Two protests on Black Friday – one at the downtown Minneapolis Target and another at the Midway Walmart in St. Paul – pulled large crowds to call attention to the low wages and poor working conditions written into the company cultures of the two corporations.
Early in the frigid Minneapolis morning, more than 40 retail custodial workers from over 40 different stores went on strike and several dozens more showed their support at the downtown Target. Later that morning and into the afternoon in St. Paul, several hundred protesters marched past the University Avenue Target and Walmart stores, eventually blocking an intersection, where 26 protesters were arrested.
Starting at 5:30 a.m. Friday morning, retail janitors on an unfair labor practice strike from CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha – The Center of Workers United in Struggle) and supporters gathered in front of the downtown Minneapolis Target on Nicollet Ave. They marched in a circle, holding brooms and banging drums in front of the main set of revolving doors as doorbuster shoppers meandered through a temporary metal gate to enter the store.
Aside from higher wages, the CTUL protest was focused on the workers' rights to organize and enter a dialogue with their contractors in order to improve the working conditions.
Maricela Flores, a janitor contracted by Target and single mother with four kids, spoke at the rally shortly after 8 a.m.
“We want to ask these companies that clean Target to hear us. And we are going to keep fighting until they do hear us,” Flores said. This was the third strike Flores had participated in. “We are the ones who make the holidays happen,” she added.
Alondra Cano, council member-elect from Ward 9 in Minneapolis, gave a short speech in Spanish to voice her support for the strikers. “I commit to you and I promise you that we will be out here doing everything that we can so that we can win – so that we can get Target to work to increase the minimum wage,” said Cano.
At the heels of Cano's tight political race against socialist candidate Ty Moore (who repeatedly advocated for a $15 minimum wage), the councilwoman elect was notably well-received by many protesters. “I've been talking to other state legislators about the minimum wage bill that is alive now, which is $9.50 in the House,” said Cano. “It's something that's imperative to recognize the hard work that our communities do.”
As the protest at Target ended, many strikers and supporters made arrangements to continue rallying at the Midway Walmart in St. Paul, as they saw the similarities in the low-wage struggle. One CTUL member, Veronica Mendez, was even willing to get arrested at the Walmart protest to support the cause.
“I’m willing to get arrested today because corporations this week are going to make $20 billion dollars while workers are still making poverty wages cleaning Target stores, working at Walmart, working at the airport,” said Mendez, minutes before she was taken into police custody.
OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) organizer Diana Tastad connected the two protests by stating, “Walmart is the world's largest employer and they set the standard for retail and since Target is Minnesota-based, it was great to hold both accountable for how they treat their employees.”
While the official number of rally marchers at the Walmart protest varied from 400 to 1,000 depending on the source, it was clear the attendance had risen exponentially from last year, which brought over 250 people, according to Tastad.
The march began at the intersection of Griggs St. and University Ave. with speeches from workers and supporters. Colorful flags depicting low-wage earners and reading, “End poverty wages in Minnesota,” were scattered across the large crowd as protesters marched around the nearby St. Paul Target and eventually stopped briefly in front of the Midway Walmart entrance.
When protesters reached the intersection of Snelling Ave. and University Ave., they marched in a circle, as St. Paul Police cars lined up blocking the intersection on all sides. The 26 dedicated enough to get arrested sat in a circle in the middle of the intersection, facing outwards with their arms linked.
Alex Kunau, a worker for Lunds and Byerly's, a UFCW organized store, was willing to get arrested because he saw the similarities between his job and the job of a Walmart worker – the only difference being that he is paid a living wage.
“There’s no reason why Walmart, the biggest company in the U.S., shouldn’t be able to pay a living wage to all its workers,” he said.
Jessica English, a minimum wage organizer at Take Action Minnesota and another arrestee, spoke at the rally about how for many years she earned poverty wages as a single mother, which led to her family becoming homeless. Before she was arrested she said, “My four daughters deserve to live in a country that totally respects them and believes in human dignity.”
The 26 people who took part in civil disobedience on Friday were cited for blocking traffic and released. Depending on a court's decision, they could each face up to a $300 fine, according to Diana Tastad.
Outside of Minnesota, the strength of support for higher wages seems to be growing as well. “Throughout the entire country, about 110 people were arrested in acts of civil disobedience calling on Walmart to pay their workers at least $25,000 a year,” said Tastad.
Low-wage workers, joined by labor and community allies, seek an end to poverty-level pay and a higher minimum wage.