Twin Cities workers launch campaign to stop construction industry abuses

Supporters of the “March for Dignity and Respect” make their way down Lake Street in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood.

With a dramatic rally in the streets of south Minneapolis today, Twin Cities construction workers launched a new movement to improve labor standards in their industry and guarantee dignity for all workers.

“I don’t want to see any more injustice in construction,” Yimer Iriarte said at the start of a rush-hour march along Lake Street in Uptown. “We’re tired of seeing our brothers and sisters tired or hurt because of the way these contractors act.”

Iriarte is part of a group of local construction workers – mostly from residential projects – who began organizing with the Twin Cities-based worker center CTUL two years ago.

CTUL’s efforts to document abuses in the industry led to the arrest of a local construction contractor in September on criminal charges. The case exposed serious problems – wage theft, dangerous working conditions, labor trafficking – that are rampant in the industry’s web of contractors and subcontractors, workers allege.

Yimer Iriarte speaks at a rally before the march, alongside CTUL’s Veronica Mendez Moore.

Iriarte said he experienced wage theft and trafficking firsthand when a contractor refused to pay him and other immigrant workers for their labor.

“We were promised so many things that didn’t happen, and in the end we were threatened with immigration,” Iriarte said. “And I know it’s not just me.”

To raise industry standards, CTUL’s construction members are taking cues from local janitors, who recently won major improvements in the retail cleaning industry after a 6-year-long fight.

Janitors won by pressuring big-box chains like Target and Best Buy to sign Responsible Contractor Agreements, guaranteeing janitors employed by the store’s cleaning contractors have safe working conditions and a voice on the job.

Construction workers want large developers in the Twin Cities area to meet a similar demand: participation in the “Dignity and Respect Standards Council.” The council establish higher standards in the industry, and it would  create a process for monitoring construction sites to ensure all subcontractors are in compliance.

Workers first target is a big one: Lennar Homes. A nationwide firm, Lennar is the Twin Cities’ largest home-builder, and it stands to gain even more work under the City of Minneapolis’ ambitious new rezoning initiative, Minneapolis 2040.

According to CTUL, Lennar has seen a litany of reported abuses on its projects locally and across the country, including the labor trafficking charges filed in Hennepin County earlier this year and a jobsite fatality in Lakeville in 2016.

During the march along Lake Street, CTUL members stopped at a Wells Fargo branch to point out the bank’s history of lending to Lennar despite the allegations stemming from its projects.

And the march involved a bit of street theater. Actors performed an updated take on a centuries-old tradition throughout Spanish Central America, “Las Posadas.” The story alludes to Mary and Joseph’s difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a warm place to stay the night, with an emphasis on its moral and political message.

The march drew over 100 people, including representatives of the Carpenters, Laborers and other Building Trades unions, who stood in solidarity with CTUL members.

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