OPINION | Where have you gone, Floyd B.?


As I walked past the portrait of Floyd B. Olson in the Capitol Friday (March 27), I could swear I saw the state’s first Farmer-Labor governor cover his face with his hands.

The Senate Business, Industry and Jobs Committee had just tabled a measure to reduce the minimum wage for some workers, but not before several DFL members extinguished what remained of Olson’s legacy.

For years, Republicans have proffered legislation to allow employers to pay below the minimum wage for workers who receive tips – mostly waiters and waitresses. And for years, the labor movement has fought these efforts to penalize those workers who smile and hustle in the hopes of earning a few extra dollars from a grateful customer.

Advocates of the legislation refer to it as “tip credit.” Unions and workers call it by its rightful name – a “tip penalty” on those folks who happen to work in the hospitality industry.

Republicans were most often out front on the legislation, so it came as a surprise to many in the labor movement when this year’s version was sponsored by a DFLer, Senator Kathy Saltzman of Woodbury. She appeared to have the backing of several other DFLers on the committee.

Saltzman explained that last legislative session, she wouldn’t have supported the legislation. But times are different, she said, and the state needs to intervene to help employers survive.

Workers in restaurants and bars across the state are keenly aware that times are different. They’ve seen restaurants and bars struggle to pay higher food and fuel costs and deal with the devastating effects of the national economic crisis. They’ve experienced layoffs, reduced hours and cuts in wages and benefits.

Those earning the minimum wage or near the minimum wage stave off catastrophe every day when they must decide whether to pay the rent or the grocery bill, whether buying medication means they won’t be able to afford the bus fare to go to work.

And they are aware that while it wasn’t their fault, they must deal with the mess left by the Wall Street powerbrokers and the political ideologues who stood by and even cheered the high rollers’ reckless behavior.

So the working people who did their jobs all these years – while others lived high on the hog – might expect a little help from their government when times get tough. At the very least, they wouldn’t expect to get cut off at the knees by members of the very party that claims to advocate for them.

Unfortunately, too few people know Minnesota’s working class history, so they don’t realize that today’s DFL Party has branched far from its roots in the Farmer-Labor tradition, one of the most successful third-party movements in U.S. history. Its most famous leader, Floyd B. Olson, swept into office in 1930 on a platform built by union workers and progressive farmers and pursued a campaign toward a “Cooperative Commonwealth.”

Minnesota’s commitment to worker rights, its support for the family farmer – even its system of state forests – can be traced to the work done by Olson, his successor, Elmer Benson, and their compatriots. At the time, many in the media and the business community condemned the notion that workers and farmers had rights and they labeled Olson a radical.

The governor famously said, “I do not mind being called a red . . . I would prefer it to the term ‘yellow.’”

Perhaps it was the light in Room 123 on a recent Friday in the state Capitol, but many of the DFL senators took on a perceptible shade of lemon.