The Employer of Choice

The St. Paul City Council wants to keep Dayton's downtown. But at what price?

This logic did not blunt criticism from the public during the hearing. David Buckley, a board member of ACORN, referred to Target's hints at leaving downtown as a "veiled threat." Labor organizer Hesse called it "economic blackmail." St. Paul resident Jennifer Blevins wondered why a corporation that earned $1.1 billion in profits in 1999 can't pay a living wage. "It's not up to the city of St. Paul to make Dayton's their charity case," she argued. Mary Buivid, who identified herself as a former Target Corp. employee, begged the council not to grant the waiver. "I'm one of those people who has had to try and survive and live on a non-living wage," she said.

Council members also had questions for Sweeney. Benanav wondered if the Dayton's store would be slashing jobs at the same time that it cuts its retail space from five floors to three. Michael Litwin, Target's regional real estate manager, replied that the company has no plans to eliminate any positions.

Benanav also asked the city for detailed information on exactly how much Dayton's pays its employees. Council member Jerry Blakey wanted to know about health benefits. Kathy Lantry added to the wish list an accounting of how many projects have been granted waivers to the living-wage requirement since its adoption.

Bernie Hesse, of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, calls the Dayton's deal "economic blackmail"
David Kern
Bernie Hesse, of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, calls the Dayton's deal "economic blackmail"

But perhaps the most enlightening moment came when council president Dan Bostrom pointed out that the city's ordinance requires that any company asking for a waiver offer a "detailed explanation" for why it can't pay a living wage. "Have we received that?" Bostrom asked Sweeney. "No, we have not received that," Sweeney answered. "We can get that."

Ultimately, at the behest of Blakey, the issue was laid over for two weeks, pending more information. So far only council members Chris Coleman and Pat Harris have embraced the waiver (although neither returned phone calls from City Pages seeking comment). The remaining council members left the meeting talking tough.

"In some ways it's not a loan, it's a gift," says Benanav of the subsidy. "And I think the least we can ask for is high-quality jobs and good wages, and if that doesn't work for them they can find other means to finance their operation."

Unspoken at the hearing is the theory that Dayton's is simply using the city to take care of a costly asbestos problem and will ultimately take off for greener--presumably suburban--pastures anyway. "The only reason Dayton's didn't boogie, in my opinion, is they can't sell the building because they've got asbestos," says Hesse. He speculates that Dayton's will ultimately prevail, but hopes that the debate will at least highlight the issue and perhaps become fodder for the upcoming mayoral campaign. (Benanav, Blakey, and Bostrom are all running for the city's top post.)

Target spokeswoman Melissa Stark says it is not clear how the company would proceed if the deal is ultimately derailed because of the living-wage issue. "We'd have to review our options," she says. "We are committed to the city of St. Paul. We are ready to sign this deal."

On the morning after the city council meeting on the lower level of the downtown store, employees outnumber customers. Three workers are passing time in the Field Gear section of the men's department. One of them, a college-age man with a goatee, brings up Sweeney's comment of the previous evening--that Dayton's, with its generous package of benefits, is the "employer of choice." Grumbling ensues about the impossibility of saving for retirement when you're struggling with the basics of food and shelter. "You can't eat a 401K," the young man quips.

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