St. Paul’s union-endorsed candidates aim to build on city’s new labor standards

In November 2015, when St. Paul last held regular City Council elections, the city had no earned sick and safe time ordinance on the books, and hardly anyone at City Hall was talking about a $15 minimum wage.

What a difference four years make.

When voters in St. Paul go back to the polls Nov. 5, they will weigh in on an historic shift in the council’s agenda. Raising labor standards within the city limits, many council members said, is work that would not have gotten done without the partnership of local unions.

“It was definitely the catalyst,” said Ward 3’s Chris Tolbert, a lead author of both the sick leave ordinance and the $15 minimum wage. “My plan is to continue to partner with labor and look for ways we can enhance those protections, make sure there’s compliance across the board and continue to look for ways to have better working conditions for St. Paul workers.”

Tolbert is one of five labor-endorsed incumbents seeking reelection, along with Rebecca Noecker in Ward 2, Mitra Jalali Nelson in Ward 4, Amy Brendmoen in Ward 5 and Jane Prince in Ward 7. Nelsie Yang, a member of the Communications Workers of America, is the labor-endorsed candidate in Ward 6.

Click here for a full list of labor endorsements in the Nov. 5 elections.

Click here for information about voting, including your polling location.

In interviews with The Union Advocate, all six endorsed candidates voiced support for backing up the city’s new labor standards with education and enforcement. Nelson called it “the next step to protecting our hard-fought victories … so working families in St. Paul receive every dollar and day off they have earned.”

Already, workers have come forward with complaints they are not getting the sick leave mandated by the new ordinance. Prince said that’s something the city needs to fix soon – before the citywide minimum wage kicks into effect next year.

“The city hasn’t been in the business of enforcing labor laws before,” Prince said. “So now that we are, it’s really important that we be deliberate and intentional about it.”

“Our endorsed candidates have proven they’re serious about listening to working people,” St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Bobby Kasper said. “They’ve earned our support Nov. 5.”

Here’s more of what the endorsed candidates had to say in interviews with the Advocate:

• Amy Brendmoen, Ward 5

In the eight years Amy Brendmoen has served on the City Council, St. Paul has emerged as a leader in advancing policies that improve working families’ quality of life.

Now, she says, it’s time for the rest of the country to catch up.

“The $15 minimum wage and earned sick and safe time will be the best policies when they’re statewide and national policies,” Brendmoen said. “We need to take the momentum from the city level and help move that platform on a statewide basis.”

That won’t happen, she added, unless the city can show its new labor standards work. Brendmoen wants to see the city take steps to adequately educate the community about its new labor standards and, of course, enforce them.

After being elected council president last year, Brendmoen now chairs the city’s budget committee. That means she’ll play a critical role in securing funds for the city’s new office dedicated to implementing labor standards.

Brendmoen knows she’s likely to hear from her partners in the labor community along the way.

“They know that I’m accessible and approachable, so I feel like I get calls, texts, emails and in-person visits often,” she said. “It helps make sure we plan our policies right from the get-go.

“It seems like with lots of other advocates, the response comes after a policy is in place. But with labor it happens before, after and during.”

Mitra Jalali Nelson, Ward 4

Running in a special election to fill the Ward 4 seat last year, Mitra Jalali Nelson campaigned eagerly in support measures to address inequities that plague the city. She won decisively, just in time to cast a vote in favor of the $15 minimum wage.

But Nelson isn’t about to stop fighting.

“We have a lot of work to do to make sure that St. Paul is an equitable and safe place for working people to call home,” she said. “But we’ve made tremendous progress in just the one year alone that I’ve been in office.”

As someone who rents her home, Nelson has been a fierce advocate for measures that make housing more attainable and affordable in the city. It’s an essential part, she says, of making St. Paul a place that’s livable for working families.

Nelson is currently working to pass new protections for renters, and she helped secure a $10 million investment in the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. At the same time, she works to make sure city-backed development deals uphold community – and labor – standards.

“City development deals that receive public subsidy or other public benefit should always have to meet community benefits agreements that include strong hiring, labor, prevailing wage and contract standards for developers and workers involved with the project,” she said.

Rebecca Noecker, Ward 2

Rebecca Noecker isn’t running for school board, but she is putting public education at the forefront of her reelection campaign in Ward 2.

Noecker is leading the push for St. Paul 3k, a city-led effort to ensure all families have access to high-quality, affordable early childhood education. Noecker lists the initiative among her top priorities, along with affordable housing and supporting small businesses.

“I am deeply invested in creating opportunities for young people,” the former middle school science teacher said. “While the St. Paul School Board sets major policy for schools in the city, I believe the city has an important role to play in supporting children and families.”

Quality childcare and preschool are unaffordable for too many working families, preventing some parents from entering the workforce and leaving too many children unprepared for kindergarten. St. Paul 3K seeks to create more equitable access to early education by creating more options, simplifying the early-education system and joining forces with the county, school district and community.

It’s just one way the council member is putting kids first.

“I am also a strong voice on the council for the city’s Right Track youth-employment program, and have consistently supported increased funding for Parks and Recreation programs that are free to all kids in the city,” she said.

Jane Prince, Ward 7

After taking her seat on the City Council in 2016, Jane Prince posed a question to folks at City Hall, and she heard the same answer from pretty much everyone she asked.

There’s no way St. Paul will ever open a new city-staffed rec center again.

Three years later, Prince proved the doubters wrong, as she secured funding to reopen Highwood Hills, a rec center closed in 2008 when the city faced a deep budget shortfall. Prince and Mayor Melvin Carter cut the ribbon on Highwood Hills last April. And yes, the facility is staffed by AFSCME-represented city employees.

It’s a victory for families in Ward 7 and an example, Prince said, of what the city can accomplish by partnering with organized labor.

“Many of the best initiatives in our city come from our union brothers and sisters,” Prince said. “The workers know what’s best, so when things aren’t going right, there’s no one better to turn to than our employees.”

The rec center isn’t the only example Prince cites.

When the mayor floated the idea of eliminating fines and fees to make the city’s libraries more accessible, AFSCME backed it. And the city’s approach to snow plowing vastly improved last year after Public Works sought input from workers and their unions.

“Complaints went way down,” she said, “and I really feel confident that it was listening to our employees that made all the difference.”

Chris Tolbert, Ward 3

Chris Tolbert doesn’t take the labor endorsement lightly, and he’s proved it over the last eight years representing Ward 3.

He was the lead author of ordinances to raise the citywide minimum wage and guarantee earned sick and safe time to all workers. And Tolbert championed a measure to extend paid parental leave to all city employees.

A big reason why Tolbert supports labor’s issues? He’s a dues-paying member of a union himself.

Tolbert works as a lawyer in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, and he is a member of Local 2938 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“I’m grateful for all that labor has done to improve the lives of workers not just in St. Paul, but across the state and across the country,” Tolbert said. “And I continue to appreciate the confidence unions have in me. It’s been an honor.”

While the council’s work to raise standards for people in low-wage jobs has drawn much attention, Tolbert is also working to attract good jobs to the city. He co-founded Full Stack, a public-private partnership focused on attracting, retaining and growing innovative jobs and businesses, last year.

“We have to continue to make sure not only do we have living-wage jobs, but we’re continuing to create more living-wage jobs,” he said, “so more people can support their families and be able to live in a city like St. Paul.”

Nelsie Yang, Ward 6

The culturally diverse East Side neighborhoods in St. Paul’s Ward 6 include some of the city’s highest levels of concentrated poverty.

It’s a very different city than the one Nelsie Yang sees in other neighborhoods.

“When I drive to more affluent, predominantly white areas, these places look drastically different from the East Side,” Yang said.

Now, the community organizer and daughter of Hmong refugees is running for City Council to make sure the people who live in her neighborhood get their fair share –“because we are not getting that on the East Side of St. Paul right now,” she said.

Yang wants to see the East Side get more infrastructure investments, like roads, transit, bike lanes and walkways. She wants the East Side’s rec centers to stay open longer and support children whose parents work multiple jobs. She wants the city to strengthen renters’ rights and mandate that developers doing business in the city commit to a minimum amount of affordable housing.

And Yang, a steward in the Minnesota Newspaper Guild-CWA’s bargaining unit at TakeAction Minnesota, wants to partner with unions to get those things done.

“Having the people power of labor unions and people working alongside each other, that’s how we will build toward a progressive future for all of us,” she said. “People are so ready to get invested and activated.”

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