Mayor’s race divides St. Paul unions

R to L: Melvin Carter, Pat Harris and Dai Thao.

It was no coincidence that Republican majorities in the Minnesota Legislature last session made stripping power from local governments one of their top priorities.

Frustrated by political gridlock at the state and federal levels, working people in Minnesota and beyond are building powerful coalitions to make their voices heard in local government, and their elected officials have been paying attention.

Municipalities across the country are taking action on issues where state and federal progress has stalled, like raising the minimum wage, expanding access to earned sick time and combating wage theft.

The momentum behind these local organizing efforts has prompted at least one Minnesota union to recalibrate its focus.

“We can’t count on federal lawmakers to help us with any of our issues, and the state is real iffy,” Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said. “So our interest has been turned onto city races.”

The MNA took a big step this year when it endorsed a candidate for mayor of St. Paul. It marks the first time in the union’s history that it has endorsed a candidate for office in the city.

Several other labor groups, including AFSCME Council 5, the Building and Construction Trades Council, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and Teamsters Local 120, have endorsed candidates in the Nov. 7 election to succeed outgoing Mayor Chris Coleman.

After taking office in 2006, Coleman enjoyed broad labor support in two re-election campaigns, including the endorsement of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, with over 100 affiliate unions. The federation has not endorsed a candidate for mayor this year, but it’s not for lack of good options, President Bobby Kasper said.

“Our federation hosted one of the city’s first mayoral debates last spring, and I was encouraged to see unanimous support among the candidates for a $15 minimum wage and other measures that will lift up working people,” Kasper said. “Labor may not be united behind one candidate this year, but whoever wins can be sure we will be united with our faith and community partners at City Hall next year.”

Candidates for mayor who have won union endorsements include:

Melvin Carter

A former member of the City Council representing Ward 1, Carter resigned to take a job advising Gov. Mark Dayton on education policy. That work was a big reason Carter won endorsement from the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, president Nick Faber said.

“The heart of what we’re pushing for is full funding for racial equity in our schools, and we can’t do that without a mayor who understands the issue,” Faber said. “Even if the mayor’s relationship to education is distant, having an ally in that office is going to mean a lot.”

For members of AFSCME Council 5, which represents people who work City of St. Paul’s parks, libraries, permitting offices and beyond, the mayor’s race has a much more direct impact. Denna Thurmond, a member of AFSCME Local 2829 who lives in St. Paul’s North End, said she supports Carter, in part, because he has been a “champion for workers and public employees.”

“His dad was a public worker,” she added. “I’ve been canvassing with his campaign, and Melvin is a very down-to-earth individual who relates to working people, who understands and sympathizes with people because he’s been there. His experiences make it easy for him to identify with people like us.”

Pat Harris

Another former council member, Pat Harris represented Ward 3 from 2000 to 2012. He currently serves on the Metropolitan Airports Commission and works as a vice president for BMO Harris Bank specializing in government banking.

Harris’ expertise in public finance – a critical part of urban development that puts union tradespeople to work – attracted support from the St. Paul Building and Construction Trades Council and its affiliate craft unions.

“What put Pat over the top for us was his ability and understanding of businesses and financing and getting projects done,” Brian Winkelaar, political director for Local 110 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said.

Winkelaar pointed to Harris’ push for project labor agreements that ensure labor peace on construction projects at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “There’s a lot of building going on at the airport, and those agreements are extremely helpful for our members,” Winkelaar said.

In his role on the MAC, Harris also helped pass an airport-wide minimum wage $1 higher than the state’s, and he pushed for a labor-peace agreement with the airport’s concessionaires. That impressed Paul Slattery of Teamsters Local 120, which pushed in vain for a similar agreement governing organized trash collection in St. Paul.

“Organizing workers under a labor-peace agreement is a lot easier,” Slattery said. “And all the candidates say they’re behind $15 in St. Paul, but Pat actually did something at the airport.”

Dai Thao

Ward 1 Council Member Dai Thao picked up the nurses’ endorsement, MNA President Turner said, because of his leadership in passing the nation’s strongest earned sick and safe time ordinance last year.

Nurses also asked mayoral candidates to offer ways they could support efforts to improve staffing at hospitals and protect nurses from violence in the workplace – two of the union’s top legislative priorities.

“Dai Thao was the one who said even though the city can’t write new laws, as mayor he can bring together people and organizations that could be instrumental in helping educate the community on these issues,” Turner said. “He was the only one who came up with a plan rather than just checking the box saying, ‘Yes, I agree with you.’

“That made a difference.”

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  1. […] Mayor’s race featured a split in labor endorsement. Mayor-elect Melvin Carter partnered successfully with the two large public-employee unions, AFSCME […]

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