Protest for living wages ends in 26 Black Friday arrests in St. Paul


Twenty-six people were arrested Friday during the “March to end Poverty Wages,” the culmination of a week of Black Friday actions pressing for better pay and working conditions and the right to organize for retail, janitorial and other low-wage workers in Minnesota. Friday’s afternoon’s march along University Avenue, which circled the Midway Super Target and Walmart stores, drew a crowd estimated at anywhere between 400 to about 1,000 people who marched to the intersection Snelling and University Avenues — the busiest intersection in the Twin Cities. It was in the intersection, on the busiest shopping day of the year, that 26 workers and supporters locked arms and sat in the street, waiting to be arrested by St. Paul police officers.

The police calmly and politely arrested the protesters as they sat on the asphalt, swaying and chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, poverty wages have got to go!”

The arrests marked a dramatic end to a week of actions fighting for low-income workers, including a Walmart strike earlier in the week in Brooklyn Center, worker-led demonstrations at a St. Cloud temporary hiring agency on Tuesday, a protest at the airport for people who work for contract cleaning firm and a picket in front of the downtown Minneapolis Target store Friday morning demanding better pay and the right to organize for Target janitorial workers who are hired by contracting firms. Organizations involved in the week’s activities included SEIU, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), OurWalmart, Minnesotans for a Fair Economy and TakeAction Minnesota, all of which are organizing to raise wages for workers across the state.

One of those arrested at University and Snelling was Jessica English of Take Action Minnesota, who said she once became homeless working in retail as a single mom. “I’m here to fight to make sure that doesn’t happen to other moms,” she said.

Leroy Graham, who works for Diversified Maintenance, a contracting firm that cleans Target, was another of those arrested. “It’s outrageous,” he said. “We’re making poverty wages.” It was the first time he’s ever been arrested, Graham said, but added, “It was a good day for it!”

Earlier in the day, CTUL organized a rally in front of the downtown Minneapolis Target store from 5:30 a.m. until around 10 a.m. Drawing around 50 people, the protesters sang and banged on drums as shoppers walked past. Brian Payne, from CTUL, said around 45 workers went on strike for the day-long action against low-pay-and-benefit cleaning firms that are contracted by Target and other big box stores.

Enrique Barcenas, one of the striking workers, has worked for Prestige, a contracting firm that cleans Target, for the past two years. He said that his supervisors put a lot of pressure on the employees charged with janitorial duties. “We go really fast but they want us to do more,” he said through a translator. In the past, the store had 5-6 contract workers who would clean on a given day, but now there are only three, he said.

“We’re hoping to win a fair wage and a better life for our families,” said Barcenas, who currently makes $8 hour — not enough to live on with his wife and three children.

Another worker at the CTUL protest, Luciano Barbuena Mejia, who works at the Home Depot in Richfield, said through a translator he’s been working for four years and only makes $8.50 an hour. In the past he had two jobs, because one wasn’t enough to support his family, but then he got very sick and was out of work for three months. Barbeuna, in addition to hoping for a better wage, wants workers to have “the right to organize and to be respected,” he said. When he lived in Mexico, he belonged to a union, but since moving to the United States five years ago, that hasn’t been an option.

Ruth Schultz, an organizer for CTUL, said the workers are demanding a living wage and that the contracting companies allow Cardcheck Neutrality, an alternative way of workers forming a union in which the workers submit authorization forms to the National Labor Relations Board.

According to Schultz, CTUL has been meeting with executives at Target, as well as conducting some communication with Diversified, Carlson and Prestige, the three contracting firms that work with Target.

Both of Friday’s actions drew local politicians to show support, including Minneapolis City Council member Elizabeth Glidden and Councilmember-elect Alondra Cano to the protest outside the Minneapolis Target, and Representatives Frank Hornstein, Raymond Dehn and DFL State Senators Sandy Pappas and John Marty to the St. Paul march.

Marty said the fight for living wages will be carried to the Legislature in January when bills are introduced to raise the state’s minimum wage to at least $9.50 an hour. He also called on corporations to do the right thing, saying the protesters were, “Asking these companies to be responsible (and) to pay a living wage.”

(Story for The UpTake by Sheila Regan, video by Bill Sorem)