renters rallied outside of the Solhem office in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis. Veronica Mendez-Moore, CTUL co-director, said she saw the Solhem office’s window blinds go down while people began gathering for the rally. According to CTUL, two worker crews employed by subcontractors Fish Construction and PK Property Services reported wage theft while working on Solhem projects. Workers received their wages weeks late after filing a lien and reaching out to the general contractor, Weis Builders.

During the action, a group of women construction workers who have faced labor violations on Solhem projects knocked on Solhem’s door three times to ask Solhem to join BDR. When there was no response, they read a letter addressed to CEO Curt Gunsbury out loud.

“While you don’t employ workers on your projects directly, as the project developer, you set the expectations that dictate how workers are treated on your projects,” reads Socorro Cruz in Spanish through a translator. According to Cruz, she worked on one of Solhem’s projects, the Fred Apartments in Edina, for two years. With the support of her family and from CTUL, Socorro and the other workers brought wage-theft complaints to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

In December, CTUL sent a letter to the Edina City Council outlining concerns with new Solhem projects. A letter to the city council from Gunsbury denies that wage theft has occurred on any Solhem projects and calls the allegations unfounded. In documents shared with Workday Magazine and In These Times, PK Property Services responded to a request for Cruz’s personnel file, stating that “PK Property Services does not have any record of Socorro Cruz being employed with our company.” However, paychecks showing that Cruz did not receive overtime wages list Giaveno Consultants and Paul Beckfeld, the owner and founder of PK Property Services.

“We left our letter on the door. We hope that they take it and read it and recognize what’s going on,” says Cruz. 

Workers are also renters, and renters are workers. Alibella Rodriguez, from United Renters for Justice/Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (IX), spoke at the rally about the need for affordable housing to not come at the expense of workers. Later that evening, Rodriguez spoke at a forum hosted by IX and called for county-level social housing programs.

CTUL members put on some street theater showing how renters and workers can recognize shared interests against common enemies. 

Rally for good schools, March 8

On Friday, which was also International Women’s Day, educators with Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) Local 59, Saint Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) Local 28, Education Minnesota and SEIU Local 284 marched and rallied with allies at the Minnesota State Capitol. According to Amanda Otero, deputy director at progressive organization TakeAction Minnesota, SPFE worked with TakeAction to mobilize support for educators’ contract fights in making healthy, green public schools. “SPFE has a history of bargaining for the common good, and this year we are feeling the power of the partnership between our labor unions and community allies,” she says. On Tuesday, SPFE announced they reached a tentative agreement with Saint Paul Public Schools after voting to authorize a strike set for March 11.

Last year, the state legislature passed unemployment insurance for hourly school workers, free breakfast and lunch for students, paid family and medical leave, and a child tax credit. One of the next goals for these unions is winning an education support professionals (ESP) bill of rights, which would increase wages for ESPs and provide them with health insurance and professional development.

Educators celebrated the funding appropriated through the state legislature last year. However, they say working conditions continue to decline. “Unfortunately, our bosses didn’t get that message,” says Catina Taylor, president of MFT 59’s ESP chapter. “Instead of raising pay to compete with the private sector, instead of making sure one job is enough, instead of standing up to the health insurance companies, our bosses are fighting and stalling. … We will keep pushing at the bargaining table, we will keep lobbying at the capitol, we will keep supporting each other and our union siblings.”

Melissa Grewe is a paraeducator at Mounds View, Minn., who has been on union leave to attend the weeklong leadership school. “This week has taught me that our fights are the same across jobs, across school districts, and across the country.”

She says there was a moment when she became nervous at the bipartisan bag-off action with UFCW Local 663 on Tuesday. “In that same moment, I realized I was not alone,” she says. “To my left were two strong women standing there beside me, telling me, ‘I got your back, we’re with you’.”

Friday marked an end to the week of action, which saw over 5,000 workers and union members on strike, including janitorial workers and nursing home workers, with thousands of allies from unions and community groups in support. On Saturday, 4,000 commercial janitors with SEIU 26 reached a tentative agreement at 4 a.m. According to the union, the agreement includes raising wages to $20 an hour, full retirement benefits, life insurance, more sick days and holidays, lowered healthcare costs, and language to expand union density.

From listening sessions with local government to civil disobedience to political theater to rallies, workers built and displayed their collective power. Several unions are still bargaining for their next contract, including workers with MFT 59, SEIU 284, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa, and UFCW Local 663.

Workday Magazine and In These Times will be updating this piece throughout the week to document this historic convergence.

Amie Stager is the Associate Editor for Workday Magazine.

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