Campaign for $15 sets sights on St. Paul

After an inspiring victory in Minneapolis, the coalition of unions, faith groups and community organizations working in support of a $15 minimum wage has shifted its focus to St. Paul, where a wide-open mayoral contest creates a strategic window of opportunity.

After it passed the City Council by an 11-1 vote, Mayor Betsy Hodges signed Minneapolis’ minimum wage ordinance into law June 30.

It marked a stunning turnaround for the city’s elected officials, who, when pressed to act on the minimum wage three years earlier, commissioned a study instead. Two years later, they voted to block a ballot initiative after 15 Now activists delivered over 20,000 signatures on a petition seeking to put the minimum wage question before voters.

While the city succeeded in keeping $15 off the ballot, 15 Now Minnesota lead organizer Celeste Robinson said, the overwhelming community support delivered a powerful message to Hodges and members of the City Council that “poverty wages aren’t a negotiable issue.”

“It’s not something they could stall on, it’s not something they could bargain away – because the rent won’t wait,” she added. “That relentless pressure that we applied to elected officials was the key.”

Organizers are taking a different approach in St. Paul, where a the mayor’s race already has catapulted the question of raising the minimum wage to the front burner. All five candidates who attended a mayoral debate hosted by the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation earlier this year spoke in favor of raising the minimum wage to $15.

With candidates for mayor using $15 as a campaign pledge, organizers see an opportunity to win at City Hall without pounding the pavement to collect signatures on a petition.

“Of course, we’re having problems nailing down support on the City Council,” Robinson said. “But there does seem to be a lot of enthusiasm (in the mayor’s race), and that does offer us a window. Hopefully, those mayoral candidates can kind of pull the council members along with them.”

Union members played a critical role in the success of Minneapolis’ campaign to raise the wage, and they figure to do the same in St. Paul.

Some unions support 15 Now because the cause – a $15 wage floor – has become central to their contract campaigns. In Minneapolis, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ efforts to organize co-op workers got a boost from the fight for $15. Robinson called it an “incredibly effective” approach that resonated with young workers in particular.”

“For workers who haven’t had experiences with union power before, it might not be immediately evident to them why a union is good,” she said. “But if you tell people we can have $15 an hour and that’s not all – ask them, ‘What else should we fight for?’ – that’s a really good segue into unionization.”

Other unions see fighting poverty wages as a necessary part of the work their members do. For example, teachers see in their classrooms the strain poverty puts on working families, and nurses know the connection between higher incomes and better health outcomes.

“This is a public health issue,” said Deb Haugen, a registered nurse at Children’s Hospital. “We see it daily: people who can afford their medicine, eat a healthy diet and take time to exercise tend to be less sick than those who can’t because they are working two or three jobs and don’t have the wages to support these important pillars of health.

“That’s why the Minnesota Nurses Association supports a $15 minimum wage and, as a St. Paul resident, I am excited that the campaign is coming to my city next.”

Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, said his union not only supports a minimum wage ordinance, but has pushed the St. Paul Public Schools to adopt a policy requiring its contractors to pay $15 an hour.

“We know when the adults in our students’ lives are working three jobs at poverty wages, it negatively impacts a student’s ability to learn,” Faber said. “As educators, we not only want what’s best for our students in the classroom, but what’s best for their family. Families that are not worrying about food, rent or health care are more able to engage in their students’ learning the way we know all parents want to.”

In Minneapolis, studies found 71,000 working people will see their wages increase as a result of the city’s new ordinance. So far no similar study exists for St. Paul, but ballpark estimates put the number between 50,000 and 100,000.

15 Now has opened up a temporary office in the St. Paul Labor Center, thanks to support from the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. RLF President Bobby Kasper urged unions to get involved in the fight to raise St. Paul’s minimum wage.

“We made great strides in St. Paul by passing the nation’s strongest earned sick and safe time ordinance,” Kasper said. “I have confidence we’re going to make history with a $15 minimum wage, too.”

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  1. […] the strike kicked off a series of events planned by unions and community groups pushing a $15 minimum wage in St. Paul and funding for enforcement of the historic minimum-wage ordinance passed in Minneapolis earlier […]

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