In Minnesota, the shot across the bow took the form of a letter that arrived on February 19. “We are writing to urge you to take both immediate and long-term action,” it began, addressed to the CEOs of Target, US Bancorp and Wells Fargo Minnesota. Signed by representatives from community, labor and faith-based organizations, the letter spelled out a list of ten demands, ranging from writing down mortgages and ceasing to exploit tax loopholes to using responsible contractors and adopting fair hiring practices. The companies, two of which—Target and US Bancorp (the parent company of US Bank)—are headquartered in Minneapolis, had five days to begin adopting such measures. If they failed to act by February 24, they were told, the groups would be “forced to rely on the tools our American democracy has given us—especially freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.”
A flurry of activity followed, dubbed by organizers “Unlock Minnesota’s Future.” Even before the deadline passed, the NAACP and TakeAction Minnesota filed ten discriminatory hiring charges against Target. On the morning of Monday, February 25, religious leaders gathered at the capitol in St. Paul to call for a “moral and forward-looking budget” that invests in education and infrastructure, pushing back against what they called the “myth of scarcity” at a time of record corporate profits. That evening, a dozen nonunion janitors who clean Target retail stores—members of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a workers’ center—went on strike against three contractors they charged with retaliation.
Wednesday brought another strike, this time involving hundreds of security officers who protect commercial buildings in the Twin Cities, including the corporate offices of the three companies addressed in the letter. While the guards—members of SEIU Local 26—picketed in front of the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Minneapolis, a crowd flocked to the capitol steps to demand passage of the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights, a statewide proposal modeled after similar legislation in California. Others, including members of Occupy Homes, marched through the streets, hoisting a banner that read Big Banks Make Bad Neighbors, with thirteen people getting arrested while blocking traffic across from the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage complex.
At the center of the storm were contract fights involving 6,000 janitors and security officers of SEIU Local 26. But this didn’t look like a typical contract fight.
“This is about more than our union,” says Kevin Chavis, an Iraq War vet and striking security officer employed by AlliedBarton. Indeed, when I talked with Chavis over the phone, the 31-year-old had wrapped up picketing and was on a bus en route to an action in front of a house threatened with foreclosure. “This is about the entire community.”
* * *
For all the talk about coalitions, it’s hard to make them work. The underlying logic is so straightforward—groups join forces to amplify their power—that there is a tendency to both exaggerate their efficacy and understate their complexity. When pressed, many coalitions are little more than paper tigers, blown over by the slightest breeze or able to come together only for such limited goals that the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. “They might be effective on one issue, and then calcify into endless meetings or disband,” says Doran Schrantz, executive director of ISAIAH, a faith-based coalition of more than 100 congregations in Minnesota. “But that doesn’t build a long-term movement structure.”
So what are the organizers in Minnesota doing right?
One factor has been the deliberate manner in which partnerships have been formed. Much of the activity falls under the banner of Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, part of an SEIU effort—called the Fight for a Fair Economy—that dates back several years and seeks to form regional community-labor coalitions. But in Minnesota, SEIU and groups like ISAIAH and CTUL had already spent years in close collaboration. “We had done all this theorizing about what a coalition would look like,” says Schrantz. “This was an opportunity to do something.”