Twin Cities Unions and Community Groups Shine Super Bowl Spotlight on Corporate Exploitation

A coalition of Twin Cities unions and community organizations is using the spotlight generated by the Super Bowl to press for school funding, union recognition at a bakery, and enforcement of Minneapolis’s $15 minimum wage and sick-leave laws. Photo: Debbie Prokopf

One million visitors. One hundred million television viewers. Ten thousand hospitality volunteers posted at hotels, light rail stations, and the airport. And an $800,000 ice palace. Super Bowl LII this February will undoubtedly make an economic impact on the Twin Cities. But a coalition of unions and community organizations is asking, “At what cost to our communities?”

In the months leading up to it, and culminating in a series of actions that will take place just before the Big Game, these groups are taking advantage of the temporary national media spotlight that’s trained on the Minneapolis-St. Paul area—not only to win campaigns, but also to change the conversation about public priorities.

“The Super Bowl is a big corporate prom, a chance for billionaires to pat themselves on the back,” says Minnesotans for a Fair Economy Director Steve Payne. “Meanwhile, the NFL and its corporate partners use this high-profile event to continue a legacy of white supremacy and corporate capitalism that hurts our communities.”

The coalition is pressing for school funding, union recognition at a bakery, and enforcement of Minneapolis’s $15 minimum wage and sick-leave laws.

Member groups share a vision of stopping the exploitation of low-income communities of color—by the National Football League, by Super Bowl sponsors, and by the corporations that will profit from the influx of visitors, including restaurants and retailers.

Saint Paul Federation of Teachers President Nick Faber, a 31-year veteran of the classroom, sees the event as a teaching opportunity. “For the Super Bowl, they imagined what it would look like to throw a big party for billionaires,” he says. “Let’s use that same imagination to think about what it would look like to have all of the resources our kids need.”

The coalition, assembled with MFE’s help, includes Bakery Workers (BCTGM) Local 22, the Teachers, the Minnesota AFL-CIO, the worker center Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), 15 Now, Black Visions Collective, and Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (Tenants United for Justice).

THE SCARCITY MYTH

For the host city, the Super Bowl is more than a game; it’s a week-long festival showcasing the region’s arts and culture—and the game’s corporate backers.

Verizon, for example, is sponsoring Super Bowl Live, a free 10-day music and arts festival that extends for six city blocks. For the event, crews relocated the Birkebeiner Bridge, a 200-foot span of the nation’s largest cross-country ski race, from Hayward, Wisconsin, to downtown Minneapolis.

In St. Paul, corporate benefactors and individual donors ponied up $800,000 to erect the seven-story “Ecolab Ice Palace,” named after a St. Paul-based conglomerate, as the centerpiece of the city’s annual Winter Carnival, which coincides with the Super Bowl this year.

We don’t know exactly how much of the cost of the whole extravaganza will be footed by taxpayers directly. In 2014, the NFL’s 153-page list of bid specifications for the host city was leaked. It included demands for public financing of a number of items, such as police escorts for teams and anti-counterfeiting efforts. But the host committee hasn’t released its agreement with the NFL, and state law does not require disclosure of the agreement until after the event takes place.

Meanwhile, as the St. Paul Teachers negotiate a new contract for 3,400 members, the school district is projecting a $23 million funding deficit this year. The reason for this shortfall, according to the union, is generous breaks in income and property taxes for locally-headquartered Fortune 500 companies like Ecolab and U.S. Bank.

Executives of these companies act as the city’s public face by sitting on the Super Bowl Host Committee—a who’s who of Twin Cities business elites that is the liaison between the National Football League and the community. And yet, says Joan Duncanson, a member of the Teachers bargaining committee, “these companies are undermining the cities and the people who helped them grow big and profitable.”

“We’re fighting back against the idea of scarcity,” says teacher and Vice President Erica Schatzlein. “What these CEOs make in a day could pay for a school librarian or school nurse for a year.”

“They’re spending $800,000 on a palace made of ice,” Duncanson says. “That could fund eight more schools for the restorative practice program,” a racial equity program that reduces out-of-school suspensions for students of color.

Teachers are taking their questions of priorities directly to “the biggest tax evaders,” says Faber. At its contract campaign kickoff, the Teachers presented U.S. Bank with an invoice for $33 million—the amount by which the corporation’s tax breaks shortchange St. Paul’s schools.

“We asked U.S. Bank Chairman [and Super Bowl Host Committee Chair] Richard Davis, ‘You’ve talked about investment in the Super Bowl. What about investment in our children?’” says Faber. Davis agreed publicly last fall to meet with the St. Paul Teachers; a meeting is scheduled for later in January.

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The union has released a report detailing how companies represented on the Host Committee have benefited from tax breaks at the expense of public schools.

BREAD AND ROSES

Workers at the Franklin Street Bakery in Minneapolis are hoping to give the NFL a taste of justice. For nearly two years the bakery’s predominantly Latino and African immigrant workforce has been fighting to organize a union with BCTGM Local 22 to combat wage theft, safety problems, and sexual harassment on the job. In response, the bakery has fired union supporters and committed dozens of other unfair labor practices.

Franklin Street Bakery owner Wayne Kostroski has deep ties to the NFL. Kostroski founded Taste of the NFL, a star-studded event that brings together football players and celebrity chefs to raise money for food shelves.

“It’s hurtful to know that he’s having these lavish parties while we are underpaid and overworked,” says Dena Lagace, a five-year employee of the bakery. Lagace’s husband was fired from the bakery last year after he became a vocal union supporter.

Last February, the Bakery Workers hosted a "Taste of Justice" event to highlight the hypocrisy of a low-wage employer raising money for food shelves while his own employees struggle to put food on their tables. “You can’t support a family on the wages there,” Lagace says.

This year, with the Super Bowl occurring less than a mile away from the bakery, BCTGM is turning up the heat. Workers have been leafletting and bannering at the restaurants of local chefs who are participating in the Taste of the NFL to educate attendees about conditions at the bakery. Activists also disrupted Kostroski’s speech at an Edina Chamber of Commerce event in November.

The union’s efforts have garnered the support of state legislators, city councilmembers, and even the NFL Players’ Association, which sent the Super Bowl Host Committee a letter of support for the bakery workers.

PENALTY FLAG

At worker center CTUL, the focus is on enforcement. Minneapolis passed a $15 minimum wage last year, along with an Earned Sick and Safe Time ordinance, but the laws lack enforcement, according to CTUL Co-Director Veronica Mendez Moore. The worker center is also pressing St. Paul to pass a $15 minimum wage.

CTUL is calling on the local Chamber of Commerce and corporations that profit from the Super Bowl to support more robust enforcement mechanisms for the ordinances, including a $500,000 bond to cover any unpaid wages for workers who experience wage theft doing work to support the Super Bowl. They have planned a series of actions planned for the week leading up to the Super Bowl, including a “People’s Breakfast” that coincides with the Super Bowl Breakfast on February 3.

“Why is there money for more law enforcement at the Super Bowl but not for enforcement of the $15 minimum wage?” asks CTUL member Lexi Collins, who works at Taco Bell. The 20-year-old single mother is frustrated by the diversion of resources from essential services to create a playground for the wealthy. For example, the Super Bowl Host Committee is paying to relocate a homeless shelter that’s within the secure perimeter around U.S. Bank Stadium to another location outside the perimeter. And on game day, only Super Bowl ticket holders will be able to use the light rail into downtown Minneapolis.

“They can raise that money [for the ice palace],” Collins says, “but they can’t get money for childcare, affordable housing, or transportation?”

NOT IN LOCKSTEP

Some coalition member groups have already met with the Super Bowl Host Committee. Before the game, the coalition hopes to hold another meeting with the committee, this time in the format of a community meeting, where each group gets a chance to raise its concerns.

Underlying the coalition’s work is the understanding that, while each organization has its own objectives, they rely on each other’s successes. For the Teachers, the other coalition partners “represent the families of our students,” says Farber. “CTUL and Black Visions Collective are tackling issues like racism and white supremacy. These are barriers for our kids.”

“A $15 minimum wage means that families will have more stable housing and food,” adds Schatzlein of the St. Paul Teachers. “Maybe mom will be able to work two jobs instead of three.”

“What is really beautiful about this coalition is we’re not trying to come together around the exact same thing,” says CTUL’s Mendez Moore. “We’re still doing our work. But when we work in alignment [with coalition partners], we are so much more powerful and effective.”

Debbie Prokopf is a union organizer in the Twin Cities and a member of OPEIU Local 12.