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

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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.”

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.

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.

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.

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Dickinson on 10/28/2015 - 10:01 am.

    Thank you for this

    Thank you for showing me the [mostly] invisible part and framing it so compassionately. The word “security” informs so much of what constitutes our behavior in the world, but disappears when we talk about the insecurity of our own neighbors. It should be a matter of civic pride to make sure everyone feels secure. The Working Families Agenda is the rare comprehensive program that directly addresses that.

  2. Submitted by Michael Hess on 10/28/2015 - 10:06 am.

    Symmetry

    The author has reduced the issue to one purely of race. This shows the same or greater level of myopia she cites media and politicians for, as in her mind they are exclusively focusing on working situations that do not matter to her, the “tiny portion” of impacted jobs held by “young white people”.

    Since this small business setting is so unimportant, why won’t WFA proponents recommend real changes to the act to focus on the jobs they care about – larger employers, big box, large corporations – instead of putting it on every employer and employee relationship in the city?

  3. Submitted by Wesley Burdine on 10/28/2015 - 02:11 pm.

    small businesses

    I appreciate this article, particularly the way it draws attention to the ways in which the media narratives have erased minority voices.
    However, the article inadvertently reveals why the Working Families Agenda is particularly flawed. Professor Cole writes: “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.”
    This is correct and there should be a thoughtful discussion of how we can enact laws to protect these workers. However, there are still many workers (white and people of color) who work at small companies (yoga studios, shops, restaurants, etc…) and these laws (particularly if only enacted by one city and not regionally) with have a profoundly adverse effect upon those small companies.
    If employees of big box companies are the ones we need to protect, then let’s look at laws to protect them and not apply the blunt and indiscriminate object of the law upon all companies with hourly wages.

  4. Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 10/28/2015 - 03:17 pm.

    Perspective

    The WFA is controversial, no doubt about it. There exists a problem that is neither simple nor easily solved. The basis of the WFA is to address aspects of this problem by providing protections to low-wage workers, and the initial proposal was seen by many as being way off base, resulting in many city leaders withholding or withdrawing their support.

    The perspective of Dr. Cole is needed here, because it helps understand the frustration with city leaders on the part of those working low-wage jobs who stand to benefit from the proposals of the WFA, and feel unheard in this discussion.

    The perspectives of Mr. Burdine and Mr. Hess is also important, because they help understand the frustration of small business owners who would be adversely affected by the proposals of the WFA.

    Any final resolution must be balanced, which will come from listening, understanding, and compromising. I still have hope that Minneapolis can be a leader in moving towards providing a more equitable work environment for its most vulnerable workers. Consider black workers, Consider the small business owners. Even consider the privileged white college kids. But don’t walk away from the problem just because it may be hard to understand and even harder to solve.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/28/2015 - 03:50 pm.

    The unfortunate sole emphasis on race in this piece obscures the basis of the problem: it is economic injustice. Injustice that labor unions were meant to diminish, and once did. Maybe they will again, especially in the “temping” subcontractors (for janitors and cleaners) and for big corporations. The rest of the problem has to be addressed through the state legislature: Pressure should be put, not on snide recaps of the remarks of a SmartyPants at City Pages, on our state senators and representatives, so they enact statewide laws that increase minimum wages, require fair scheduling and paid sick and safe days, and prohibit such truly scummy stuff like wage theft.

    Jacob Frey, of course, knows that he’s not listening to yoga instructors, but the Chamber of Commerce, which lowered the boom here on the economic issues, not race. Big capitalists refuse to be regulated, by anyone. It’s not an easy battle to oppose them.

  6. Submitted by Beth Daniels on 10/28/2015 - 09:22 pm.

    Important policy issues

    The Working Families Agenda is intended to address important policy issues that currently divide our city into a city of haves (who are mostly — vastly — white) and have-nots (who are mostly — vastly — people of color). The issues raised by this agenda are real and impact every facet of life for those who are negatively affected, which in turn impacts life for everyone in the city. As a member of the Minneapolis community, I want a city that is livable and functional for everyone. Currently, there are huge separations between workers who have a good life in this city and workers whose life is almost unimaginably hard. We have systemic issues that create different results for white people and for people of color, for high-wage workers and low-wage workers. As a city, we need to confront these systems and change them. It’s hard work. But we can do it. In order to do it, we must pay attention to the voices of those who get the worst treatment under the current system. That doesn’t mean we stop hearing everyone else, but right now we’re not hearing the worst-treated folks at all. So, let’s listen up, and get this agenda passed.

  7. Submitted by Dave Stagner on 10/28/2015 - 10:50 pm.

    fairness, but common sense, too

    Yes, fairness is a problem. We could do better. But the aspects of the Working Families Agenda that got the pushback were openly irrational and unworkable – the “fair scheduling” provisions in particular. Take snow clearing, for example – an important source of employment in the winter. How the heck do you schedule those workers 28 days in advance, Dr. Cole? Ideas like that, divorced from the reality of actual employers and actual business, reek of ivory tower privilege. A privileged, alienated perspective, imposed as law, will almost certainly cause more problems than it solves. By demanding completely unworkable “solutions” that will severely harm businesses, you taint and discredit the good, workable ideas (like sick pay).

    Now, when we talk about these plans, we’re making tradeoffs. Some challenges for employers are inevitable. But how evenly does it fall? There are locally owned small businesses, and there are giant corporate employers. Mickey’s Diner, and McDonald’s. As a Minneapolis resident, I take pride in the things that make my community unique and awesome compared to similar cities – in particular, our spectacular food scene, one of the best in the nation (or the world, for that matter). But that food scene isn’t made magical by TGI Fridays and Starbucks. It’s local, fiercely independent small businesses, working hand in hand with local farmers and other small businesses, that make it unique and wonderful.

    So which businesses will be hurt most by the plans you’re making? The locally owned and unique ones, or the giant chains of Wall Street? Would you kill Gingko’s and put a Caribou in its place? Would you prefer Broder’s, or Olive Garden? A well thought out plan would not only help workers, but would also strengthen the hand of small locally owned businesses relative to the resources of giant corporations.

    We could write a law that will kill local businesses, cost jobs, and turn Minneapolis into just another generic, dying city – or we could write a law that makes us stronger, both for workers and for the small business owners, and ultimately for all the residents.

  8. Submitted by joe smith on 10/29/2015 - 09:15 am.

    If you want to see where non skilled workers (forget color of their skin) have struggled the most just look at the over regulation/taxation of that city. You have the very wealthy (they can afford to live there) and the the very poor living there. Detroit taxed every small business so much they moved outside of city limits and city workers lost their jobs. Even if you pay burger flippers 15 bucks an hour they are around $30,000 a year, in a big city that is not middle class. You need many many thriving small businesses competing for workers in cities to pump up wages. The thought that mandating a person delivering papers make 15$ an hour is silly. This proposal is fantasy land thinking by those who never opened, ran and succeeded at a small business.

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