St. Paul’s growing political will for $15 minimum wage may mean a faster track for passage


Samuel Callahan is a single father raising his 14-year-old daughter, the youngest of his seven children. The father-daughter pair share a one-bedroom apartment in North Minneapolis. It’s cramped quarters, and yet the small family still does not get to spend enough time together. Callahan has been working at a Taco Bell for the past four years, but in 2016 he also started picking up shifts at a McDonald’s in order to make ends meet. In total, Callahan works 17 hours a day, six days per week. He has never missed a day of work, often working through weekends and some holidays. When his daughter, a track and field athlete, comes home from school, Callahan is just starting his second shift. He has never been able to attend her track meets.

“[My daughter] understands, I’ve got to work. But I want her to be able to have it better. I don’t want her to struggle the way I have,” Callahan said.

For all Callahan’s hard work, he only makes $10 per hour. His take-home pay is just enough to make rent and some of the other basics he and his daughter need, but leaves no margin for savings or an emergency. As Callahan puts it, his kind of work doesn’t really make a living.

“I’ve always worked, all my life,” Callahan said. “But it’s hard. You have just enough to make rent, and then you take more hours and overtime just to have a little money in your pocket. My colleagues, single mothers, they’ve got to afford daycare for their little ones too. It all means spending less time together, spending less time taking care of yourself.”

On June 30, 2017, the Minneapolis City Council passed a landmark ordinance that brings a $15 minimum wage to all people working within city limits by 2024.

While Callahan’s Northside neighbors will start seeing annual increases to the minimum wage starting Jan. 1, 2018, Callahan has to wait. Both of Callahan’s jobs are located in St. Paul.

But hopefully, Callahan will not have to wait long. In St. Paul, the fight for $15 is just starting to heat up. With the win in Minneapolis under their belts, workers and organizers are building off that momentum to bring higher wages to Minnesota’s capital.


Setting goals

The fight for $15 in St. Paul kicked off at dawn on Labor Day, Sept. 4, as more than 50 St. Paul fast food workers – including Callahan – went on strike to protest low wages and intimidation from management. It was the first time Callahan had missed work at either of his two current jobs.

While St. Paul’s movement may be new, the force behind it has been growing in the Twin Cities for years. Standing beside Callahan and his fellow striking workers were organizations and unions like Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), 15 Now, Black Lives Matter, Service Employees International Union, ISAIAH as well as some new St. Paul-based partners like Ujamaa Place. Together, the groups make up a familiar coalition that not only won the $15 minimum wage fight in Minneapolis, but also brought the passage of earned sick and safe time ordinances for both Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2016.


Samuel Callahan speaks at a Sept. 4 Labor Day strike in St. Paul. Photo courtesy of CTUL.


“Being part of this movement, it means a lot,” Callahan said. “There’s strength in numbers. When we show up, I’ve got everyone’s backs and I know they’ve got mine.”

For Kip Hedges, a former Delta Airlines baggage carrier now serving as an organizer with 15 Now, the winning streak doesn’t mean that the fight for $15 in St. Paul will be a cakewalk. But the stage is set for ambitious goals. The coalition wants to see passage of a new minimum wage ordinance in St. Paul – without a tip penalty nor a youth wage cutout – by March 2018, with an implementation schedule similar to that passed in Minneapolis.

“That gives us seven months to lay the foundation,” Hedges said. “It gives us enough time for a big citywide debate: listening sessions with the new mayor and City Council, engaging and educating the community. There is a crisis of poverty right now and we need to do something.”


Read more on raising the minimum wage


One of the steps to get that something done will be to get St. Paul to conduct a citywide study to understand the impact of increased wages, pointed out CTUL’s co-director Veronica Mendez Moore.

“Living on $9.50 an hour just doesn’t cut it,” Mendez Moore said. “The main lesson we’ve learned is that we can’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Three years ago we were told this movement was illegal, and then we won in Minneapolis. St. Paul workers can’t afford to wait.”


Building political will

While St. Paul and Minneapolis share many similarities, politically the Twin Cities each have their own flavor. That means when it comes to building a movement, talking to residents and lobbying elected officials, the messaging and tactics can vary even between communities with so much in common.

One factor that will remain the same between the Minneapolis and St. Paul fights is the influence of the business community, especially organizations like the Minnesota Restaurant Association, Mendez Moore said.

“They will try to scare us, and will have similar tactics as before,” Mendez Moore said. “Businesses are already discussing a tip penalty that doesn’t need to be there.”

With a 13-member City Council dominated by the DFL, Minneapolis has one of the most liberal municipal governments in the nation, according to a 2014 study by the Economist. Conversely, St. Paul’s smaller, seven-member City Council skews slightly more conservative.

But it was Minneapolis’ larger council, and the need for a seven-member majority, that slowed progress, in part, for the $15 movement for nearly a year. The need for a smaller City Council majority in St. Paul and the growing political will for $15 in the city could mean a faster track for passing a wage increase. Six of St. Paul’s mayoral candidates – Melvin Carter, Elizabeth Dickinson, Tom Goldstein, Pat Harris, Tim Holden and Dai Thao – endorse a $15 minimum wage.

“Clearly wages at the low-end of the spectrum are not high enough for people to take care of their needs,” City Council President Russ Stark said. “I’m definitely interest in structuring a community conversation around the question.”

In addition, Hedges and Stark noted that St. Paul’s charter – the document that establishes the creation of a municipality – allows for a wider variety of policies to be made via referendum than Minneapolis’ city charter. That means if the fight for $15 coalition wanted to raise St. Paul’s minimum wage via a ballot measure, it has a greater likelihood of getting on the ballot rather than getting caught in a state Supreme Court battle like in Minneapolis.



“What took some time to get $15 in Minneapolis is that the vast majority of the City Council started out opposed,” said Hedges. “But our ground game and our canvassing eventually gobbled them up. In St. Paul, this has been some of the easiest canvassing we’ve ever done.”

All summer, 15 Now and other organizations have shown up at St. Paul community events to begin getting the word out about the movement. From the Selby Avenue JazzFest to the Wilder Block Party, Hedges said that a good portion of the people he spoke to were familiar with the fight for $15. But at the same time, there were many misconceptions. Some folks thought the passage in Minneapolis meant that it also applied to St. Paul, or that the minimum wage would jump to $15 right away rather than incrementally over the next five to seven years. The misconceptions helped Hedges understand what education still needs to be done. But through conversations, once St. Paul workers learned what the $15 movement is about and how it can help them, Hedges said that everyone he spoke to has been on board, workers like Sircleveeo Adams.

Adams is a long-time St. Paul resident and worker with four children. For most of his life, Adams said he has had to work two or three jobs to take care of himself and his family – sometimes having to drive nearly four hours out to Marshall, Minnesota, to find a decent paying job. Over the recent Labor Day weekend, Adams – who is active in the movement for Black Lives and community events like Rondo Days – attended his first rally for the fight for $15.

“If everyone had $15, it’d be more relaxed. When you can’t pay your rent, can’t afford transportation, it builds tension, you get sick. It’s all connected,” Adams said.

St. Paul proportionately has more residents living in poverty than Minneapolis – most of whom are residents of color. In addition, more than 20 percent of St. Paul’s workers earn less than $15,000 annually. And as Hedges pointed out, the fight for $15 is as much a fight for affordable housing as it is wages.

But perhaps the most telling indicator of how the minimum wage fight might play out in St. Paul would be to look back at the struggle for another workers’ rights issue: earned sick and safe time.


Lessons from earned sick and safe time

St. Paul passed its earned sick and safe time ordinance on Sept. 7, 2016, while Minneapolis passed a similar ordinance nearly four months earlier on May 26, 2016. Despite the time difference, both cities scheduled implementation of the policy to begin on the same day: July 1, 2017.

In Minneapolis, the conversation around earned sick and safe time began publicly in April 2015, when Mayor Betsy Hodges first introduced the Working Families Agenda – giving the city nearly a year to do research, community engagement and debate on the issue before the ordinance passed. St. Paul’s earned sick and safe time ordinance took only seven months.

During the earned sick and safe time debate, council members Thao and Stark both stated that they felt the shorter timeline between initiating a study and passing the ordinance was too fast. For the minimum wage debate, both council members mentioned wanting to have more time to educate residents and business owners, while also making the process more accessible.

“The challenge is that there was a defined timeline, and it seemed we were measuring success based more on the timeline than by how many people were at the table,” Thao recalled. “We can craft a better policy when more people can participate and understand all the facts.”

“I hear that, but I’m going to have to push back,” Hedges said upon learning city council members’ concerns over timeline. “They’ve seen this coming for several years. It’s been pretty clear that the next step is going to be St. Paul. This is a national movement.”



Mendez Moore agreed, noting that if St. Paul wanted to better help business owners and employees prepare for new ordinances, there could be better support structure provided by the city. For earned sick and safe time, Mendez Moore said workers have reported to CTUL a lack of education and implementation of the new policy in both cities.

In addition, Mendez Moore pointed out that if a minimum wage ordinance in St. Paul had a similar implementation schedule as Minneapolis, that would be a great benefit to workers and businesses in both cities.

“There are a lot of people who live in one city and work in the other,” Mendez Moore said. “It just goes to show that this needs to happen quickly.


The start of a chain reaction

Energized by the movement’s momentum, Adams has started organizing with 15 Now. For him, this work means tangible results.

“People are so used to getting told no, that they’re like ‘What’s the point?’” Adams said. “But not here. It’s actually something that will benefit and change our community.”

Since Seattle, Washington D.C., and Minneapolis have led the way on minimum wage nationwide, Hedges and Mendez Moore both pointed out that cities and locally-built community power have been the driving force for the movement. With that in mind, passing a higher minimum wage in St. Paul would be a huge step in bringing $15 to the rest of Minnesota. Already, Hedges said that communities across the state have been reaching out to 15 Now to begin movements in their cities, including Duluth, Bemidji, Bloomington, Northfield, St. Cloud, Rochester and many more. Adams said passing $15 in St. Paul would mean “a chain reaction across the state.”

“Workers know what happened and know that together we can win,” Mendez Moore said. “They went from ‘Man, is this even possible?’ to having the courage to stand up to the city and their employers and get what they deserve. That’s what this movement is about.”