Minimum-wage victory showcases potential of labor-community partnerships
On April 14, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill gradually raising Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2016 and indexing the wage so that it keeps pace with inflation beginning in 2018.
The bill signing was a victory for more than 350,000 workers statewide who are expected to see a raise as a result of the bill. But it also marked a victory for the coalition of unions, religious groups and other non-profits that united to push the minimum-wage hike across the finish line.
“We’ve seen what an impact we can make when we come together,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson said after the bill-signing ceremony in the Capitol rotunda. “It felt good.”
The Minnesota AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor federation, was one of several union groups that took a leadership role in the Raise the Wage Coalition, which united more than 70 diverse organizations behind a minimum-wage increase.
After DFL majorities in the House and Senate failed to agree on a minimum-wage bill last spring, unions and labor federations pledged to invest energy, resources and political capital into seeing a meaningful increase pass before the 2014 session gaveled to a close. They made the commitment despite the fact, as Knutson pointed out, “the vast majority of Minnesota’s union workforce makes well above the minimum wage.”
“The labor movement is committed to improving the lives of all working people,” Knutson said. “Like Paul Wellstone said, ‘We all do better when we all do better.’”
A step toward ‘enduring partnerships’
Unions’ leadership role in the Raise the Wage Coalition reflected local action on a nationwide directive put forth at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles last year. Known as “Resolution 16,” the directive calls on state and local labor federations to build “enduring partnerships” with community groups that share values and goals with the labor movement.
With the minimum-wage campaign, Minnesota unions backed up the AFL-CIO’s talk with action, said St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Bobby Kasper, whose office coordinated 96 volunteer shifts on behalf of the minimum-wage push this year.
“Building a movement for economic justice isn’t possible unless we look beyond our own unions and reach out to our allies in that struggle,” Kasper said. “Whether it’s fighting Right to Work or defending prevailing wage, our position will only be stronger if we have members of the broader community behind us, but we can’t expect their support if we don’t step up when they need us.”
‘Speaking with a collective voice’
Labor’s role in the minimum-wage victory was not lost on the non-profit and faith-based organizations that joined the Capitol celebration April 14.
“It’s really inspiring seeing labor behind a broad, social justice issue like the minimum wage of concern to the community, not just their own members,” said Doran Schrantz, executive director ofISAIAH, a faith-based member of the Raise the Wage Coalition. “Seeing labor really throw everything, all their political might and muscle, behind this was really inspiring.”
The non-profit group A Minnesota Without Poverty had been organizing in support of a minimum-wage increase since 2008, coordinating events like one last year in which activists handed out ketchup bottles at the Capitol, urging lawmakers to “catch up to the cost of living.”
“We were doing our own thing,” Executive Director Nancy Maeker said. “We knew there were others working on the issue, and we were appreciative. But it didn’t seem like there was a lot of coordination among those groups.”
That changed last fall, when A Minnesota Without Poverty accepted an invitation to join the Raise the Wage Coalition. Maeker said she quickly realized the power of “speaking with a collective voice,” and she appreciated the “organizational wherewithal” union groups lent to the campaign.
“I was pretty positive toward labor to begin with, but I didn’t know labor would be interested in collaborating on an issue like minimum wage,” Maeker said. “That’s the part I was most appreciative of.”
Doing what labor does best
After lawmakers failed to pass a wage hike in 2013, Raise the Wage Coalition members realized they needed to engage the public to make their campaign successful in 2014. “It wasn’t just a campaign that could happen here under the (Capitol) dome,” Schrantz said. “We really needed to engage the wider community.”
Grassroots campaigning – knocking on doors, phone banking – is labor’s strong suit, and labor federations like the St. Paul RLF joined Working America, the AFL-CIO’s outreach initiative to non-union workers, in a leading role.
“We came out of last session knowing we needed to mobilize and mobilize big,” Working America State Director Bree Halverson said. “At Working America in Minnesota, we kept the conversation going all year-round.”
Working America began door-to-door canvasses across the state around the minimum wage June 1, 2013, Halverson said. By April 4, canvassers had knocked on 100,239 doors, engaged 43,172 Minnesotans in conversations about the issue and generated 4,000 letters or phone calls to lawmakers asking them to support the coalition’s bill.
As it turned out, Halverson said, it wasn’t a tough sell for most Minnesotans.
“People got it,” she said. “Even if minimum wage didn’t affect them directly, it was important to their kids who were struggling to find good employment after college, or it was important for their community because if people were making better wages, then their whole community would be stronger.”
Working America and other coalition members, like Jewish Community Action, proved critical in generating support in areas where unions don’t have a lot of membership or haven’t been traditionally active politically.
“Some of the senators that needed to be moved, that needed to hear a strong voice for social justice were from areas that Jewish Community Action had a base,” JCA organizer Rachel English said. “JCA played an important role in making sure more of the suburban senators heard from their constituents that this is an important social justice issue to them.”
Toward a economic justice for all
While lawmakers, union leaders and other coalition members celebrated the minimum-wage victory, they were also quick to point out that work remains in building a more economically just Minnesota.
“Our work is not done,” Speaker of the House Paul Thissen said. “There are still lots and lots of Minnesotans struggling to remain in or get into the middle class.”
Are there initiatives members of the Raise the Wage Coalition can unite around in the future? Some members think so.
“I would love for this coalition to keep working,” English said. “You can see the kind of impact it had up on Capitol Hill.”
English pointed to provisions left out of the minimum-wage bill – language to strengthen the 40-hour workweek and protect guest workers – and the inclusion of a “training wage” that, she fears, could incentivize employing teenagers at a lower wage than adult workers.
Halverson agreed: “Minimum wage is just the first step, I feel, to some really great stuff going forward,” she said. “It’s exciting.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to work on issues together in the future that are going to help workers in Minnesota. It may not be the Raise the Wage Coalition, but there are relationships we’ve as a labor movement made that we’re going to have for a very long time.”
“I’m proud of the work we did to pass minimum wage,” St. Paul RLF President Kasper said. “I’m even more excited about the prospect of continuing to build a better Minnesota with the new friends and allies we gained during the campaign.”