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Minneapolis’ choice: Are we going to be one city or two?

The Working Families Agenda is not only a set of policies for advancing economic justice in Minneapolis. It is also an important set of policies meant to advance racial justice.

The struggles of low-income workers of color are completely ignored in this discussion, which allows people to pre-emptively dismiss the proposed policies as “solutions in search of a problem.”
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The City of Minneapolis stands at a crucial decision point. We — the city’s people and its politicians — have to make a decision about who we want to be. As it stands, Minneapolis is two cities. For its white residents, Minneapolis is the progressive “Miracle” city: a place where middle-class people can buy homes, where unemployment is low, and where wealth distribution is less unequal and less unfair than in most other metropolitan areas. However, blacks and other people of color here experience a very different Minneapolis: a place where racial disparities are some of the worst in the nation, from education, housing, and criminal justice to employment and income.

One recent study found that Minneapolis is the third worst place to live in the United States for black people. Another found that the median income for blacks plummeted 14 percent in just one calendar year — leaving black Minnesotans worse off than blacks living in Mississippi.

All of us in Minneapolis have a choice to make about the kind of city we want to be: Are we going to be one city or two? A miracle for some of us, or all of us?

Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable

That choice is in front of us right now in a concrete way in the form of the Working Families Agenda, a set of policies that would provide hourly workers with earned sick and safe time, fair scheduling, an end to wage theft, and a living wage. These policies are meant to provide low-income, hourly workers with more predictability and stability. They address the needs of the most vulnerable workers among us — workers who are disproportionately made up of black people and other people of color.

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The Working Families Agenda is not only a set of policies for advancing economic justice in Minneapolis. It is also an important set of policies meant to advance racial justice in Minneapolis, a point that seems to be lost on City Council members and some of the major media outlets in the city. In fact, in media coverage of the campaign for the Working Families Agenda and in council members’ public statements, the focus on low-income black workers and workers of color seems completely lost. It is as if black workers and other workers of color are invisible to our council members and journalists. The struggles of low-income workers of color are completely ignored in this discussion, which allows people to pre-emptively dismiss the proposed policies as “solutions in search of a problem.”

Racial myopia

Allow me to give some examples of the racial myopia our media and council members are displaying. First, there was the piece by Mecca Bos in City Pages. Bos’ piece trivialized the concerns of low-income workers in Minneapolis. Her piece operates under the assumptions that all hourly workers in Minneapolis are servers in restaurants. They are college kids who are working only for spending money, which she claims they only need for cookies and wine and concert tickets. She also assumes that her readers share this myopic perspective and privileged experience. Here are the opening lines to her article:

Remember when you were in college and took that serving job at Campus Burger? Chemistry class was at 8 a.m. in the spring, but then you had to take a summer Spanish class and that one was at noon. Then, once fall finally rolled around again, you had a full course load, but you still had to work, didn’t you, because cookies and wine aren’t free.

She goes on later:

You remember. If Campus Burger suddenly had an unexpected Friday rush, your manager might call you just as you were sitting down on the couch to the Thin Mints and the Pinot Noir.

“Can you come in?!” [your manager would] frantically bellow. And though a good wine and chocolate buzz beckoned, so did the extra hundred bucks you were liable to pocket, and plus, thanks to your cooperation, you’d be more likely to get cherry shifts or be first cut next Saturday so you could go and see the Screaming Lips down at First Ave. It’s just the way it works. It’s the way things have always been done, and employees, as well as employers, like it (and need it) to be that way. It is the simple nature of the business.”

Bos’ piece is a polemical against the Working Families Agenda. The force of her argument depends upon the erasure of the vast majority of low-income workers (disproportionately black) and a singular focus on privileged, white college kids who work low-wage jobs to afford sweets, intoxicants and tickets to indie-rock concerts. Never mind that white servers do not make up the majority of low-income hourly workers in Minneapolis. Never mind that most workers in low-wage jobs are not supported by their parents. Never mind that low-income workers have families to support and bills to pay and cannot simply slog off of work to watch aging white men play alternative hits from the 1990s. Bos assumes a very particular social location, a very privileged set of shared experiences. And in doing so, she neglects (at best) or demeans (at worst) the labor of the most vulnerable members of our community.

Likewise, my own council representative, Jacob Frey, seems to share in Bos’ racial myopia. In recent interviews and in a phone conversation with me (his constituent), Council Member Frey defends his opposition to fair scheduling policies in the Working Families Agenda by saying that he’s hearing from servers and people who work in yoga studios that they like the flexibility that comes along with their hourly job. Fair scheduling practices, he says, aren’t necessary because the workers that would be affected by them don’t want them.

A different perspective

I’ll grant that Council Member Frey might be hearing from yoga studio employees. He might be hearing from servers. They may appear to him as centrally relevant for his decision-making about the proposals. But my question is this: What about the hundreds of low-income workers that have come to his office over the last few months in large rallies organized by the #MPLSworks coalition? These workers — all hourly, mostly black — have had a different perspective on the issue. They’ve argued that they need a dependable schedule to be able to seek secondary employment and to budget to pay bills and get ahead. They have placed stability and predictability over flexibility and with good reason: They depend on these low-wage, hourly jobs to support their families.

Frey has continually claimed that he’s not hearing from workers who support the Working Families Agenda. He’s hearing from servers who, on his account, don’t want fair scheduling and earned sick and safe time. What about the 50 percent of Minneapolis restaurant workers who are people of color, overwhelmingly back-of-the-house workers who don’t receive tips? Why is it that he can hear from servers and yoga studio employees, but he can’t hear — won’t hear — the voices of the hundreds of low-wage workers who have spent more than a year writing emails, making phone calls, marching to his office, and rallying at City Hall? The perspective of these workers is remarkably absent in Frey’s discussion of the issues. They are rendered invisible in his public comments on the Working Families Agenda.

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The narrative is flawed

Although I have singled out Bos and Frey here, I don’t mean to suggest that they are uniquely blind to the racial justice issues that are addressed by the Working Families Agenda. Instead, their perspective — one that assumes that low-wage hourly jobs are filled by young people who are temporarily working in these positions while they prepare for their middle class adult lives — is the norm. In media coverage, the Working Families Agenda has been presented as a battle between small restaurants and the mayor’s office. On this narrative, there are small restaurant businesses that treat their employees “like family” and resent the implication that they take advantage of their employees. Furthermore, the narrative goes, the changes mandated in the Working Families Agenda would likely put them out of business. But this narrative is flawed.

The vast majority of the workers who would be protected by the Working Families Agenda are not working in small restaurants. They are working for large corporations. They are the people who clean the department stores and offices after hours. They are the people who care for our elderly. They are working retail in big-box stores throughout the Twin Cities. They are employed by Target, by Macy’s, by McDonald’s, and by exploitative temping services that have a long history of acting unethically towards their workers. Right now, we are ignoring the fact that the jobs held up as examples of why the protections offered by the Working Families Agenda either can’t work or aren’t needed are only a tiny portion of low-wage jobs. They are also the most likely to be filled by young white people, rather than people of color.

In our public discourse around the Working Families Agenda, the voices of low-income workers of color have been largely ignored. Black workers have been rendered invisible. The racial justice concerns that are centrally important to the Working Families Agenda have been pushed aside. We have prioritized the desires of more privileged groups who temporarily work in low-wage jobs for wine and cookies over the needs of community members for whom these jobs pay for rent, groceries, and utilities. Minneapolis has a choice to make: Are we going to continue to myopically pursue policies that create apartheid conditions, or will we learn how to see black workers, how to hear their stories, and extend the benefits of the Minneapolis Miracle to all of our neighbors?

Kathleen Cole, Ph.D., is a political science professor in the Social Science Department at Metropolitan State University. Her views do not necessarily represent the views of her employer.

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