Feb 1, 2024 - News

What is a 'Labor Standards Board' and why Minneapolis is considering creating one

Illustration of Minneapolis City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

In the coming weeks, Minneapolis leaders will decide whether to create a new board to advise city government on regulations for worker safety, training, and even pay.

Why it matters: If created, the proposed "Labor Standards Board" could become a powerful vehicle to drive new, labor-friendly policies through Minneapolis City Hall that advocates hope will ease burdens on low-wage workers.

The other side: Some business groups, like restaurant and hotel trade group Hospitality Minnesota, fear the creation would trigger a pile-on of new regulations at a fragile moment for Minneapolis' commercial hubs, including downtown. Ultimately, they worry businesses will leave.

  • Existing mandates and inflation are already squeezing restaurants, said Hospitality Minnesota CEO Angie Whitcomb, "and it doesn't take many more financial or administrative burdens to make that impossible to maintain."

Yes, but: Other business groups, like the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, are withholding judgment — and working behind the scenes to shape the proposal, which city council members are still finalizing.

How it works: The board would not be able to unilaterally pass new laws, but it would be able to draft recommendations on which ones the city council could consider.

  • Some ideas would percolate upward from sub-groups that study specific sectors like security guards, window washers, or restaurant workers.

The latest: Negotiations now hinge on several elements of the board's setup, including how many members would come from business versus labor.

  • There are also discussions about whether a simple majority vote or a higher threshold is enough to recommend a new ordinance to the council and mayor.

What they're saying: Mayor Jacob Frey supports the proposal, telling Axios that the body could strengthen both business and labor — "if it's functional, if it's balanced and fair."

The intrigue: Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Jonathan Weinhagen contends supporters likely have the votes, so he's been lobbying council members to ensure the new Labor Standards Board "does no harm."

  • "If we can't come to a structure that feels balanced, and creates an opportunity to counterbalance some of the aggressive labor movement," Weinhagen told Axios, "we will vocally step back."

Ursula Roldán Díaz, who's worked at the same downtown Minneapolis pizzeria for 20 years, said she thinks a labor standards board could give workers like her "an opportunity to be heard."

What they're saying: "Businesses always talk about what they want," Roldán Díaz told Axios through a Spanish-language interpreter, "and we — the workers — don't."

Though Roldán Díaz likes parts of her job, she also doesn't get paid vacation days and makes just above minimum wage — which is $14.50 for small businesses in Minneapolis.

Between the lines: Labor standards boards are becoming more common, said Rutgers University professor Janice Fine, who said they make a big difference in low-wage industries that are difficult to unionize: restaurants, residential construction, custodial services, or warehouses, for example.

  • In the absence of a union, a labor standards board could set basic workplace standards, and prevent what Fine called "a race to the bottom of businesses competing on the basis of wages alone."

Of note: Minneapolis is already an "exemplar of aggressive local labor law," Fine wrote in a recent paper, though she added that the city's capacity for enforcing workplace ordinances is limited.

  • Hospitality Minnesota CEO Angie Whitcomb contends those regulations have already strained businesses enough. "At some point, the back's going to break."
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