On strike! 80 years ago Minneapolis goes union

This week, local labor activists have organized a series of events to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters’ strikes. These strikes changed the course of history and the lives of tens of thousands of working people. They transformed Minneapolis from one of the country’s most notorious anti-union citadels into a “union town.” The story of this transformation resonates with the challenges faced by working women and men in 2014. Continue Reading

Telling – and considering – ‘Untold Stories’

April and May 2014 mark the fifteenth year that the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, with the support of labor and community organizations, libraries, churches, bookstores, and foundations, has sponsored a series of labor history programs called “Untold Stories.” Each year a volunteer committee (in which this writer participates ) has organized talks and panel discussions, dramatic readings, films, tours, and singalongs, all free and open to everyone. Continue Reading

The present, past, and future of collective bargaining

Recent experiences suggest that the generations-old practice of collective bargaining as the normal, if not dominant, method of negotiating the terms of unionized employment is losing its legitimacy. Notoriously, upon taking office in January 2010, Wisconsin’s Governor Walker introduced a bill to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Despite a massive upheaval and a series of electoral and legal challenges, Act 10 is now the law of the Badger State. And last year in Seattle, when 30,000 workers, represented by the International Association of Machinists, rejected Boeing’s insistence on a restructuring of their pensions and an unprecedented eight year extension, Boeing blackmailed them into a revote by threatening to move their work to another state. Management’s demand just squeaked by in the second vote. In Chattanooga last month, when Volkswagen management announced it would remain neutral in the face of a United Auto Workers’ organizing drive, Republican office-holders launched their own anti-union campaign, threatening that state financial support for the plant would be withheld if the workers unionized. The vote for a union narrowly failed. Continue Reading

The movement that sings for freedom

Proponents of progressive political change lost two vital contributors this past month. Amiri Baraka and Pete Seeger shared an important understanding – that music is central to the creation, deepening, and extension of social movements. “Music is a method,” writes Shana Redmond in her new book, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. “Beyond its pleasures,” she continues, “music allows us to do and imagine things that may otherwise be unimaginable or seem impossible.” Amiri Baraka and Pete Seeger not only understood this, but they devised effective ways to communicate this understanding to broad audiences. The best way we can honor their memories is to sing the old songs, and make new songs, sing together. Continue Reading

The Mall of America, free speech, and the labor movement

From early childhood to old age, a “rights discourse” dominates Americans’ sense of the world and our place in it. Governments around the globe, we are told, deny their citizens a long list of basic rights which we enjoy here. TV shows, movies, teachers, politicians, preachers, and pundits tell us again and again that what makes this country exceptional is our guaranteed access to rights and freedoms. But every now and then, experience complicates, even undermines, such assumptions. Continue Reading

Minnesota labor and the anti-apartheid struggle

The passing of Nelson Mandela has inspired activists and scholars around the world to recall grassroots elements of the anti-apartheid struggle, as Mandela did not bring down that horrific system all by himself. Minnesota in the 1980s was the site of dynamic connections to this struggle. In our increasingly globalized operations today, from multinational employers to an ever more diverse working class, there is much to learn from revisiting this chapter in our history. Continue Reading

Hormel to WalMart: Low-wage workers protest, organize

Last week thousands of fast food, retail, and other service sector workers initiated a series of protests across the country, including one day strikes, culminating on “Black Friday” with an estimated 1500 actions, including more than a dozen in Minnesota. In the Twin Cities, big box cleaning workers affiliated with CTUL, (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha) struck and rallied outside Target headquarters on Nicollet Mall, while six hundred workers and supporters marched down Saint Paul’s University Avenue retail corridor, stopping at Target and Walmart. The Saint Paul actions disrupted traffic and ended with the arrests of twenty-six protestors who committed civil disobedience by sitting down at the intersection of Snelling and University Avenues. Continue Reading

Struggle against racist sports nicknames gives labor movement opportunity to discover its own history – and find a path forward

In early September the AFL-CIO held a dramatic convention in Los Angeles. With the labor movement’s segment of the U.S. workforce down to a meager 11 percent, leaders urged the pursuit of new paths, what they called “a historic opening in the labor movement.” President Richard Trumka called on the more than one hundred year old federation to open its arms to embrace new kind of organizations – worker centers, worker associations, and associate member organizations. It’s time, he said, that the labor movement become a movement of “the 99 percent.” He and other leaders called particular attention to the International Domestic Workers’ Network, the National Taxi Workers’ Alliance, United Students Against Sweatshops, and Working America, as they encouraged unions to develop strategies which used links with such organizations to build community support for workers and to fight against racism and on behalf of immigrants’ rights. Continue Reading

SEIU Healthcare Minnesota looks to its past in order to move forward

At a time when many pundits and prognosticators are declaring the demise of the labor movement, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota is defying the doom and moving forward. The 10,000-plus members of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota face great challenges, not only in the federal Affordable Care Act and the state MNSure program, but also in two new campaigns. Continue Reading