For downtown revival, remember the workers, too

August 24, 2023 7:30 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

I have lived in a downtown condo for nine years, and I love being part of this community. I appreciate being close to my work, access to great services and amenities, the fellowship of condo living and proximity to the Mississippi River. It is truly remarkable! I’m also an engaged 37 year resident of Minneapolis. 

Although we hear conversations about what needs to be done to improve downtown, we don’t hear enough about workers whose labor makes downtown possible. Policing, housing costs and climate justice are important, but for downtown and our city to thrive, we need to make sure the working people who make it run are supported. 

A case in point are recent developments at my home, The River Towers. The desk attendants, caretakers and others who make our building run have been publicly pushing for a fair process to have a union vote, which many residents have been publicly supporting from its inception. I believe that these jobs are essential, and they should be able to have the pay, benefits and voice on the job that they deserve. 

During that process, it came out that these workers had a “non-compete” agreement that was part of their paperwork when they started working this job. This would have meant that they couldn’t do similar work for an extended period of time if they left the job, which could be incredibly challenging if you’ve done this work for over a decade like many of the workers. Facing public pressure, their employer FirstService Residential Minnesota (formerly Gittleman) ended the practice in February as the Legislature was working to ban the practice. 

But as is often the case, the challenges facing workers were even more daunting than we realized. When my building’s homeowners association decided to switch from FirstService to another management company, we found out that there was a clause in our contract — which a recent Reformer article called a “shadow non-compete” — which said that the HOA could be sued if we kept on the staff in our building after switching management companies. This would mean because we decided to find a new company, people would not only lose their jobs, but we would lose people we’ve come to know, trust and rely on to keep our building safe and running. 

When faced with public pressure, FSR decided to not enforce the clause for a selection of workers. While this is good, and we are happy to keep our great staff in our building and not face legal costs, how many other workers face this same issue, both within this industry and in other fields? 

We know that many hourly workers are making wages that don’t keep up with inflation, benefits that don’t cover their needs, and work rules that require maximum flexibility on the part of the worker. The system feels rigged, and the more you look around, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t.  

If we’re going to make sure downtown Minneapolis bounces back and thrives, the conversations have to include how we are treating the workers who are the heartbeat of the city. That starts with ensuring workers in service jobs have a fair chance to form a union without a brutal fight. We know that unions improve wages and benefits, but they also provide security so these workers can have the confidence and experience to help be part of addressing the issues we are facing. 

If you’re working two jobs, or afraid you might lose your job if you bring up an issue, you might be less likely to share your thoughts, even if you’re an expert. I wish I could say the issues workers are facing in my building are unique, but they are not. They are happening in a number of industries throughout the city and in particular the service sector. 

I am glad we’re seeing positive movements in this specific instance for the workers in my building, but I hope in this moment of rising interest in workers and unions we can see broader pushes by all of us to stand up to unjust and unfair rules that are restricting so many of our friends and neighbors. 

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Wade Luneburg
Wade Luneburg

Wade Luneburg has been a Minneapolis resident for over 35 years and currently lives in River Towers on the edge of Downtown. Luneburg is the political director of UNITE HERE Local 17, Minnesota’s hospitality union, concentrating on worker-driven policy work.