The 2018 election appeared to be a do-or-die moment for Minnesota’s labor unions.

Coming out of the 2016 election, when Minnesota Republicans added to their House majority and swept the state Senate, labor rightly feared the Wisconsinization of Minnesota. Leaders looked over at our neighbor to the east and saw a badly weakened labor movement and with it a right-to-work law and loss of collective bargaining protections. A gerrymandered Legislature seemed to guarantee Republican, anti-union dominance for the foreseeable future.

Then the Janus decision came down. That’s the Supreme Court ruling that allows nonmembers to avoid paying dues, even for activities from which they benefit like collective bargaining. The ruling could have a potentially crippling effect on public unions like those that represent teachers and state workers, which is where most of the growth in union membership has come from in recent decades.

But labor’s outlook has suddenly brightened with the Democrats’ sweeping electoral gains, which came with an assist in dollars and volunteers from labor.

Gov.-elect Tim Walz spent more than 20 years as a classroom teacher and touts his union membership, but he has also cultivated a strong relationship with the building trades.

“We know he’s going to be a strong advocate for us,” said Adam Duininck, director of government affairs for the carpenters.

The carpenters want construction work, including public works projects, and a gas tax increase for roads and other transportation goals, as Walz has pledged. With a Democratic House, they’re more likely to get it. And they want wage theft enforcement, and not just for union members.

“We try to represent all carpenters, even if they’re not in the union,” he said.

This points to a trend in recent years: Labor leaders increasingly see themselves as engaged in a battle to improve the economic conditions of all workers, rather than just their members.

“Labor law and corporate practice make it impossible to join or form a union unless you’re willing to sacrifice everything you have,” said Matt Morrison, executive director of Working America, which was formed by the AFL-CIO but whose members don’t actually belong to a union. “So we need to be expansive in how we think about economic leverage workers have in this economy.” Morrison said they had 50,000 conversations with persuadable voters in Minnesota this year.

Labor has broadened its mission on issues like the minimum wage, with success in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

With Democrats in control of the House, they’ll bring these issues to the State Capitol, including a minimum wage hike but also paid sick leave. Virtually overnight, business interests have been put on their heels.

After decades of disappointment, however, labor knows full well how fleeting this victory could be.

 

J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican patrick.coolican@startribune.com