Hodges isn’t the first Minneapolis mayor to get pushback over working-class issues

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges unveiled her Working Families Agenda in April 2015, during her State of the City Address. The ambitious proposal called on Minneapolis businesses to provide more predictable work schedules and paid sick leave for their employees.

In justifying her new initiative, the mayor declared that “wages in the American economy for low-income and middle-class workers and families have stagnated in the last 40 years. As a result, the gap between low- and middle-income workers on the one hand, and the highest-paid people on the other, is the widest it’s been in nearly a century.”

“The expectation that if you worked hard you could get ahead is now more myth than reality for low-income people and many people of color,” Hodges noted in her April address.

But over the next few months, the mayor watched opposition to the Working Families Agenda build as local business owners began to assess the impact of the plan on their bottom lines. With irate calls and emails pouring into City Hall, Hodges said in mid-October that the plan’s work scheduling provisions would be shelved, at least temporarily, while policymakers took a fresh look at that issue. Then, a week later she announced that action on the sick leave requirements would also be delayed, pending a review of those requirements by a locally appointed task force.

Hodges is not the first Minneapolis mayor to face a political pushback for making worker rights the centerpiece of a municipal agenda. Nearly 100 years ago, another civic activist was elected to the top post in City Hall after drawing attention to the large gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in Minneapolis.

When he was elected mayor in 1916, Thomas Van Lear represented a sharp break in the string of mainly wealthy businessmen who preceded him in office.

Neither wealthy nor a businessman

Hennepin County Public Special Collections
Thomas Van Lear

Van Lear was not wealthy and he was not a businessman. He had been a skilled factory worker and union organizer before his election in 1916. But it was his political affiliation that set him apart from his mainly Republican predecessors. Minneapolis’ newly elected mayor was an avowed socialist, a label that greatly disturbed the city’s conservative business leaders.

Van Lear had run for the city’s highest office twice before. Both times, he had come close to toppling establishment candidates. During those earlier campaigns, the labor activist had used his powerful oratory to build a loyal following in Minneapolis’ working-class neighborhoods.

In 1914, he told a group of enthusiastic supporters “when fat, slick, well-dressed men, who never missed a meal in their lives, come down here and tell you workingmen that you should be patient and satisfied with things as they are, I think you ought to tell them to go to hell!”

A focus on fares

As mayor, Van Lear had few policy levers he could pull in an effort to promote workers’ rights. But he and the members of the Minneapolis City Council were able to weigh in on one issue that greatly affected the pocket books of Minneapolis residents: the fare they paid each day to ride the street car to and from work.

In the early years of the 20th century, the privately owned Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) operated the streetcar system in Minneapolis and St. Paul under franchises granted by both cities. 

In 1916, TCRT and its franchise had emerged as a major issue in Van Lear’s mayoral campaign. That year, Minneapolis officials were preparing to renegotiate the city’s agreement, which had been scheduled to expire in 1923. Under the terms of a new state law, the city and the company were able to negotiate a new agreement prior to 1923 if both parties chose to do so.

The election-year controversy revolved around the value of the TCRT’s assets, which determined the rate of return the company was entitled to receive under any new franchise agreement. The company’s prescribed profit, in turn, helped determine the streetcar fare paid by TCRT’s riders. During the campaign, Van Lear maintained that the company had artificially inflated the value of its property by more than $20 million in order to maximize its profits.

In his inaugural address on Jan. 2, 1917, the newly installed mayor called for an outside valuation of TCRT’s property and an option to convert the streetcar system to public ownership. Van Lear’s address also dealt with the need for publicly managed employment bureaus that could provide free job referral services for the unemployed.

War fever and political attacks

Van Lear had hoped to focus on the workers agenda outlined in his inaugural address, but only months after taking office, he was faced with a major new issue that cast a shadow over his administration when the U.S. declared war on Germany.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A campaign poster supporting Van Lear

As war fever swept through the country, Van Lear found himself under attack from his political opponents, who equated his ties to the anti-war socialists with disloyalty that bordered on treason.

Van Lear was careful to voice support for the war effort even while criticizing those big-business interests that sought to benefit from it, but he was not willing to disavow the Socialist Party platform that called the war “a crime against the people of the United States.”

In 1918, as he sought a second mayoral term, Van Lear campaigned with former Rep. Charles Lindbergh, the father of the famous aviator. That year, the elder Lindbergh was running to unseat Minnesota’s incumbent governor in the Republican primary, with backing from the agrarian-based Nonpartisan League.

Addressed the loyalty issue

During an increasingly bitter city election campaign, Van Lear tried to deflect the loyalty issue by charging that his opponents were using the issue as a cover to defeat him because of his views on economic issues. “They had to have some excuse to defeat the working-class candidate so they say this fellow Van Lear is not quite loyal,” he told his supporters at a campaign rally at the Minneapolis Auditorium.

In the end, Van Lear’s socialist ties proved to be his political millstone, and he was narrowly defeated for re-election in November, only a week before the armistice brought an end to World War I.

Thomas Van Lear may have served only one term as mayor but he helped lay the foundation for a progressive urban rural alliance that would evolve into Minnesota’s Farmer Labor movement. Today, his legacy is reflected in the name of Minneapolis’ dominant political organization, the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, which claims Minneapolis’ current mayor and 12 of her 13 City Council colleagues as its members. 

An earlier version of this article appeared in the summer 2015  issue of Minnesota History.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Michael Hess on 10/30/2015 - 11:32 am.

    An alternative interpretation

    The point of the article appears to be that this is not new. An alternative interpretation would be “You need to go back a hundred years to when the Minneapolis was lead by an an avowed socialist as Mayor to find as much pushback as seen now over the Working Families Agenda”.

  2. Submitted by Bill Willy on 10/30/2015 - 03:51 pm.

    Opposition from Whom?

    This thing is a lot like the Wizard of Oz.

    “But over the next few months, the mayor watched opposition to the Working Families Agenda build as local business owners began to assess the impact of the plan on their bottom lines. With irate calls and emails pouring into City Hall, Hodges said in mid-October that the plan’s work scheduling provisions would be shelved, at least temporarily, while policymakers took a fresh look at that issue.”

    Irate calls and emails pouring into City Hall.

    Really. How many?

    And, if the people whose lives would be impacted positively by the proposed changes, and all the people that sympathized or empathized with them, emailed and called City Hall to express THEIR “outrage” at “being abandoned,” how many messages might THAT have amounted to?

    I hate to sound like a broken record, but the Mayor, City Council members, and everyone that’s getting yanked around and taken advantage of by “irate business owners” should always remember these basic statistics:

    There are 500,000 business owners in Minnesota; and

    There are right around 2,500,000 employees in Minnesota.

    In other words, there are at least FIVE TIMES more non-business owning voters in the state as a whole, and that ratio is likely much higher in the “Metro area.”

    Yet it seems it’s the “irate business owners” that have “forced” Mayor Hodges to “put things on hold” and “take a closer look.”

    Why? Because business owners lives might be made a little less comfortable? Because their stress rates might go up a little? What did they say to convince the Mayor it would be a huge mistake to make them treat the people that help them make THEIR (relatively comfortable) living fairly and decently? Did they threaten to not vote for her next time around? Did they tell her the compelling story of how they would suffer, suffer, suffer, and, “very likely,” be forced to close their doors and become rank-and-file employees themselves?

    Yeah… Like THAT’s gonna happen.

    I know no one that thinks about these things needs any reminders, but here’s the basic way in which the Wizard of Oz things work:

    House Republican big shot smart people like (MN ALEC chairperson) Pat Garofalo;

    go to ALEC “getaways” to get their marching orders and legislation templates that they bring back to the state; where they

    start blabbing standard “conservative Republican” you-know-what about whatever it is; and,

    because they were able to fool “Outstate” voters into believing, “Metro people are getting EVERYthing from the DFL and you are getting NOTHING! (And, pssssst psssssst, by the way, don’t forget they voted for getting rid of your right to discriminate against gay people)”; they

    won the House; and

    people like P. Girafolobo start burying things that are based on things like ALEC’s “Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act” (from its readily available collection of “Model Legislation” pieces)

    http://www.alec.org/model-legislation/living-wage-mandate-preemption-act/

    (Main “Model Legislation” collection address: http://www.alec.org/model-legislation/);

    in things like the “sprawling omnibus job growth and energy affordability finance bill” (which, by the way, included a lower minimum wage for tipped workers); and

    pass them out of the House.

    http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/sessiondaily/SDView.aspx?StoryID=5740

    And then, when people like Mayor Hodges come up with ideas — or worse, actual PLANS — about how to help make non-business-owning people’s working and regular lives more tolerable and a hair more equitable, the MN ALEC/GOP/Chamber of Commerce phone tree/email list managers swing into (“Code Red!!!”) action and (strongly) encourage the small business owning foot soldiers of the Metro to swing into action by bombarding City Hall with an unequivocal display of the totally irate state she’s put them in with her business crushing, job killing proposal.

    “The Democratic Farmer Labor Party claims Minneapolis’ current mayor and 12 of her 13 City Council colleagues as its members.”

    500,000 business owners; 2,500,000 employees in Minnesota.

    Who’s that behind the curtain? Don’t be afraid. Go ahead. Pull it back and find out if it’s possible to stand up against whoever it turns out to be. What’s the worst that could happen? Things would stay the same? Or do you believe whoever it is really MIGHT go out of business so they could get a cushy regular job like yours, or leave the state, or, if Minneapolis was audacious enough to actually PASS something as ridiculous as the “Working Families Agenda,” contact City Hall with some REALLY strongly worded irate messages and, worst case, vow to never ever vote for a DFL mayoral candidate again?

    ALEC, by the way, stands for the “American Legislative Exchange Council,” and, if you’re not familiar, you can read all about the deeply American service they’re providing here:

    http://www.alecexposed.org/wiki/ALEC_Exposed

    And while we’re at it, here’s a link to a list of Minnesota legislators that are card-carrying ALEC members:

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Minnesota_ALEC_Politicians

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 10/31/2015 - 10:09 am.

    Basically Hodges said the old idea “if you worked hard you could get ahead is a myth especially for low-income and people of color”. Typical liberal talk, the translation is don’t bother working hard and only I, a liberal, will help you with more welfare or 15 bucks an hour for any job. There is no talk of out working someone, getting more educated, get a skill that pays (welding, electrical, plumbing), no optimism no forward thinking (tax free zones for startups) just more woe is unto you and I’m here to give you something for free…… Nothing is free.
    The only way to enslave a people is to take away their hope. Folks with hope and dreams will not be held down by negative talk or the naysaying of others. I’m old enough to remember Jimmy Carter telling us our time was over and mediocracy was now America’s future in the late 70’s (i was a liberal back then) only to be followed by Ronald R and a resurgence in jobs, hope and improved living for millions.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/31/2015 - 02:59 pm.

    When You Can’t Bring Yourself to Fight For What You Believe in

    or to fight on behalf of those in need of protection that you are completely capable of providing,…

    you’re expressing a psychological dysfunction programmed into you by families, friends, communities, and churches who beat out of you (literally or figuratively, likely with kid gloves),…

    the ability to use your own best judgment in making choices,…

    if doing so made someone else feel sad or hurt.

    You were programmed to be completely unable to EVER make anyone feel bad.

    This is one of the reasons why “conservatives” now so often win in America.

    “Liberals” and even “moderates” can’t bear to make them feel bad by standing up to them.

    Mayor Hodges and the Minneapolis City council have just demonstrated that exact dysfunction for all the world to see.

    Any hope of their enacting a just and progressive agenda for Minneapolis is clearly going to bring a lot of disappointment.

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