Minnesota Alignment Tables and a Path Toward Governing Power

Organizers across the country have looked to the evolution of organizing in Minnesota over the last decade to think about how to orient toward governing power. While no one would claim that Minnesota’s power-building organizations achieved governing power in the state, their innovations in strategy, alliance-building, power analysis and working across different arenas of power does provide a helpful reference for others who are beginning to explore building governing power in their own context.

In 2011, organizers launched Minnesotans for a Fair Economy (MFE), which focused primarily on corporate campaigns. By 2012, the group had broadened its scope to statewide electoral and legislative work. By 2017-18, MFE had evolved into two new formations.  One is an alliance of working class power-building organizations of color called Tending the Soil.  The other had a broader membership than MFE and a goal to build a co-governing relationship with the state’s next governor.  This formation was named Our Minnesota Future.

The nucleus of Minnesotans for a Fair Economy was comprised of seven organizations:

  • Three SEIU Locals: Local 26 (private sector janitors, security guards and window cleaners), (now named Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa, representing workers in health care and home care), and Local 284 (public school workers); 
  • ISAIAH, a multi-racial statewide faith-based organization with an affiliated c(4) called Faith in Minnesota
  • TakeAction Minnesota, a statewide multi-issue, multi-constituency organization of institutional and individual members, with a focus on electoral politics and state legislation; 
  • Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a workers’ center with a strong corporate analysis, primarily made up of Latinx and Black low-wage workers, and; 
  • Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), a Black-led direct action community organization. NOC folded as an organization in 2017.

Forming Minnesotans for a Fair Economy

SEIU’s local affiliates took the lead in organizing the groups under the banner of Minnesotans for a Fair Economy when they decided to share the resources that they received through SEIU International’s Fight for a Fair Economy campaign. It’s important to underline how crucial and unusual this was. SEIU’s international organization offered its local affiliates millions of dollars which they could control within the parameters of the national campaign. In nearly all of the 17 cities targeted by FFE, locals used these resources to run a campaign or to start a new organization that they controlled. In Minnesota, SEIU’s locals decided not only to offer substantial grants to its local partners but also to share decision-making power over how those resources were allocated. 

MFE’s strategy was to synchronize the different campaigns that each of the groups were leading around common “compression points” so that they could more effectively move their targets through public action. To do this, the groups had to identify and share their campaign goals, targets and timelines with each other. They looked for ways that they could mutually benefit from working together on bigger public fights, including the use of direct action skills that were familiar to CTUL, NOC and Local 26 but were newer to some of the other groups.

MFE’s early meetings were different from typical coalition meetings; the groups were not there just to win another campaign, but to get stronger and to see that the other groups at the table got stronger, too. The conversations weren’t only about what they wanted to win. They were also about what they wanted to build—inside each organization and across organizations. This was a key reason that the collective invested heavily in CTUL and NOC.  These organizations were newer, smaller and based in communities of color, and had equal decision-making authority around resources, strategy and tactics. The other more established groups, which were mostly white-led, made this dynamic a priority because they knew they could not get far if they were not aligned with Black and Latinx communities for political action. This was an early step toward building majoritarian power. 

MFE’s resources were spent in two ways. First, significant general operating grants were made to each group in the alignment. The groups used those resources to expand their capacity as well as to fund existing campaigns that supported the overall goals of MFE’s work. Second, the groups agreed that they would be more effective if they had staff that could be flexibly deployed to different campaigns across the alignment at peak moments. They used MFE resources to build a “mobile team” of six to eight researchers, organizers and communicators. The size of this mobile team, combined with the experience of its director-level staff, added significant capacity to the alignment and was able to offer strategic leadership to the campaigns it supported.

The MFE alignment operated at three important levels that deepened the connections between the organizations. The first level was that of institutional leadership, where executive directors and principal officers met to negotiate resource decisions. Practically, this meant the groups made decisions together about how they would spend the substantial resources that SEIU’s national organization had invested in the alignment, including decisions about how to direct the work of a mobile team. Second, organizing directors and other staff leaders met to devise and operationalize strategy. This was where the nitty-gritty of planning and tactics were negotiated. At the third level, the members and constituent leaders of the groups engaged in strategic analysis and political formation, and executed major strategies. MFE developed leadership schools for its members, and when planning a week of action, 20-40 member-leaders would be asked to play leading roles in executing the week’s cascade of direct actions and campaign events. Before, during and after the week of action, these leaders would participate in political education, learn about each other’s campaign demands and participate in narrative work that connected their actions to the larger systems they were working to change.

MFE in Action

The MFE groups started out asking questions like ”Where can we all show up and demonstrate the power we have?” and “How can we build more power together?” This is when they undertook a governing power analysis. First, MFE worked with each organization, individually and in group settings, to understand the role and power of capital in Minnesota. A mobile team researcher dug in and uncovered the state’s “Dirty Dozen” CEOs. This included folks like Stephen Hemsely, CEO of UnitedHealthcare, who made $109 million himself in 2009 and who fought the affordable parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Or Gregg Steinhafel, CEO of Target, who made $21 million in 2011 and gave a $150,000 contribution to an anti-gay marriage campaign. MFE found out that there was significant overlap between the Dirty Dozen’s corporate governance structures; that is, they sat on each other’s boards. They also shared control of business associations and think tanks like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Business Partnership and Center for the American Experiment. These groups adopted the neoliberal agenda and made it specific to Minnesota: deregulation of business, tax cuts, and opposition to nearly all forms of public investment. MFE also looked into the political spending of the Dirty Dozen (and the groups they controlled) in order to understand what influence these CEOs had over various elected officials. 

This analysis equipped MFE to do several things. First, it helped them see that the groups were often fighting the same opponents across their various campaigns. Second, it allowed them to make the strategic shift of focusing more of their resources on the Dirty Dozen, and fewer on the elected officials that carried out their bidding. For example, the MFE groups decided to spend less time pressuring the Minnesota congressional representatives who opposed the ACA and instead, conducted civil disobedience at the corporate headquarters of UnitedHealthCare. This shone a light directly on UnitedHealthCare CEO, Stephen Hemsly, and exposed the profit motive behind his opposition to the ACA. Third, the governing power analysis they developed helped the groups tell a common story about what they were up against, why they needed each other, and what they had to do. This was especially important for developing political education spaces that could connect the members of the MFE groups to each other. Fourth, the governing power analysis helped MFE identify new allies who faced the same opponents and were fighting similar fights. For example, MFE started working with the Land Stewardship Project, an organization of predominantly white farmers and rural residents that had a long track record of fighting back against corporate power that was exploiting rural communities and degrading the land. 

Targeting Target 

One step toward developing a shared governing agenda was MFE’s work to take on Target Corporation, a major power-player in the state and a Fortune 50 company. A number of MFE member organizations already had fights that were directed at Target. TakeAction Minnesota had a campaign to pass state legislation to ban the criminal history box from private sector job applications. They decided to focus on getting Target to lead other corporations by example and “ban the box” on their job applications. CTUL had a campaign to win a responsible contractor policy that would ensure subcontracted retail cleaners had the right to choose if they wanted union representation. ISAIAH had a campaign to move Target to fulfill its promises of job creation in the African immigrant community where its new corporate campus was located. SEIU Local 26 had already unionized the custodial and security subcontractors that cleaned Target’s headquarters. 

The MFE groups agreed to sequence the timing and negotiations of their campaigns in a way that could build pressure on Target to negotiate over each organizations’ demands. For example, Local 26 was in tense contract negotiations with the companies that Target subcontracted to clean its downtown offices. It decided to time its impending strike to coincide with the pressure that the other groups were building on Target; this allowed Local 26 to more effectively build pressure on the subcontractor companies it was negotiating with as well. The MFE groups knew that their alliance would be tested when it came time to negotiate with Target. So, well before negotiations took place, they agreed that if one of the groups had the opportunity to settle its demands before the others, it could do so. But no organization could speak for another or ask others to stand down. 

MFE unified its demands with a week of action focused on Target. SEIU held a one-day strike. CTUL led walkouts by retail store cleaners. TakeAction Minnesota led a direct action that took over the lobby of Target’s corporate headquarters with 300 MFE activists. Target agreed to a meeting to discuss banning the box on the spot. This was the first step toward successfully pushing Target to ban the box for all of its 350,000 employees nationwide. Meanwhile, Target came to the table with CTUL and began negotiations that would lead to a requirement of “labor peace” for its subcontracted store cleaners. This would open the door for SEIU to organize those janitors into their union, raising standards for wages and benefits. Each group benefited from the strategies and tactics of the others and collectively they achieved much, much more than they could have on their own. They also grew closer with one another and hungrier for the next fight, which they found in the electoral arena with a campaign to defeat a voter ID amendment in 2012.

MFE in the electoral arena

While the fight with Target in Minneapolis was unfolding, Republicans in the state legislature had put an amendment on the ballot that introduced a new voter ID requirement. At the time, the amendment was polling at 80% public support. The MFE groups entered the electoral arena to defeat that amendment, after other electoral groups, including the state Democratic party, shied away from this sure-to-be-difficult fight. MFE chose to weigh in on voter rights because it was a clear racial justice issue and because the success of the amendment would mean a devastating shift in structural power for the members that their organizations represented. They also saw it as an opportunity to build independent political infrastructure, including a statewide base, to develop stronger communications capacity and to establish more sophisticated shared data systems. 

Outside of in-kind donations of staff from the MFE member groups (who made up nearly the entirety of the campaign’s staff), and office space from SEIU Healthcare, the campaign had almost no money. But because of the early investment that the MFE groups had made in the initiative, it did have a robust field campaign, rooted in an analysis that connected the dots between voter suppression, corporate power and structural racism. Against long odds, the voter ID amendment was defeated in Minnesota, and the Republican majorities in the legislature were thrown out. The governor and other political power players in the state credited the groups in the MFE alignment as being instrumental in the defeat of the amendment, marking their emergence as more serious players in state politics. 

MFE in the legislative arena

The MFE groups saw a big opening to pass progressive legislation with Democrats, who were in control of the state legislature after a wave of voter sentiment in defense of LGBTQ+ and voting rights had swept many of them into office. TakeAction Minnesota’s campaign to ban the box from all private sector job applications quickly gained ground. A TakeAction Minnesota member-leader, St. Rep. Ray Dehn, who himself had a criminal record, authored its bill in the State House of Representatives. He was a key strategic ally and successfully navigated the bill to pass that chamber. But in the State Senate, the bill was stopped by the opposition of business groups. TakeAction Minnesota leveraged its newly-established relationship with Target, asking the corporation to sway the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to drop its opposition to the bill. Target agreed to ask the Chamber to stand down, and the Chamber changed its stance that same day. The bill quickly passed out of committee and was soon signed into law.

MFE groups led or were key players in a number of other legislative advancements in that period, including raising the state minimum wage, closing corporate tax loopholes, establishing collective bargaining rights for 20,000 home care workers, passing a homeowners bill of rights, expanding public health care access and more. Throughout these policy fights, MFE groups continued to organize protests, direct action and earned media events to pressure Democratic legislators to meet their demands.

Learning lessons: the path to co-governance

As state legislative work was advancing, new opportunities for the MFE formation emerged in Minneapolis. With the help of TakeAction and SEIU, longtime TakeAction Minnesota member, Betsy Hodges, defeated an establishment opponent to become the mayor of Minneapolis. Hodges, a white woman, ran and won on a platform of advancing racial equity. She placed several MFE leaders on her transition committee. But the MFE groups did not have a clear governing agenda in place to move with Hodges, and they were slow to approach her with an ask. 

After several months, the MFE groups brought the Working Families Agenda to Hodges, which included paid sick days, scheduling reforms, a $15/hr minimum wage, and a co-enforcement strategy to combat wage theft once the package entered the administrative arena. Hodges backed the plan and announced it in her State of the City address in her second year in office. 

But MFE allies were not aligned on the strategy to win the package. Some organizations saw Hodges as an ally and co-strategist. Others felt that she should be pushed publicly, and they sided with some of her opponents on the city council. When employee-scheduling reforms were introduced, the organized backlash from restaurant owners was swift and fierce. It caught MFE and the mayor flat-footed. Ultimately, Hodges decided to drop the employee-scheduling reforms from the package without notifying her MFE allies.

In November 2015, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, an unarmed, Black man, blocks from its 4th precinct. Black Lives Matter protesters, including many members of the MFE groups, occupied the 4th police precinct for nearly three weeks. Some MFE groups participated in an occupation of Mayor Hodges’ office, and others publicly called her out for not having done enough to address Minneapolis’ corrupt police culture. The occupation of the precinct eventually ended, but tensions between Hodges and racial justice protesters persisted.

By the end of 2017, MFE and Hodges had successfully passed nearly all of their agenda: NOC and CTUL led the fight and won a $15/hr minimum wage, Minneapolis became the first midwestern city to pass paid sick days, and groundbreaking wage-theft legislation gave CTUL access to city resources to enforce the ordinance and to train workers on their rights. 

However, Hodges lost her reelection campaign. She faced opponents to her left, including St. Rep. Ray Dehn, who criticized Hodges for not having done enough to advance her signature issue of racial equity. TakeAction, who had supported Hodges in her first election, did not support her reelection bid, in part because its members were divided between Hodges and Dehn. In the meantime, Jacob Frey, a moderate Democrat aligned with downtown business interests and the police union, criticized Hodges for moving too far and too fast on racial equity, and defeated her. Hodges’ loss was a significant lost opportunity for progressives in Minneapolis and for the MFE alignment. 

Minnesotans for a Fair Economy Evolves

MFE began to evolve after Hodges’ defeat, as new power-building opportunities appeared at the state level. Starting in late 2017, CTUL organized Tending the Soil, an alignment table of working class, power-building organizations of color in Minneapolis. In 2020, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the uprising that followed, Tending the Soil began driving redevelopment efforts that centered working class people of color while building long-term organizing infrastructure. It is currently working to build a shared agenda across its member organizations, which include SEIU Local 26, New Justice Project, Unidos Minnesota and Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia.  

Around the time that Tending the Soil was being formed, MFE’s statewide groups were also evolving into a new, broader formation called Our Minnesota Future (OMF). Under the OMF banner, MFE invited other statewide groups to work together to influence the gubernatorial primary and to advance a co-governance strategy. Member-leaders were enrolled in multiple political education programs and joined mass meetings to understand the structures of governance that they would need to win in order to set the agenda, and to learn more about the strategies they would need to deploy to get there. As part of its co-governance strategy, the OMF groups screened and recommended more than 120 member-leaders and allies to serve in the next governor’s administration. Ultimately, the candidate most OMF preferred fell short in the gubernatorial primary and their political power with the new administration was initially muted. Nevertheless, two of OMF’s key allies were appointed to the new governor’s cabinet and others were appointed to key administrative posts. 

OMF’s (and MFE’s) work toward co-governance evolved into a close strategic relationship with Democratic caucus leadership in the State House and Senate through the Minnesota Values Project. Minnesota Values Project was an initiative started by a former TakeAction board member and staff member who was elected to the State House. Starting in 2019, community groups, labor unions and legislative allies met regularly to strategize around narrative, issue priorities, and advocacy inside and outside the state capitol. Much of what the group was able to accomplish in this time is reflected in the House Democratic Caucus’s Top 10 Bills from 2019 to 2022, which includes paid time to care (Paid Family and Medical Leave + Earned Sick & Safe Time), wage-theft prevention and enforcement, rural broadband expansion, and investments in early childhood and education. In 2023, Democrats will have legislative majorities in both the State House and Senate and many of these bills stand a good chance of passing.   

MFE evolved in other important ways too. ISAIAH/Faith in Minnesota and SEIU anchor We Make Minnesota. This formation is driving an inclusive narrative meant to strengthen bonds across race and geography and is making the case for increased state revenue. 

To Sum It Up: 

Minnesota Alignment Table and a Path Toward Governing Power

Minnesotans for a Fair Economy did not start as an alliance to build governing power. It was a new and innovative formation meant to synchronize campaigns across different organizations and to identify common targets. This approach allowed the MFE groups to strategize and plan together in new ways and, in turn, to think bigger about the levers of power they would need to pull to advance their agenda.  

The MFE alignment made a significant impact. It won concrete victories for low-wage workers at the local and state level and it changed the policies of a Fortune 50 corporation multiple times. In Minneapolis, MFE built a close relationship with the mayor, which was instrumental in winning an increased minimum wage, wage-theft protections and paid sick days. At the state level, the groups led the defeat of a voter ID amendment and won multiple breakthroughs on progressive taxation, ban the box and more.

The groups’ path toward governing power was not linear and had many setbacks. They stumbled when trying to move their agenda in Minneapolis and lost the chance to win employee-scheduling reforms. Their mayoral ally lost her reelection campaign, in part because the alliance could not marshall its resources to back her. Our Minnesota Future did not initially succeed in powerfully positioning the groups with the incoming gubernatorial administration. But they did build a new strategic relationship with state legislators that could deliver significant results in the years to come.  

MFE demonstrated that organizing groups can align their strategies in new and powerful ways that achieve impactful victories and build power for the long-haul. While MFE has evolved into several other formations, its founding organizations—and many others—continue to carry forward many of its innovations, analysis and relationships with each other.