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Good Jobs, Economic Justice for All

September 02, 2013 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

As we take time to salute Minnesota’s hardworking men and woman on this Labor Day, it’s important to remember the growing diversity within the state’s labor movement. Back in the fall of 2010, historians Peter Rachleff and Doug Rossinow wrote an article examining how Minnesota progressives should work to incorporate the struggles of the state’s growing non-white population into its broader coalition for economic justice. Many progressive have worked hard over the last three years toward a more inclusive movement, but conservative roadblocks remain.

With Rachleff and Rossinow’s permission, Minnesota 2020 is providing the following excerpt from the original DISSENT magazine (a quarterly of politics and culture) article.

On East Seventh Street, in Saint Paul’s hardscrabble East Side neighborhood, sits an excellent Salvadoran restaurant, Mañana (where much of the brainstorming for this article was done), with several taquerías within blocks. Up the street is the Mexican Consulate, which opened in 2005, a few blocks further on the Lutheran church where members of FMLN-Minnesota watched Salvadoran election returns via satellite TV...

Once, this was a heavily unionized blue-collar neighborhood dominated by manufacturing workers employed by 3M, Whirlpool, and Hamm’s Brewery, all of which disappeared in the deindustrialization wave of the 1980s. In their place, as rents have plummeted and low-wage service sector jobs have proliferated, have come Latinos, African Americans, Hmong, Somalis, and Ethiopians. This neighborhood encapsulates Minnesota’s changing face.

Indeed, Minnesota as a whole is less white than it long was. The Latino population in the state almost tripled in the 1990s, passing the 200,000 mark (in a state whose population is about 5.25 million). This total may seem modest to residents of Florida or California. But its significance is a matter of proportion. Between 2000 and 2008, in percentage terms, Minnesota was #4 among states with the biggest increases in their Hispanic populations. It stands out among these large Latino-population gainers by virtue of its storied whiteness. The state is still 85% non-Hispanic white. Other states with big recent increases in the Latino share of their populations, such as the Carolinas and Arkansas, include large African American minorities, and liberals in those states have a long history of dealing with questions of race and diversity (one way or another).

Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Saint Cloud, and other cities here have become home to highly visible southeast Asian and African populations, while Latino and African immigrants now provide the workforce for meatpacking, poultry and vegetable processing, clustered in smaller, formerly all-white towns all across the state Rochester, home to the Mayo Clinic, an expanding healthcare complex, and a hotel industry which serves the families of patients, has experienced a similar influx of immigrant workers of color. Immigrant workers seem everywhere, from the checkers at local retailers, who might be women in hijabs and burkas, to the cab drivers at the airport, many of whom are men from the Horn of Africa.

While the traditional African American population here is small, it too has been growing. The State Demographic Center projects that, between 2005 and 2035, Minnesota’s non-Hispanic white population will grow only by 8.5%, compared to a predicted 121% growth in the minority population. Already, the public schools in Minneapolis and Saint Paul have “majority minority” populations.

As some immigrants have gained stable employment, residency, and citizenship, they (and, in some cases, their maturing children) have organized, in workplaces, in communities, and in politics. At times this has generated alliances and coalitions among immigrant groups and communities of color. In 2002, the East Side Saint Paul district elected Mee Moua as the first Hmong woman state senator anywhere in the United States. Her political team mobilized Latinos, African Americans, and African immigrants, along with Hmong and Vietnamese, to sweep her into office.

In 2000, 1,700 hotel workers, mostly immigrants speaking fifteen or more languages and organized in HERE Local 17, struck the major metropolitan hotels, held firm for two weeks, and won major gains—only to lose many of them as the hospitality industry shrank after 9/11…. [T]he mainly immigrant janitors in SEIU Local 26 have waged two very effective contract campaigns, winning not only wage increases and expanded benefits, but also turning part-time jobs into full-time ones and increasing their rights on the job.

The article goes on to contrast the organizing successes of non-white workers with other community members being exploited in the work place, with meager wages and difficult labor conditions. It highlights how the lack of organizing and unionization, along with a broken immigration system leads to the exploitation of such workers, driving wages and benefits down for all workers. Rachleff and Rossinow say denying fair compensation has led to higher dependence on publicly funded social safety nets. Conservative policymakers uses these circumstances as a wedge issue between white and non-white workers, which further delays real action on immigration reform and economic justice. 

Rachleff and Rossinow challenge the progressive base to incorporate the fight for access to good jobs, fair wages and benefits and dignified working conditions of Minnesota's immigrant and African-American communities into a larger battle for an equitable share of Minnesota prosperity.

A number of labor organizations from the AFL-CIO to AFSCME to SEIU are playing a key role in the charge for immigration reform and wage equity. Following a protracted labor battle over the past winter, SEIU Local 26’s janitors and security officers, which comprise a diverse workforce, signed a deal that will help move many of the working poor in their ranks closer to the middle class. Community organizing groups, such as CTUL, Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, and Working America have organized actions for low-wage retail store cleaners. AFSCME and SEIU Health Care are working to unionize thousands of state subsidized childcare providers and home health workers—many of whom are African American and East African—in a fight for fair wages and better training.

Currently a wide coalition of faith, labor and non-profits are leading a campaign to raise Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 which would give roughly 360,000 Minnesotans up to a $3,000 raise.

These are just a few of the many collaborations that continue among organized labor, the progressive movement and Minnesota’s growing non-white population. Corporate interest and conservative policy barriers remain in these struggles, but on this Labor Day it’s time to celebrate our progress and look to the future with hope and enthusiasm.

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