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.”

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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.” 

Those ties were not built around a single issue, and they also went beyond leaders exchanging notes. Rank-and-file union members spent time talking with ISAIAH’s grassroots base, sharing ideas about what they thought was holding them back and how they might broadly go about making changes. Out of that work came a joint leadership team that, in Schrantz’s words, “trusted each other and shared a common analysis and narrative.” 

The deep dive into people’s motivations and worldviews—as opposed to mobilizing folks around a predetermined agenda—was coupled with a power analysis that placed the focus on big actors like Target, US Bancorp and Wells Fargo. Income inequality, the foreclosure crisis, tax loopholes, cuts to public services: all could be traced back in some way to these common targets. Groups didn’t have to abandon their “regular” work for the coalition (which often causes coalition work to go undone), but instead could frame it in a way that collectively amplified their demands.

“What’s fascinating about Minneapolis is the way they’ve organically connected many different campaigns by power analysis,” says labor strategist Stephen Lerner, an architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign. “This is not a narrow thing. This is not ‘Can the union raise some noise to get a little bit better contract?’ And they’ve used the methodology of the janitors’ campaign to figure out who’s really in charge in Minnesota. We are usually fighting on too low a level. We need to move up the tree.”

As for the union fight, both the janitorial and security contracts of Local 26 expired on January 1. According to the union, the janitorial companies sought to shift more than a thousand workers to part time, resulting in wage cuts and making them ineligible for healthcare. “They want to bring everyone down to the level of retail janitors,” says Brian Payne of CTUL. Payne estimates that retail cleaners in the Twin Cities average $8.50 an hour; SEIU janitors, by contrast, earn an average hourly wage of $13.42. Recently, CTUL members who clean Target’s retail stores won $675,000 in back pay after accusing their employer, Diversified Maintenance System, of forcing them to work up to eighty hours a week without overtime. “What we want to do,” Payne explains, “is to bring retail workers up to a higher standard.”

After thirty-one hours of negotiating, janitorial companies avoided a strike by agreeing to a three-year contract that included raises and an extra sick day per year and avoided any shift to part-time work. Negotiations involving the security contractors broke down, however, with only a local company, American Security, signing on to a tentative last-minute agreement. After security officers held a one-day strike, the six other companies quickly agreed to come back to the negotiating table.

“This is about moving everyone forward,” said Javier Morillo of Local 26. “Unions now make up less than 7 percent of the private sector. The work we’re trying to do with community partners is to create a much bigger bargaining committee that can bring the truly powerful to the table.”