Jobs, not jails: Laborers call for $1.5 billion jobs bill, plus police and criminal justice reform

Lawmakers back for a special session next week should pass an infrastructure bill and do something about criminal justice reform, too

July 9, 2020 6:00 am

Photo by Getty Images.

Minnesotans deserve a $1.5 billion infrastructure bill to support local jobs and projects.

When lawmakers reconvene for a second special legislative session next week, we expect them to pass that public works bill, known at the Capitol as a “bonding bill” And they must also address the crucial need for criminal justice and police accountability reform. Both sets of legislation will furnish us with an extraordinary potential to chart a new path forward for a more fair, equitable and prosperous Minnesota. 

The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) in Minnesota represents and serves over 12,000 skilled construction laborers and their family members. In the Twin Cities metropolitan area alone, LIUNA membership includes more than 1,000 people of color and 600 women who are skilled and trained journey and apprentice laborers.

Our union was founded by immigrants, and our strength comes from our diverse and multiracial membership. For over 100 years, our brothers and sisters have fought for systemic transformation and racial equality. We continue to stand in solidarity with the movement to advance workers’ rights and civil rights, as they are one in the same. 

As we come to grips with pandemic-induced construction slowdown across the state, LIUNA is doing everything we can to keep our members safe and working. More than 400 LIUNA Minnesota members are out of work, with a fluctuating number facing reduced hours or unemployment. Without a large infrastructure bill — which could create up to 30,000 jobs statewide — our out-of-work list would likely grow into the thousands, as many current construction projects are wrapping up and new ones face delay. 

The bonding bill is a critical lifeline that will help thousands of our neighbors keep their lights on, put food on the table and maintain health coverage. In light of how the pandemic has exacerbated racial health and wealth disparities in Minnesota, the bonding bill should be viewed as a critical tool to advance equity and economic opportunity for historically marginalized communities.

Public construction projects often create entry points and career opportunities for construction workers from underrepresented communities. An estimated 30 percent of LIUNA members on the bench self-identify as people of color and/or women. Additionally, of the 2,729 currently registered LIUNA apprentices, 23 percent identify as people of color and/or women. These members are among the workers who will benefit from women and minority workforce goals that apply to bonding projects. 

This next special session is an unparalleled opportunity for legislators to lead and make progress on stamping out institutional racism and creating good construction jobs that will provide family-sustaining wages for working Minnesotans. We are long overdue to see meaningful police reform and community infrastructure and jobs funding. Now is the time for the Legislature to do right by Minnesotans to meet our communities’ growing needs, including rebuilding neighborhoods affected by civil unrest, and to take swift and bold action on criminal justice reform as advocated by Minnesota’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus.

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Joel Smith
Joel Smith

Joel Smith is the president and business manager of LIUNA Minnesota and North Dakota, which is based in Saint Paul and serves the members, families and retirees of five locals.