City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.
When Abdirahman Muse moved from Somalia to Minnesota as a 22-year-old, he took a job as a warehouse laborer. The days were long and hard, but the work was important, he says. It would vault him to a career in labor advocacy.
More than a decade later, as the executive director of Minneapolis’ Awood Center for East African workers, Muse facilitated the first negotiation between Amazon and its warehouse workers at a fulfillment center in Shakopee.
The watershed moment last November gained national attention—Amazon had never before been willing to sit down with aggrieved workers—but Muse is reluctant to take credit. The heavy lifting was done by the workers themselves, he says. “I’m humbled by their bravery. It’s because of their stories that we do what we do.”
Since the Amazon facility opened in 2016, employees complained of unreasonable workloads and punishing conditions. They weren’t treated with respect, they said, and their religious practices weren’t being accommodated. They had little to no access to promotions, and were constantly in fear of losing their jobs, as the strict “three strikes” policy meant every curveball in life—a sick relative or a broken-down car—brought them one step closer to unemployment. One woman told Muse after participating in a protest: “Even if they fire me, I want to make it better for the people after me.”
Negotiations with Amazon are not over. The November meeting did not bring resolution to the problems, and they held a walk-out in December. Then many went back to work.
“That’s bravery,” says Muse. “To organize an action and then return to do your job. You have no idea the sacrifices they make.”
Muse will continue to help them and others fight for the simple things that every worker wants: “good, safe, reliable jobs.” He has the experience of winning collective bargaining rights for home care workers in 2013. Then he worked as a senior policy aide for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. This year, he earned a fellowship with the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Above all, he has that memory of his time working in a warehouse when he arrived in Minnesota. He learned firsthand what it means to be an immigrant laborer in the United States.
“When you come to America, what you have in your head and the reality don’t always match up,” Muse says. “In a toxic climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, workers are still standing up, demanding dignity, respect, and Minnesota values.”
Muse and the Awood Center return to those deeply held values of hard work and fairness again and again. “Minnesota has a long tradition of labor movements led by immigrants. Polish, Swedish, now Somali—we all have the same dreams.”