Keeping Homegrown Worker Justice Legal in Minnesota

Keeping Homegrown Worker Justice Legal in Minnesota

David R. Weiss, February 6, 2017

Last year, in response to years of unsuccessful efforts to address issues of worker uptakejustice at the state level, local communities moved forward on their own. A coalition of labor, faith, and community groups, along with more than a handful of business owners pushed hard in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, leading to local ordinances that mandate earned sick and safe time for employees in these cities. The process was arduous and there were inevitable yet disappointing compromises along the way. Still, in both cities workers saw at least some justice coming just around the corner (both ordinance would go into effect beginning July 1, 2017).

But early in this legislative session bills were introduced in both the House and Senate that seek to “preempt” any local mandates that try to raise wages or benefits above state minimums. The bills (House File 600 and Senate File 580) reflect ALEC’s (American Legislative Exchange Council) conservative anti-worker agenda (and ALEC’s wording) and are being driven by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, other large business lobbyists, and a handful of vocal small business owners. They would not only ban laws like those passed in the Twin Cities, they would even undo the ones passed in 2016 by being retroactive to the start of last year. You can find a local new story about the bill here.

So the same groups that organized last year to push for local justice in the Twin Cities have come together again at the Capitol to speak truth to those in power. It is an oddly fulfilling and frustrating task. I testified at both a House committee hearing last Thursday and a Senate committee hearing today. Both times the galleries were packed — 300+ citizens in attendance, with voices opposed and bodies opposed outnumbering the bill supporters several times over. And both times the respective committee vote ran exactly along party line, moving the bills forward in each body. It seems certain that Governor Dayton will veto the bill even if it passes in floor votes in the House and Senate. But it remains a bit sobering to hear the impassioned calls for justice (and even for commonsense) that simply fall away when the votes are taken.

In any case, I testified at both hearings.

This was my testimony on Thursday in front of the House Jobs Committee. I had three minutes to speak.

(NOTE: you can see my testimony in this committee at the 46:30 mark in this video. It’s in the third hour of the hearing; this is part 2 of the videotape; I can’y imagine you want to see the whole thing, but if you do, part 1 is this video.)

My name is David Weiss. I’m Lutheran and I’m here with ISAIAH. Like many Minnesotans, I work several part-time jobs. And every penny counts.

For one job I deliver groceries in the Metro area. Last year, on the rare day I called in sick I lost $100 in wages. For me, that’s $100 of food, utilities, car repairs. It cost me dearly to call in sick. But not just me. I deliver groceries—to senior citizens. Many face their own health challenges. I’m often their main source of groceries. For some, I’m their only source.

Without paid sick time, when I got sick, I either gambled with my bills … or with my health, my clients’ health, and our community’s health. That changed last fall when my employer, a non-profit based in Roseville, added a sick-time benefit for part-time employees. The local initiatives in Minneapolis and Saint Paul helped start that conversation. Last October, when one of my grandchildren gave me Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, I became the first part-time employee in my workplace to benefit from sick pay, keeping my paycheck whole—and my clients healthy.

Through House File 600 powerful corporate interests hope to keep the bar for worker pay and benefits as low as possible statewide—even blocking local improvements that just passed last year.

But democracy works best at the local level. Social progress almost always begins locally. It’s where human dignity flourishes most, because locally it carries the face of our neighbors. It’s where businesses, sometimes eagerly, sometimes reluctantly, come to see that the claims of social justice are part of the cost of doing business in a just society.

Local governments, from the Twin Cities to Minnesota’s smallest towns, deserve the right to improve the well-being of the workers in their communities. That progress has started. And there are workers in every one of your districts who hope it reaches them soon. House File 600 is an attempt to preempt that justice. Don’t let that happen. Thank you.

Today, I had just 90 seconds (!) to address the Senate Jobs Committee. Here’s what I said:

(Note: you can see my testimony at the 1:09 mark — 1 hour, 9 minute — in this video.)

My name is David Weiss. I’m Lutheran and I’m here with ISAIAH.

Local initiatives matter. I get earned sick time today because my employer recently added that part-time benefit in response to the local initiatives in 2016. So this is personal.

But the bigger issue for me is justice. The racial gaps in Minnesota on household income, home ownership, and poverty are among the worst in the nation. Since the majority of Minnesotans of color live in the Twin Cities, the 2016 initiatives put these “Minnesotans first” … precisely where disparities are worst. In seeking to preempt local initiatives, this bill seeks to preempt social justice.

The plain truth is that the only real “uniformity” this bill maintains is keeping wages and benefits as uniformly low as possible for as long as possible — in a state where our racial disparities are not simply an embarrassing statistic but an obscene injustice to the people of color who call Minnesota home.

Senate File 580 takes aim at the well-being of those who are essential to the well-being of our state — even though they are often the most invisible members of our workforce and the most marginal members of our society.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, this bill is about grinding the face of the poor.

That is not my Minnesota. I hope it’s not yours either. Thank you for your time.

To my Minnesota readers: Please contact your state representatives and senators and let them now you support the right of local communities to seek worker justice and that you OPPOSE House File 600 and Senate File 580.

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