By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
FORTY-FIVE CITY employees send a letter beseeching Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and the Minneapolis City Council to address the hostile work environment at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Sound familiar? It should. Nearly two years ago, convention-center employees made the same request of the mayor and Council. At that time, the city ordered an investigation, hired a consulting firm, and promised to end the abuse. Since then, the employees contend in a petition recently filed with local officials, the city's only action has been to sweep the matter under the rug.
When the convention center opened in 1990, it became the city's fifth largest department, employing more than 150 clerical, setup, janitorial, and security workers. It also became a jewel in the city's money-making crown: In 1995, the city coaxed conventioneers to part with some $130 million, and the city estimates it reaped an additional 5 percent, or $6.5 million, in 1996. And in addition to padding municipal coffers, the center's profitability has helped its unionized employees earn above-average pay and enjoy benefits nearly unheard of in the private sector.
But throughout the convention center's short history, angry employees have maintained--and city officials have privately conceded--that the price for these perks is a pound of their dignity. "Employees are written up for stuff like getting a drink of water or using the bathroom when it's not their official break time," says Suzan Stauffer, a longtime staffer. "Management assumes you're doing something wrong all the time. You start to feel like the rabbit in the briar patch."
When the deal went down last time, Stauffer and two dozen other employees regaled the mayor's office with stories of racism and discrimination. African American employees said they'd been called "niggers" by co-workers and assigned the least desirable tasks by management, while others complained of an environment that fostered physical confrontations and verbal assaults. The city's Affirmative Action department stepped in, and pushed for a full-scale investigation.
In June of '96, a group of investigators from the city's Human Resources Department presented a report to the City Council sustaining 18 complaints of physical and verbal abuse, discriminatory practices on part of management, a lack of job training, and inadequate supervision. The city, in turn, hired an independent consulting firm, John Conbere & Associates, to draft a series of recommendations to diffuse workplace hostilities. The firm proposed such changes as devising a system for job rotation to ensure equality and revising the process for selecting and training the center's supervisory staff. To implement the changes, city officials created two committees--one within City Hall, the other within the convention center--to ensure an end to the abuse. "And that," says a staffer at the Affirmative Action office, "was the last we heard."
While some of the racist language has been shushed, Stauffer and others maintain that little else has changed. General Manager Gary Dorrian "is a tyrant," she says, "and the City Council won't correct him because he turns a profit." Turnover, particularly housekeeping and setup, is especially high, she contends. "Forty to 50 employees have gone through the convention center this summer alone," she estimates. "And a large number of these are minorities... I hear the mayor talking on TV about getting minorities to work, and here they have this huge revolving door."
Mayoral spokesperson Amy Phenix contends that Sayles Belton was unaware that the convention center's hostile environment had continued to flourish until she received the workers' letter of protest. "The mayor is committed to diversifying the city, " is all she will say, declining to elaborate on Sayles Belton's feelings about the city's attempts to date to solve the employees' problems or the mayor's plans for resolving the ongoing problems.
According to City Council member Doré Mead, who sits on the city's oversight committee, both the city and employee-management committees used to meet on a regular basis, but it's been "quite a while" since her committee met. "Something has gotten off track somewhere," she concedes. And although she says she hasn't heard any recent complaints, she acknowledges that one of center's ongoing problems is Dorrian's "militaristic approach to management." "I'd hoped we were moving more to evaluating on job performance," she says, "rather than having guards posted at the door, making certain every second counts." Dorrian did not return City Pages' phone calls.
Meanwhile, Mead says the City Council has ordered a joint meeting between the city and employee committees, and will request an update from the consultants. Stauffer and her co-workers, however, aren't holding their breaths. "There's been talk of a class-action suit," says another employee who requested anonymity. "But people are fearful of losing their jobs, their homes, and their families." Adds Stauffer, "All we want is to be treated like thinking, feeling human beings."