Six years ago, Deran Cadotte was weighing his options for a degree in urban policy. He walked into The Murphy Institute (SLU’s predecessor) and met with June Cumberbatch, advisor to the Urban Studies BA Program and his decision was made. “I immediately felt at home,” Deran reports.
In the fall of 2014, while working full-time, Deran began his academic and professional journey towards the next stage of his career in the non-profit world. As a part of his coursework, Deran happened upon a Labor Studies course. Little did he know that a class outside of his field of study would come in handy.
Deran graduated in Spring 2018 and moved back to his native Minnesota, where he began work at St. Stephen’s Human Services, a not-for-profit that works to end homelessness and expand housing stability in the city of Minneapolis. On his first day on the job, Deran learned of the efforts at St. Stephen’s to unionize. The last attempt had been two years previous, and many of the workers who were involved were subsequently terminated. But while history had not shone favorably on organizing at St. Stephen’s, Deran and his co-workers did not allow that to deter them.
Their goals included parity for shelter workers and wage increases on par with other agencies in the field. They called for a cultural shift, too – including organizational transparency, a workers’ safety committee, and as Deran aptly describes, “for the voices of those with boots on the ground to have the same credence as executive voices.” With the bargaining unit comprising 80% of the organization, workers at St. Stephen’s voted by a 90% majority to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
After one unfair labor practice and 49 weeks of bargaining, Deran and his co-workers ratified their first contract. Through the solidarity of members across titles, they won 4% wage increases across the board, and another 5% for seniority. In order to address the wage disparity faced by shelter workers, caseworkers halted their own wage increases. The union even won their most coveted demand – “just cause.” Allowing for job security, just cause places the burden of proof on the employer and formally eliminates at-will employment.
Two days after the contract was ratified, Deran received a promotion and was elevated out of the bargaining unit. Deran and his co-workers continue to strive towards a more equitable and democratically-run workplace – conversations that have taken on a new gravity given the darkness that fell over Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd.
When asked what advice Deran would give to those seeking to organize their workplaces, he responded, “The hallmark answer would be ‘if it feels right in your heart, you’ll probably win.’ You have to get the support of people who are not just in the same rank as you – even if they can’t be a part of the bargaining unit, just knowing they have your back will help move you forward. Persist! Be curious and prepared to learn.”
He added a hint to combat self-doubt: “You know it. You know you know it. Just go do it!”
For a lift in spirits, watch this video of Deran Cadotte and AFSCME Local 999’s journey towards unionization.