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Within days of the police killing 20-year-old Daunte Wright, the streets of the Twin Cities metro area were once again filled with National Guard units.
Democratic Governor Tim Walz and other officials claim this is to protect from the threat of “outside agitators”—a phrase that should be familiar to anyone who has sat through anti-union propaganda. But more and more local residents are calling it a military occupation.
The presence of National Guard is jarring, bringing the headlines off the screens and onto our sidewalks. Humvees, armored trucks, and people in fatigues carrying heavy weaponry are stationed next to our convenience stores, fast food joints, and neighborhood landmarks.
They’re back again for the second time in less than 12 months; the last time was after the killing of George Floyd. Wright’s death came as the city was tensely watching the trial of the officer who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin.
On the evening of April 14, union members noticed a National Guard presence at a prominent building devoted to the labor movement: the St. Paul Labor Center, home to the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation and the Union Advocate newspaper.
What exactly was happening? Union members—primarily members of color, some of them immigrants from countries suffering the effects of U.S. imperialism, who know what a military occupation feels like—put out the call for their union siblings of all backgrounds to help investigate.
The Labor Center is located on West 7th, a historic street that connects several neighborhoods and the city core to the southern highways of the metro area. Along West 7th you’ll find storefront businesses and restaurants of all sizes, a few industrial sites, the Xcel Energy Center hockey arena, and some of the densest affordable housing units, with a sizable Black and Brown immigrant population.
‘WHY ARE YOU HERE?’
The first of the union members to arrive at the Labor Center immediately confirmed a National Guard presence. At least 15 Guard vehicles were in the parking lot; there were three armed guards at the parking lot entrance, and more guards visible inside watching TV. (Later it would become clear that there were several dozen guards inside the building.)
We began by documenting what was happening—taking photos and videos on our phones. We asked the guards simple questions: “Who authorized you to be stationed here?” and when there was no clear answer, “Who can we talk to and find out how this was approved?”
Soon a handful more union members arrived. Some carried hastily made signs identifying them as union members supporting the struggle for Black lives and against military occupation. We started asking more questions: “Why did you sign up for the Guard? What did you think you think you would be doing?”
The guards answered. Their reasons for signing up varied: “money for school,” “to serve my country,” “to get experience for a job in law enforcement.” Most said they had expected to be assisting people during natural disasters.
“Do you feel what you’re doing now is remotely close to helping people?” union members asked. “Do you feel the guard is living up to the high ideals you were sold on?” Few had confident answers to this. The conversation was blunt but respectful—until one guard started retorting with racist comments, escalating it to a more confrontational tone.
THE GUARD RETREATS
By this point, a full hour had passed. A dozen union members were present, with more on the way; the Guard soldiers did not prevent us from moving past the parking lot fence and all the way to the front steps of the Labor Center. Union members also started making phone calls to the Regional Labor Federation’s governing members.
Soon eight St. Paul police officers arrived. Three in regular uniforms positioned themselves between us and the front door; five in camouflage vests stood at the bottom of the steps. Two members of the RLF board had also joined the scene; one arrived from home, and the other had been working in an upstairs office. The board members began consulting with the police, Guard officers, and a couple union members. By this point several union members were documenting the events on video, as the members chanted.
We couldn’t hear the conversations between the RLF board members, the police officers, and the Guard. But apparently the result was a decision that it was time for the Guard to leave. As the confrontation neared the two-hour mark, National Guard soldiers began filing out of the Labor Center with their bags.
It wasn’t until the Humvees and armored trucks were fired up and began rolling out of the parking lot that the union members fully grasped that we had won the stare-down. The crowd, now more than 20 strong, erupted in cheers, singing, and chants.
In the following days, the RLF executive board issued a statement explaining that the approval of a Guard presence at the Labor Center had not followed the proper procedures for such a high-profile and emotionally charged use.
A BLOODY LABOR HISTORY
Where organized labor stands on issues like police violence is of crucial importance. The power of a group of workers to withhold our labor together can get us a better health care plan and an annual raise, sure—but it can also force policy changes and even remake governments. None of that is possible unless union members can see how our workplace struggles are connected to other struggles in our communities.
Armed police and military have long posed a threat to unions and labor organizers. Among the major economic powers of the world, the U.S. has one of the bloodiest labor histories.
Over many decades, city governments have had no qualms about sending in the police to break strike lines. States have sent in the National Guard to do the same, and even the federal army has gotten into the act a few times. A prominent example in Minnesota labor history was the attempt to use police, the National Guard, and a private militia to suppress the Teamster-led strike of 1934.
Unions must support the struggles for Black lives and against wars and military occupations, here and abroad, for two reasons. First, because the people suffering from these injustices include our members and our neighbors. And second, because the next time it will be the cops and National Guard armed to the teeth coming to our picket lines.
Anders Bloomquist is a member of UNITE HERE Local 17 who organized his brewery worksite last year. He lives in St. Paul, just a few blocks from the Labor Center.