Minnesota’s labor movement had a crisis moment last week, as various compromises and deals between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature surfaced in the final moments of the legislative session.
The teachers lost on “last-in-first-out” hiring changes and licensure provisions they opposed.
A negotiated wage increase for home health care workers was cut in half, hitting SEIU’s new bargaining unit.
And, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees — AFSCME — was alarmed by a provision in a state government finance bill that would have upended the presumption of contract ratifications. This last one is obscure but important. Currently public employee unions negotiate with the executive branch of government, and the contract is ratified by a legislative subcommittee. If the subcommittee doesn’t have a quorum or if it’s a tie vote, the contract goes into effect until the legislative session, when it gets an up-or-down vote.
Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, sought to require an affirmative vote of the subcommittee to ratify, arguing that making anything law should require an affirmative vote.
Again, obscure, but a huge deal for labor. Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5 and considered one of the top labor leaders in the country, called it a “Trojan horse to end collective bargaining.” The point of the legislation, he charged, is to have the union negotiate with the Legislature instead of the executive branch, which he said would be “unwieldy and impossible to get to an agreement.” Republicans in the Legislature, he said, could just refuse to negotiate, and workers would never get a raise.
“The authors don’t believe workers should have a right to collectively bargain,” he said.
Republicans say it was overblown: They control the subcommittee on employee relations right now because they control the Legislature, so they already effectively have the power to stop contracts.
Labor has legitimate reason to worry. The movement has been shrinking for decades, both because of changes in the economy but also because employers won legal and policy battles in Washington, D.C., and around the country that made it harder to organize.
Fewer than 11 percent of workers were in a union as of 2014, down from 20 percent in 1983.
Public sector unions remain robust, especially in Minnesota. But there is now a playbook on how to beat them, and it comes from right next door. Labor saw the fight with Republicans over the contract ratification process last week as the beginning of efforts to turn Minnesota into Wisconsin.
Apparently Gov. Mark Dayton, who has a decades-long relationship with labor, heard them: The contract ratification language was removed from the state government finance bill after Seide and other labor leaders raised alarms to both the governor and DFL legislative leaders.
Even after it seemed the provision would come out of the bill, Seide was hanging around the Capitol, like a guard dog.
All this points to the importance of the 2018 election. The Republican-controlled Senate won’t be up for election, and House Republicans have a comfortable majority. So, a victory in the governor’s race would mean GOP control of all of state government for the first time in the modern era.
There are two pillars of the DFL’s money machine: A handful of wealthy individuals and organized labor. Every election cycle you’ll see six-figure checks from AFSCME to the House and Senate DFL caucuses. Look at what’s happened in Wisconsin to labor and to the Democratic Party there, and you get a sense of what could happen here if the DFL has another bad election.
Seide has been a major leader of labor in Minnesota for nearly four decades. But 2018 could define his legacy.