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One Year After $15 an Hour Passes in Minneapolis – Lessons for Saint Paul

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One year ago today, Minneapolis passed the first $15 minimum wage in the Midwest. On New Year’s Day, a majority of minimum wage workers in Minneapolis got almost a dollar raise. This victory is a testament to the power working people have when we collectively organize.

Since then, a broad coalition has been fighting to win $15 in Saint Paul too. The movement won a major breakthrough when Melvin Carter was elected mayor on a platform that included a strong $15 minimum wage without a tip penalty or other carve-outs. Since then, Mayor Carter has reiterated support for $15 in the media and at worker protests, but behind the scenes big business interests are working overtime to outright block, or at least water down, any proposal to pass $15 in Saint Paul.

However, the movement for $15 has a rich set of experiences from the successful campaign in Minneapolis that can help in the current fight for Saint Paul. It’s important to remember how we got here in the first place and what it will take to win: building the strongest possible movement of low-wage workers until the final vote is cast in City Hall.

Big Business’ Strategy

Six billionaires have accumulated as much wealth as the poorest bottom half of the world’s population. Jeff Bezos makes $28,000 every ten seconds (almost equal to a year’s income at $15 an hour). Trump just cut taxes on the rich even further, while housing, health care and other daily costs keep going up for working people. Meanwhile 40% of Saint Paul residents live in poverty. People are fed up.

Big business and corporations are aware of this anger, and know that they can’t be the public face of opposition to raising the minimum wage. Instead, they use their immense resources to amplify the concerns of small businesses. In a calculated PR move, corporations like Walmart and Target transform themselves into the champions of the concerns of small business owners squeezed by a tough economy, even though these very corporations have done far more damage to Saint Paul’s small business community than a minimum wage increase ever could.

In reality, $15 would benefit Saint Paul’s small business community in numerous ways. Working families spend their money immediately and locally, rather than hoarding wealth in offshore bank accounts like big business does. If workers are not struggling to make ends meet, they can afford to eat out once in awhile. In Minneapolis, the raise to $15 is predicted to put $140 million back into the local economy, which would be a boom for small businesses that depend on the surrounding communities they typically serve for survival.

A far more cunning strategy big business groups have adopted is pitting $15 against the desperate need for good jobs. They have found the most success in their fight for a “tip penalty.” Despite how some headlines may make it appear, the tip penalty campaign was initiated by the Minnesota Restaurant Association (MRA), a corporate-friendly lobbying group that opposes all sorts of pro-worker policies like unionization and Medicare for All, and donates big money to electing Republicans at every level of government to help further its interests.

During the Minneapolis $15 campaign, the Minnesota Restaurant Association encouraged restaurant owners to host closed door meetings with their staff, which often were mandatory to attend, where misleading materials sponsored by the MRA was distributed. The MRA promotes doomsday claims about how $15 costs jobs, causes restaurant closures, and ends tipping altogether. While tipped workers face numerous challenges on the basis of working for tips- for example, reporting higher rates of sexual harassment than other industries –  anyone who has eaten at a Minneapolis restaurant and still tipped 20% over the last year could tell you these claims were totally false. However, in Minneapolis the MRA had an impact on a section of tipped workers who had genuine concerns about their livelihoods. With a blessing from their employers, some of these workers were pushed to the front of the opposition to the final ordinance that passed.

The corporate media seized on the opportunity to reframe the struggle against poverty wages as a debate between workers. This was then used to cast doubt on the entire proposal in Minneapolis. For example, the Star Tribune published numerous editorials, some from political figures like former Mayor RT Rybak, claiming Minneapolis City Council was moving too quickly to pass $15, and bowing to “special interests” like unions, and low-wage workers!

Many of these strategies are being employed again in Saint Paul. Although these strategies ultimately failed in Minneapolis, they did provide a certain amount of cover to big business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Council to hide behind throughout the campaign. The Chamber and Downtown Council howled endlessly about the “unintended consequences” of passing $15 while dismissing the reality that there were very real consequences for low-wage workers if city hall failed to act. The most effective way to counteract this was by maintaining the strongest possible movement in the streets.

Should We Trust City Hall’s Process?

Under the pressure of months of worker protests, marches and strikes, and his own experience talking to working class people in Saint Paul, then-mayoral candidate Carter endorsed the call for a $15 minimum wage without a tip penalty. Shortly after his election, city hall took a formal step towards raising Saint Paul’s minimum wage by setting up a series of studies and listening sessions over the summer. However, unlike Minneapolis, the Saint Paul City Council and Mayor Carter handed the process over to the Citizens’ League, an unelected body with deep ties to big business, to shape a policy recommendation for the Council.

While the Citizens League played a role in developing Saint Paul’s paid sick days ordinance, its process for raising the minimum wage favors the interests of business. Its impact study concentrated on business rather than the known benefits $15 would mean for low-wage workers and working-class communities. For example, sections of the study concerning personal care attendants, youth workers, manufacturing workers, small business and workers with disabilities contained no input from workers in those industries, but instead relied solely on input from employers.

The Citizens League has now set up a Minimum Wage Task Force, a group of 21 people tasked with making a policy recommendation to the City Council. The composition of the Task Force was decided behind closed doors, with no option for public application or participation, and required participants to commit to 16 weeks of regular meetings during work hours, which almost automatically excludes the participation of a large section of workers. It includes representatives from corporate interest groups, small business owners, non-profits, private colleges, and manufacturing. It’s a sign of our movement’s power that this body includes powerful pro-$15 voices, including labor leaders and one low-wage worker. The Citizens League Task Force only came into being as a result of a movement building strategy that has relied on strikes, demonstrations, marches, and mass turnout at public hearings.

We’re willing to participate on any body that genuinely wants to raise the minimum wage, but we should feel no obligation to limit the movement to $15 to the outcome of the Study Committee meetings. Certainly big business interests feel no such obligation. In the meetings, corporate lobbyists raise doubt and encourage delay about passing $15 while at the same time fighting to block cities from raising the minimum wage at the state level, and filing endless lawsuits hoping to undermine $15 or block it entirely in the courts. The Citizens League and city hall know that corporate interest groups fundamentally disagree with the premise that cities should have the right to raise the minimum wage, but still allow them to participate in the policy recommendation process.

Our experience in Minneapolis shows we need to keep organizing the strongest possible movement up until literally the final vote. Like Saint Paul, Minneapolis City Council introduced a similar task force process, but only when forced by years of grassroots organizing from low-wage workers and activists. Despite elevating “the process” for months in an attempt to de-mobilize the movement, Minneapolis City Council felt totally empowered to break with the process in the days before $15 passed. Two days before the Minneapolis ordinance passed, individual council members introduced their own amendments to exempt sections of business, and Council Member Jacob Frey arbitrarily proposed extending the small business phase-in. None of these pro-business amendments originated from the city’s formal process, and that same risk exists in Saint Paul today.

Along with the study, Mayor Carter and the Citizens League are hosting three more listening sessions over through the fall. It’s crucial that we mobilize supporters to these sessions to make sure our voices are heard, but ultimately the sessions provide a limited window for working people to participate. They are typically designed to amplify the concerns of the business community, poorly publicized, and do not always guarantee adequate translation and accommodation for immigrant workers. In addition, Minnesota is an “at will” employer state, meaning employees can be fired without cause. In a highly politicized and contentious environment, pro-$15 workers who lack union protections have to weigh up whether to testify, potentially in front of their boss at a listening session, and whether this might mean losing their job. Business owners do not face this pressure.

At the height of the $15 campaign in Minneapolis, when corporate groups like the Minnesota Restaurant Association whipped restaurant owners into a frenzied (and unsuccessful) campaign to win a tip penalty, tipped workers who publicly opposed the tip penalty faced all sorts of intimidation. Using social media, business owners doxed workers who spoke against the tip penalty, demanding to know where they worked, etc. Other anti-tip penalty workers were forced into sit down meetings with management. One Minneapolis restaurant owner closed his business to allow workers to attend a listening session, on the implicit condition they supported the tip penalty. Imagine a McDonald’s worker telling their boss they’re not coming to work so they can testify for $15!

Build a United Movement

Although there’s overwhelming momentum for a $15 minimum wage in Saint Paul, big business will still fight to the bitter end to weaken and delay $15. They have deep pockets, but we have people power. Saint Paul is a working-class city. To fully mobilize this support, we need to build the broadest possible coalition to build the strongest movement to win $15. This means low-wage workers united with unions, workers’ centers, non-profits, faith groups, activists, and supportive small business. This also means putting real resources into fully activating the support we know exists among workers in Saint Paul, ensuring the listening sessions actually reflect the sentiments of Saint Paul’s residents, and building a strong movement in the streets through mass protests. These are a concrete and visible demonstration of our support, and counteract the effects of corporate lobbyists working the backrooms of city hall.

There are also important state-level elections this year that will impact the movement in Saint Paul. There are obvious links between the state government and our local campaign: statewide preemption has been blocked twice through Governor Dayton’s veto power and last minute grassroots mobilizations to the capital. However, building the strongest possible movement for $15 has the potential to reach tens of thousands of working-class voters who have a justifiable skepticism of big promises from politicians who only come around during elections. While we maintain the worker-led grassroots organizing is the best way to get things done, imagine if politicians used their vast canvassing operations that will undoubtedly criss-cross Saint Paul’s neighborhoods in the coming months to support the movement for $15 – not just with words, but actions like mobilizing supporters to worker protests and strikes.

Beyond even the best intentions of elected officials, the final outcome of the fight for $15/hr in Saint Paul will reflect the relative strength of the movement in relation to the relative strength of the forces of big business. In Minneapolis, as $15 went from impossible – to all but inevitable – corporate interests only increased the pressure on City Hall. We needed to stay mobilized the the bitter end. It’s a testament to the movement that after the dust settled, even consistent opponents of $15 like Lisa Goodman and Barb Johnson voted in favor of $15 in Minneapolis. It shows how the driving force of progressive change lies in working class people’s ability to organize independent of what big business and the political establishment deems “realistic.”

What’s at Stake

Winning the strongest possible $15 in Saint Paul would set a powerful beacon to working-class people. It would show an important way that cities across the country can resist Trump’s anti-worker, bigoted, corporate-backed agenda. It would make Saint Paul the second city in the Midwest after Minneapolis to pass $15 sending a clear message to workers and activists locally and elsewhere that when we organize a movement, we can win, even in the face of powerful corporate interests.

But big business also sees an opportunity in St. Paul over the next few months. They know that if a tip penalty passes in Saint Paul, it strengthens their push for tip penalty at the state level. They hope that they can weaken key gains from the historic victory workers won last summer in Minneapolis, and block the movement from expanding. Now more than ever we need to be united around winning the strongest possible $15 in Saint Paul.

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