Across Industries, Minnesota Workers Are Harnessing Their Collective Power

Minnesota workers and community groups have worked toward this moment for over a decade. It’s paying off.

Amie Stager

Nursing home workers on strike at the Minnesota Capitol Photo by Amie Stager

MINNEAPOLIS — Collective power is rising in Minnesota. Thousands of union members and a broad coalition of community groups banded together to demand better contracts, quality schools, housing and a livable planet. Unions in Minnesota have been aligning with community groups for more than a decade, participating in actions to build solidarity and worker power. 

On Tuesday, March 5, around 1,000 nursing home workers filled the Minnesota Capitol grounds to picket for better wages and working conditions in what was the industry’s largest strike in the history of the state. 

I’ve been in the field 25 years and don’t have a retirement plan because they don’t pay me enough,” says Nessa Higgins, a member of both SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa and UFCW Local 663. In addition to her nursing assistant duties, Higgins also works as a medication aide and culinary worker.

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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 a.m.,” says Higgins. Yet people standing behind desks are getting bonuses.”

In addition to raising wages from $20 an hour or less to $25 an hour, nursing home workers also demanded paid time off, retirement benefits and the right to unionize. 

The nursing home workers strike was part of a Week of Action to apply joint pressure on employers to meet workers’ demands. The campaign, dubbed What Could We Win Together?” has been praised as a model for the strategic alignment of unions, along with community groups, to maximize leverage. 

As contract expiration dates passed, unions held strike authorization votes, set strike dates, and planned a collective deadline for employers to meet demands by March 2. Day after day, starting on March 4, new strikes and rallies took place. 

On the first day, public-sector workers in Minneapolis, who are represented by LIUNA Laborers Local 363, won their highest wage increase ever. 

On the first day, public-sector workers in Minneapolis, who are represented by LIUNA Laborers Local 363, won their highest wage increase ever.

Workers also urged the Minneapolis City Council to create a labor standards advisory board that would bring labor and industry leaders together to develop workplace regulations. Advocates believe the board will give people more of a say in their working conditions. 

It’s difficult to talk to a company that doesn’t want to listen to you,” says Michael Rubke, an overnight building attendant for FirstService Residential who went on a one-day-long strike Monday, March 4

César Mendez and José Carran are janitorial workers with SEIU Local 26 who won retirement pensions and more paid holidays after going on strike. 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. Photo by Amie Stager

At a packed meeting at the Public Service Building in downtown Minneapolis, Rubke handed council members a petition signed by 150 caretakers asking them to create the board. A labor standards board would … give a voice to the people who are dismissed and who the powerful don’t want to listen to because it irritates them and affects their pocketbooks.” 

That same day, 4,000 janitorial workers represented by SEIU Local 26 went on strike for three days against some of the wealthiest companies on the planet, such as Ameriprise Financial, and protested at the Minneapolis – St. Paul (MSP) airport on Wednesday, March 6

By the end of the week, those same janitors won a raise from $18.62 to $20 an hour, full retirement benefits, life insurance, more sick days and holidays, lower healthcare costs and language to expand union density. 

Women construction workers, who are members of worker center Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha Photo by Amie Stager

Union and non-union construction workers joined in on the action too. Dozens demonstrated to demand developers join the Building Dignity and Respect Program, which aims to set worker-driven standards for the construction industry and prevent labor violations. 

On Friday, March 8, which was also International Women’s Day, unionized teachers and their supporters marched at the Minnesota Capitol. 

“This week has taught me that our fights are the same across jobs, across school districts, and across the country”

This week has taught me that our fights are the same across jobs, across school districts, and across the country,” says Melissa Grewe, teacher aide from Mounds View, Minn., represented by SEIU Local 284. When we have each others’ backs, there’s nothing we can’t do together.”

In late February, the St. Paul Federation of Educators Local 28 announced a March 11 strike date. Then, on Tuesday, March 5, they won a contract that includes salary raises, higher employer contributions to health insurance, language on capping class sizes, a public transit incentive for teachers and a clean energy transition proposal.

On Wednesday, March 6, MSP airport police arrested 15 people, including SEIU executive vice president, Neal Bisno, for an act of civil disobedience after they refused to move from the street. Photo by Amie Stager

Unions are now lobbying at the Minnesota Capitol for a public option for healthcare, unemployment insurance for striking workers and a bill of rights for teacher aides. 

Additionally, workers are urging the legislature to prohibit shadow non-compete clauses, or contract provisions that restrict their ability to change employers, keeping workers stuck in low-wage positions. 

There’s also a proposal to fix a loophole in Minnesota’s Public Employee Labor Relations Act and give thousands of university staff and students collective bargaining rights.

While the Week of Action ended a couple weeks ago, negotiations are ongoing. Several unions are still bargaining for their next contracts, including Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) Local 59, SEIU Local 284, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa and UFCW Local 663

Outside the Minnesota Capitol building on Friday, MFT union leader Catina Taylor sent a forceful message to bosses: 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.” 

This article is a joint publication of In These Times and Workday Magazine, a nonprofit newsroom devoted to holding the powerful accountable through the perspective of workers.

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Amie Stager is associate editor at Workday Magazine.

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