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Twelve-day hunger strike ends at Minneapolis Cub store

Wages for custodians have fallen from $10 an hour a decade ago to as low as $7.50 now.
Wages for custodians have fallen from $10 an hour a decade ago to as low as $7.50 now.

At 10:30 this morning, hunger strikers at a Cub Foods store in the middle of Minneapolis passed out bread to their supporters, then took bites of bread themselves, ending a 12-day fast.

The hunger strike, a protest of the “starvation wages” being paid custodians, could have been held outside most retail businesses in the Twin Cities, organizers agreed.

This Cub, at Minnehaha and Lake Street, was chosen because of its location and because its workers seemed the most willing to risk protesting.

Statistics do show that the issues at the root of this strike are real. Wages have fallen from $10 an hour a decade ago to as low as $7.50 now. In addition, the workers say, the workload has doubled because now only two people are used to clean the huge store nightly. Previously the work was done by four.

Cleaning work is contracted
So did the strike accomplish anything?

On one level, probably not.

Workers still are being paid below poverty wages with no benefits.

Just as important, no one is really accepting responsibility for the downward slide.

Cub says that the workers are not theirs. The cleaning work is contracted out to a company called Carlson Building Maintenance, which claims that the field is so competitive that it can’t win contracts if workers are paid more. Besides, these are “entry level jobs” a Carlson spokesperson told the Huffington Post in a recent piece in that publication.

And all the while, consumers become more and more price conscious.

‘A race to the bottom’
All of this leads to “a race to the bottom,” in the words of Minneapolis City Council member Gary Schiff, who was among a handful of elected officials expressing his support of the workers.

Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff

The support of such pols as Schiff, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, state Rep. Jim Davine and state Sen. Patricia Ray Torres, along with a significant number of religious leaders, represents their victory in the strike, the workers and their supporters said.

These are workers not accustomed to having their voices heard. That elected officials and some in the media and some church communities were hearing their stories mattered greatly.

Seeking ‘code of corporate conduct’
Their hope is that officials from Cub will sit down and talk over issues and come up with “a code of corporate conduct.”

Veronica Mendez, who works with an organization called Center of Workers United in Struggle, pointed out that the company does have a “code of conduct” for how animals that end up in the meat counter are treated while being raised.

“It seems reasonable that there should be a code of conduct for the way workers are treated,” she said.

She noted that Cub has often been “a standard setter in the Twin Cities.

“Their work for people in north Minneapolis after the tornado was commendable,” she said. (The store handed out food and water to tornado victims.)

Not an isolated issue
The issue is certainly not isolated to a grocery store or even a chain of grocery stores. Service-sector jobs are replacing the factory jobs of old as the places of employment for millions of Americans. But in most cases those jobs — ranging from custodians to retail clerks to child-care workers — come with low pay and few benefits.

All of this, then, was being played out by a handful of hunger strikers on a sidewalk just off the property line of a parking lot outside the Cub store. (Cub had gone to court to get a restraining order that prevented the workers from pitching their tents and conducting their rallies directly in front of the store.)

The Rev. Grant Stevensen, pastor at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in St. Paul, was among those who participated in the 12-day hunger strike.

He was drawn in to the working conditions of the custodians months ago. Mario Colloly Torres, who worked for Carlson, told members of the church about the conditions.

Stevensen: What’s at stake
“This is a larger problem than a grievance at a store,” Stevensen said to about 100 supporters of the workers this morning. “This represents a fundamental decision we as Minnesotans and Americans have to make. … Do we see each other as brothers and sisters. What’s at stake aren’t just their wages but our souls.”

Rev. Grant Stevensen
Rev. Grant Stevensen

Prior to speaking at the rally ending the fast, Stevensen spoke of the fast itself. For a 12-day period, he’d taken nothing but water sprinkled with some lemon juice.

“First three days were awful,” the pastor admitted. “I like food, rich food.”

Though he’d often heard that hunger pangs pass after a few days, Stevensen, smiling, said the feeling of being hungry never did pass.

Still, the experience of fasting with the workers and others was “an honor.”

Congregation to deliver receipts to Cub
While their pastor fasted, members of St. Matthew’s, in just a few days, gathered more than $100,000 worth of Cub grocery receipts from their members. Those receipts will be delivered to corporate headquarters.

The thought is that the bottom line may have more impact on Cub — and its SuperValu parent — than the inconvenient media attention around one store.

The receipts, Stevensen said, will serve as a reminder to the corporation “that our values will follow our money.”

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/01/2011 - 04:48 pm.

    When a job pays less than what is defined as a “living wage” and there are no benefits, the cost of making up the shortfall ends up with the taxpayers.

    If there were logic in the Republican party, they would be pushing for “livable wages. Just as a rising tide raises all boats, a sinking tide runs everyone aground.

    Henry Ford realized almost a century ago that he would have more people who could be customers if he paid his workers enough to buy a car. If Cub does not pay its workers enough to shop at Cub, and sends them to Mike’s Discount Foods, Aldi, or Walmart.

  2. Submitted by Cathy McMahon on 06/02/2011 - 08:06 am.

    Thank you, Gary Schiff, Veronica Mendez and all the others expressing concern for for our working poor. I wish that more of our public officials, especially Republicans, would join in concern for those of us working for poverty wages. There are a lot of people working hard, even working multiple jobs, playing by society’s rules, and still not receive enough scraps to survive. I think it’s nuts that we’re allowing the very rich to get even richer during these difficult times. Most estimates put the top 1% in the U.S. owning about 40% of the nation’s wealth. We should be strengthening our policies to protect workers, not cutting taxes for the wealthiest.

  3. Submitted by Susanna Patterson on 06/02/2011 - 03:30 pm.

    We first heard of this hunger strike at a rally at the Capitol on May 21 with Take Action Minnesota, AFL-CIO, MNA, et. al. Since that time we have been quietly boycotting Cub. We applaud the efforts of St. Matthew’s church and think that the time might be right for an organized boycott of Cub stores generally. This affects us all; when one of our fellow workers is denied a living wage or at least the opportunity to negotiate for it, we all suffer!

  4. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 06/02/2011 - 03:47 pm.

    Targeting Cub (and Cub alone) makes very little sense. Let’s not forget that Cub store workers and workers at Supervalu’s Hopkins warehouse are unionized. The labor situation for workers at Cub is far better than it is at Target, or WalMart or Aldi. Picking on the union grocer and driving folks to non-union competition isn’t the way to advance labor’s cause.

    Why would Cub unilaterally agree to a cost increase when it’s already fighting a difficult battle versus Walmart and Target to stay competitive pricewise?

    These workers should be trying to organize against the cleaning company — winning that battle would help all cleaning employees across the board.

  5. Submitted by Susanna Patterson on 06/02/2011 - 04:19 pm.

    Good point, Sean!

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 06/02/2011 - 04:57 pm.

    All workers employed by contract services should organize themselves by asking a union (SEIU?) to incorporate them.

    John Kenneth Galbraith called unions a “contravailing power.” Only by organizing can workers avoid victimization by employers who now have all the power while workers have none, a situation clearly unfair to workers.

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