Workers must share in hometown business’s success

by John Van Hecke
Special to Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

When customers come into Apple Valley’s Target store, they expect sparkling aisles, neat eating areas, and clean bathrooms. Enrique Barcenas is one of the folks who works to ensure this home state company looks its best when the doors open each morning. He is an overnight janitor for Prestige Cleaning, which Target hired to clean this store.

It’s hard work, but important work for Enrique, who lives in Farmington and shares expenses with his nieces and nephews, trying to stretch his $8 an hour salary to the max. It’s not nearly enough to keep up with basic needs. In fact, wage stagnation is a serious problem not just for workers at the bottom-end of the wage scale but for the economy as a whole. The minimum wage, which sets the floor for salaries overall, is falling behind living standards fast. Had it kept pace with inflation from the late 1960s, the minimum wage would be well over $10.

Enrique is organizing with retail janitors across the Twin Cities together with the Center of Workers United in Struggle (CTUL for its acronym in Spanish) to demand respect. After multiple phone calls, letters and delegations to their companies, workers have only been met with increasing reports of retaliation. Workers have been left with no choice but to bring this issue to public light through two recent strikes demanding the right to organize without fear of retaliation.

Enrique, hundreds of retail janitors in the Twin Cities, and thousands of low-wage workers around the country are at the forefront of a movement for change. It is time for labor law to catch up with today’s economic reality and with the actions of low-wage workers both nationally and locally. Here in Minnesota, Enrique and CTUL are part of a coalition calling on Minnesota policymakers to come through with a $9.50 minimum wage, which is currently awaiting debate at the state Legislature.

Enrique is one of more than 30,000 Minnesota Hispanics who would see a positive impact from a $9.50 an hour minimum wage. This increase would boost purchasing power by $43 million for the Hispanic community, according to findings from a recent JOBS NOW analysis.  It would increase total purchasing power by nearly half-a-billion dollars.

The extra money would help workers like Enrique pay for daily necessities at locally-owned stores like Target, and main street shops. JOBS NOW Cost of Living research shows that in a family of four with two full-time working parents and two children, each parent needs to earn at least $14 an hour to meet even basic needs.

Raising the wage is also important for the state’s broader workforce because its economic rebound has been heavily fueled by low-wage service sector jobs. Forty-five percent of all Minnesota’s recent job openings are part-time, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s latest jobs vacancy survey, up from pre-recession levels that ranged in the mid to high 30s.

Since 2000, Minnesota’s median household income has declined roughly $5,000 in 2011 dollars, according to census figures. This is also a symptom of growing suburban poverty, fueled by not only low-wage workers moving to suburbs for lower-cost housing, but by middle-class workers who’ve lost jobs and wealth.

In the last decade, Minnesota’s suburbs have been hit particularly hard. From 1999 to 2012, the number of people in poverty grew by 130 percent in the suburbs (to 170,000), compared with growth rates of 39 percent in Minneapolis and 47 percent in St. Paul, according to Wilder Research’s analysis of American Community Survey Data.

The state as a whole must find a way to create more openings that require advanced training. According to the latest DEED job vacancy survey, only 42 percent of job openings require education or training beyond high school, down from 44 percent from four years ago. Openings requiring a four-year degree have dropped from 29 percent to 25 percent.

The market has failed working Minnesotans like Enrique, by not setting wages to keep pace with basic living expenses. This is ironically happening at the same time Minnesota’s richest have bounced back from the Great Recession at an accelerated pace. On Black Friday, Enrique and many other retail janitors in the Twin Cities are planning a large action calling on contracted companies that clean Target and other stores to respect workers’ rights to organize (www.ctul.net).

Enrique and thousands of other low-wage workers are stepping up to demand a change at their companies and nationwide. It’s time for policymakers to do their part by evening the playing field so that all Minnesotans prosper. A $9.50 minimum wage policy is one way of bringing fairness back to our economy.

John Van Hecke is Minnesota 2020 executive director. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.

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