What We Can Learn From Minnesota Unions’ Big Contract Wins

What We Can Learn From Minnesota Unions’ Big Contract Wins

What We Can Learn From Minnesota Unions’ Big Contract Wins

Fifteen thousand workers in Minnesota voted to authorize strikes recently, the culmination of over a decade of cross-sector organizing—with powerful results.


Michael Bartos has cleaned buildings owned by the state of Minnesota for almost nine years, working for contractor Marsden. A member of SEIU Local 26, he makes $18.62 an hour, nearly $8 higher than minimum wage in Minnesota. Yet when he buys a loaf of bread at the grocery store, it typically costs a quarter of his hourly wage. “That kind of thing hurts,” he said. He struggles to afford basics like paper towels or the gas he needs to get to work. He’d like to eat organic but can’t afford it. In past contract fights, he noted, he and his coworkers secured paid vacation time, but he makes so little that he can’t go anywhere or do much when he uses the time off. “It’s stuff like that that other people have that we don’t,” he said.

So last Monday he and 4,000 of his coworkers went on strike to demand higher pay, starting a three-day unfair labor practice strike with their union, affecting 100 buildings across the Twin Cities area. Bartos is also fighting alongside his coworkers to demand that they receive a pension, even though he thinks that, at age 55, he’s not likely to benefit himself. Their work “is very tough on people’s joints, backs,” he said. “We have a lot of people who have sacrificed their whole lives doing this job and there’s nothing waiting for them when they’re done.”

The strike, and their fight for a contract, is “a fight to move towards a more just and equitable life that we think we deserve,” he said.

Bartos and his coworkers aren’t fighting alone. Fifteen thousand workers in Minnesota voted to authorize strikes ahead of what they called the Week of Action last week. One thousand nursing home workers represented by SEIU Healthcare MN & IA and UFCW 663 at 12 homes in the Twin Cities started an unfair labor practice strike on Tuesday morning, the largest nursing home strike in state history. Minneapolis park maintenance workers held an informational picket on Wednesday.

Over the past decade, Minnesota workers spanning different jobs and different unions have organized together, finding common ground to fight for under four key demands: dignified work, which includes higher wages, pensions, safe working conditions, and the creation of a labor standards board to dictate working conditions in Minneapolis; stable housing, including social housing and rent stabilization; good schools, secured by better pay for teachers and staff and more community resources; and a livable planet.

A key strategy in this fight was aligning union contracts for those in the coalition to all expire around March 2, which has now culminated in a huge number of strikes and potential strikes all at once. The actions Minnesota workers are engaged in this week function as a test run of sorts for an idea floated recently by United Auto Workers President Shawn Fein. After UAW secured big contract wins with all three big automakers, Fain noted that all of the contracts expire on May Day 2028 and called on other unions to align their contract expirations with the autoworkers’. “If we’re truly going to take on the billionaire class and rebuild the economy so that it starts to work for the many and not the few, then it’s important that we not only strike, but that we strike together,” he said.

That’s precisely what Minnesota workers did last week. The threat of so many coordinated strikes and actions quickly resulted in gains: In late February, 500 janitors who clean big-box stores and are members of SEIU Local 26 reached a tentative agreement, averting their planned strike, that included more paid time off—including Thanksgiving and Christmas—better healthcare, and a 17 percent increase in base pay, the biggest wage increase they’ve ever achieved. Security workers who are part of the same local reached their own agreement that included pay raises of up to 27 percent, employer-paid 401(k) plans, and Juneteenth as a new paid holiday. Transit workers who are part of ATU Local 1005 also secured a contract in late February that increases wages 13 percent over two years, implements higher starting wages for bus and train operators and mechanic technicians, and guarantees bereavement leave.

Then Minneapolis Public Works employees represented by LIUNA Local 363 announced on Monday that members had approved a new contract that includes a raise of nearly 30 percent over the next three years, the biggest wage increase the local had ever secured, as well as health and safety protections, limits on temp workers, greater union rights, and other wins.

Meanwhile, St. Paul teachers, who planned to strike this week, reached a tentative agreement on Tuesday that averted their action. Details aren’t yet available, but teachers had been fighting for pay increases that keep up with surrounding suburban districts, parity for hourly employees, and more services for students struggling post-pandemic, such as fully funded mental health teams.

Besides the unions that went on strike or reached contracts, other organizations involved in the Week of Action effort include the Centro de Trabajardores Unidos En La Lucha (CTUL), Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia, ISAIAH, Unidos MN, and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59. The Minneapolis Uber and Lyft Association, as well as affiliates of the AFL-CIO, UNITE HERE, AFSCME, and CWA, stood in solidarity.

Union leaders and members say that the coordination of contract fights and labor actions has played a major role in their wins. Those contract achievements were “definitely bigger than we would have been able to achieve ourselves,” said Greg Nammacher, president of SEIU Local 26. The opportunity to build energy and morale across unions is one reason. “All of this organizing happening at the same time keeps that energy amongst us alive, it keeps the energy in the public alive, and it keeps pressure on folks on the other side of the bargaining table,” says Quentin Wathum-Ocama, an academic support teacher in St. Paul and a member of the St. Paul Federation of Educators executive board. His job is, of course, different from a janitor’s or nursing home worker’s, he noted. But “we have these shared values, we have these shared goals,” he said. “You want a workplace where you’re respected, you’re safe, you’re free from the whims of a boss who may not respect you.”

Having so many other workers supporting him and his coworkers is “great for morale,” Bartos said. And it proves to employers and policymakers alike that workers are united. He thinks his employer will feel even more pressure seeing so many workers standing together. “It maybe puts a little fear into those who control the money.”

When I spoke to him on Tuesday, there were constant whistles and honks in the background; he and his coworkers had taken a bus to support striking nursing home workers at the state capitol. He noted that janitors and nursing home workers do very different work, but “we all share the fact that we’re being exploited,” he said. “These companies, they work hard to divide people, divide working people, and this is an example of how a really diverse range of workers can come together and stand united as one.”

“The camaraderie is amazing,” he added. “It’s an incredible feeling to be out with people doing this.”

Jared Mituga was one of the striking nursing home workers Bartos was supporting on Tuesday. He has worked at the same nursing home for 23 years, 18 of them as a registered nurse. But Tuesday was the first time he’d ever been on strike. It was “wild,” he said, with music, chanting, and even dancing; community members and employees from other facilities who aren’t on strike came out to support them. He and his coworkers are fighting for a $25 minimum wage as well as minimum staffing standards, “so we could be able to take care of our patients in the way they will get the care they need,” he said. Pay and staffing are intertwined, he noted: The nursing assistants he works with, who earn less than $20 an hour, do backbreaking, essential work like helping people use the toilet, dress, and eat. Many of them burn out and quit. “It’s demoralizing,” he said.

At first he wasn’t sure what the strike turnout would be, but 90 percent of his coworkers walked out. “We sent a strong signal to management,” he said. It’s even stronger with so many other workers backing them up. “We’re sharing ideas, what brought them out on the strike, what is their motivation, we’re sharing on what do they expect, what is their demand. When we go back, we’re going to go back stronger than we came out.”

This week’s actions have their roots in organizing that began over a decade ago. In the early 2010s, Nammacher, whose union represents janitors and security officers, realized that “each of our individual sectors themselves felt really invisible,” he said. His members were the ones who go into stores and buildings at night when no one else is there to clean and secure them. “If we fought in our own sectors just with our own job classifications alone, we were going to achieve much less than if we tried to think about, ‘How do we leverage our power together?’” So his union started working to align contract expirations within their own local for the same date.

But then they started to think bigger. Sure, they could probably achieve modest pay raises every contract negotiation just coordinating among themselves. But to “transform our industries and our members’ lives,” Nammacher said, it would take organizing alongside other workers, too.

That’s when SEIU Local 26 members started talking to other unions and workers. They quickly realized they had a lot of common demands. Any worker who secures a higher raise will see it immediately eroded by rent if there’s no affordable housing, for example. Many workers in the area are what Nammacher called “climate refugees,” immigrants from East Africa and Ecuador, and they wanted to be part of climate change solutions.

It’s difficult to organize beyond not just individual unions, and not just across very different kinds of jobs, but even across different cultures and languages. “It takes a lot of work and experimentation,” Nammacher said. Building trust was key. “The way we have found to do that best, as we do in our own bargaining, we create democratic spaces where members come forward, come with their differences,” he said. Then they “wrestle through them and figure out what are the areas of common self-interest we can come around.” The groups convened big gatherings where everyone got on the same page about deadlines and goals. They held trainings among leaders of the organizations to deepen relationships.

Last week, all that organizing work came to fruition. Unions will take pieces of the four-point agenda to the bargaining table and try to secure not just raises but better living conditions for all. SEIU Local 26 janitors who are on strike, for example, are demanding the expansion of a green cleaning certification pilot program that trains them to find ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the buildings they clean. Community groups have vowed to push forward on climate-related legislation, including a Minneapolis measure to create a dedicated fund to help homeowners make their homes greener, renters reduce their energy costs, and train people of color in the jobs needed to do the retrofitting.

“We know by doing this together we’re going to be able to get better settlements than if we did this in isolation,” Nammacher said.

The unions have also aligned themselves with local community organizations, which feel the same way. Leaders and workers at CTUL, a worker center, realized years ago that in order to fight for its low-wage, mostly immigrant members it had to work with other organizations that were “aligned about a shared analysis of power and what it takes to win and also a shared vision of the future we want to see,” said codirector Veronica Mendez Moore.

The construction industry, where most of CTUL’s nonunion members work, is “currently lawless, it’s like the Wild West,” she said. But on Thursday, unions and other workers marched with CTUL members in support of their campaign calling on housing developers to sign onto a code of conduct for how they protect workers on job sites. Developers will be able to see “how big our movement is and how willing our movement is to take risks,” she said. “The bigness of it and the boldness of it takes them aback.” They’ll also connect their campaign to the broader call for affordable housing.

“We have a choice about doing this on our own and doing this with our partners. It’s a pretty clear choice,” she said. “This strategy helps us win more.”

Mendez Moore also noted that what happened last week will affect organizing in the future, too. Bringing hundreds of members together all day every day for a week, leading actions and working side by side, helps them “to understand better how our fights connect and align,” she said, as well as pushes her members to get interested in leadership and think about “the bigger picture.”

“Our members come out of this so much more powerful,” she said. “It just makes more possible for the future.”

The organizing work hasn’t ended after the week of action did. SEIU Local 26, for example, plans to align its contract expirations with the UAW’s expiration in May 2028, buying into the call for a possible national general strike.

Workers in Minnesota hope that others across the country can look at what they’re doing and take away lessons. The UAW, Nammacher noted, showed the power of organizing within a union across geography and employers. Minnesota workers have now taken that further, organizing across jobs and different kinds of organizations. The labor movement needs “to be aggressive, we need to be bold, we need to ask for bigger things,” Nammacher said. “This is the time for big demands and new ideas for how we push forward.”

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