Union leadership and rank-and-filers clashed in a war of words in St. Paul last week among protests against the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center.
On the evening of Wednesday, April 15, National Guard troops were allowed into the St. Paul Labor Center in downtown St. Paul. David Ybarra, president of the Minnesota Pipe Trades, said in a statement he was “proud to acknowledge that a member of my leadership team…invited them into the Labor Center in the first place. Offering them a place to keep warm and lay out their sleeping bags was the right thing to do — period.”
According to Kieran Knutson, president of CWA Local 7250, and Cliff Willmeng, a member of MNA, about 50 guardsmen and more than 15 armored vehicles were at the building. Knutson, Willmeng and other union activists objected to the presence of the National Guard in the building and demanded that they leave.
“Workers spoke with Guard members, expressing understanding of the soldiers’ working class background and orders, but imploring them to break ranks and join the anti-racist movement sparked by the murders of Black people
by the police,” Knutson and Willmeng said in a release.
The guardsmen and vehicles left later that evening.
Some unions and some of their members felt the decision to let the National Guard use the building (and, subsequently, the request for them to leave) should have been subject to a vote by the Labor Federation, but the guardsmen left before either was possible.
“While I was not involved in discussions with the National Guard, I was aware that Labor Center leaders planned to extend an invitation to access our shared building during a potential deployment,” said St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Kera Peterson in a statement. “It was my mistake not to communicate this information to our affiliate unions earlier. Doing so would have allowed for a dialogue among our union family and given stakeholders a chance to talk through their concerns before they spilled over into a protest.
“Guard members’ presence in the Labor Center became a topic of discussion at our Executive Board meeting Wednesday evening, but no formal action was taken. I did not communicate with the National Guard before or after the meeting, nor with a group of union members as they began protesting outside the building. I regret not creating space for a dialogue within our federation that could have prevented this situation.”
Peterson also extended an apology to the National Guard members who had been expelled from the building and who had reportedly been told to “go home.”
Gov. Tim Walz, a former Guardsman himself as well as a former member of the Minnesota Education Association, tweeted his disappointment in the move by activists, saying, “Let’s be clear: The brave men and women of the Minnesota National Guard are our neighbors. They’re teachers, health care workers, and business owners who live in communities across our state. This is unacceptable. They can’t ‘go home’ — this is their home.”
Pushback against the activists then rolled in from union leaders. “On behalf of the Minnesota Pipe Trades Association, I call on those who harassed and chased members of the National Guard out of the St. Paul Labor Center to immediately and sincerely apologize for their behavior,” Ybarra said in his statement.
“The treatment of the Minnesota National Guard members by union activists claiming to represent their union while chanting disgraceful chants directed at men and women in uniform is despicable” said John Raines, executive secretary-treasurer of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.
The Minnesota Nurses Association issued a statement saying it regretted Willmeng’s actions, whom it described as an “individual member leader.”
At the same time, MNA acknowledged the “pain and trauma of the BIPOC community.” “MNA, like many unions, has a position against the militarization of police and the use of military force against protestors.”
On its Facebook page, Teamsters Local 120 wrote, “Thank you to the men and women of the Minnesota National Guard for your service to our communities and our nation… Teamsters Local 120 will always have your back.”
Dan Olson, business manager for Laborers Local 1091, posted on the local’s Facebook page to “express my disappointment with the behavior’ at the building. I am disgusted by your actions towards other people when you yourselves are concerned about the behavior of other people,” he wrote.
Throughout Labor history, authorities have used the National Guard as a weapon against striking workers. In one of the most well-known examples, National Guardsmen were among those who fired on striking miners in Ludlow, Colo., in 1914, killing 20 people, including women and children.
In Minnesota, Gov. Floyd B. Olson called up the National Guard during the 1934 Teamsters strike in Minneapolis, during which the Guard raided union headquarters and arrested many strike leaders.
In 1986, Gov. Rudy Perpich called up the Guard to control striking members of UFCW Local P-9 at Hormel in Austin after the company brought in scabs. The strike ended unsuccessfully in 1986.
In 1989, Perpich threatened to send the National Guard to International Falls to crush actions in the wake of the wildcat strike at Boise Cascade for bringing in nonunion BE&K for construction.
The Minnesota AFL-CIO issued a statement acknowledging the broad community represented within the federation and the trauma the state has faced over the past year during a global pandemic and the protests after the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin for murder.
“As Labor leaders, we honor and respect the National Guard’s service and commitment to our community, state, and country. In fact, many of these men and women are also proud union members. At the same time, for a significant portion of union members, their lived experiences in both foreign countries and this one, have made the military symbols of oppression in their eyes,” the statement read. “Additionally, while the National Guard was deployed by the Governor with the intent to protect our communities from outside agitators and provocateurs, many in the community view their presence as a crackdown on first amendment rights. That is why, for many union members, Wednesday’s pictures of National Guard troops using the Saint Paul Labor Center as a staging area were deeply disturbing.”
The statement was signed by MN AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy and Secretary-Treasurer Bradley Lehto.