Tevlin: This weekend we celebrate the laborer. How's that working out for you?

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2014 - 9:50 PM

Cue the John Philip Sousa music and commence with the underwear sales. Throw a cheddar brat on the Weber and dig out Granddad’s union buttons: It is time to celebrate the American worker.

Or is it?

Labor Day was conceived to mark the turbulent and sometimes violent history of the labor movement, but as the impact of unions has waned, the day has turned into a vague nod to people who punch the clock. Well, except for those who still have to punch the clock to staff the inevitable Labor Day widget sale.

But it is a good time to ask whether the past year has been a good one or a bad one for the general Minnesota worker.

“It’s probably been an OK year for workers in Minnesota — could have been better, could have been worse,” said John Budd, professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

Budd said the state has seen “mixed trends — job growth and lower unemployment, but not necessarily in high-paying jobs with family-friendly schedules, combined with persistent levels of inequality.”

Kris Jacobs, executive director for Jobs Now Coalition, which tracks job markets and advocates for a living wage, sees glimmers of hope in 2014.

“The most exciting thing to me is the ability to talk about wages,” said Jacobs. “We talk about our sex lives and health, but talking about money is taboo. We just didn’t have somebody saying that wages are just too low and having people pay attention to it.

“It’s so tied up with what we are and who we are, there’s a tremendous benefit to being able to talk openly about wages.”

Jacobs said the fight to raise the minimum wage, the successful (so far) battle to allow home health care workers to unionize and public restaurant issues all pushed the idea of wages to the forefront.

One pizza company made national news when it voluntarily hiked its workers’ wages substantially, and a restaurant group that started charging its servers for credit card fees on their tips later changed that policy and raised wages instead, due to adverse public reaction.

Another highlight was the end of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, said Budd.

Aaron Sojourner, assistant professor at Carlson School of Management, said that “compared to surrounding states, we are doing pretty well, with North Dakota as the outlier because of oil.”

Conditions for workers “are on the upswing; not as strong as anyone would like, but much better than a few years ago,” said Sojourner. “The rise of minimum wage is good news for people on the low end of the job market, but it’s coming out of somebody’s pocket.”

“Health is a foundation of your income, and it’s not a trivial matter,” said Sojourner, “so there is more security” because of expanded health care.

Sojourner also said three local issues reflect what’s happening nationally. The St. Paul teachers’ “innovative and constructive” negotiations with the school district got noticed by CNN and Forbes, and are being copied.

Also, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha successfully helped subcontracted Target janitors get better working conditions.

“This is a really symbolic solution to a huge, important problem,” said Sojourner. Especially “in a fissured workplace where it’s hard to know, who is my boss?”

Third, the unionization of personal-care attendants was big because that’s where jobs are heading as technology replaces workers.

“The economy is shifting to what people are good at,” said Sojourner. “We’re good at human interaction and taking care of each other. We don’t need 60 percent of people growing food anymore. That frees up a lot of people.”

“The minimum wage increase and home health care workers unionization victory have the potential to be good for workers,” said Budd. “But they are shrouded in controversy and uncertainty. For example, will some businesses cut back on hiring because of the higher minimum wage? What will the home health care union be able to accomplish?”

Budd adds that local professionals have not been immune to corporate layoffs or restructurings, such as those at Thomson Reuters.

Budd summed up what the other labor experts noted: that worker gains looked pretty meager compared to that of executives and higher-tier workers. Studies still show the gap between the poorest and wealthiest getting bigger.

“We only have to look at [Friday’s] paper for another example — Medtronic paying $63 million to ‘help’ its executives with taxes,” said Budd. “Once again, it was a better year to be an executive than a regular worker.”

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin

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