Minnesota’s labor unions are going on offense at the Capitol, rapidly ticking off the political goals they have long desired.
After pouring money and manpower into electing a DFL Legislature and governor, unions are vigorously pushing a labor agenda. On Monday they turned out at the Capitol in support of measures that would help unionize thousands of child-care and home health-care workers. Labor activists also see solid prospects for boosting the state’s minimum wage, and winning more money for local governments and education.
“This is our moment!” Eliot Seide, executive director of American Federation of State Council, Municipal and Metropolitan Employees Council 5, shouted to a crowd of chanting union members at a recent Capitol rally.
Unions began working toward victory long before this legislative session’s gavel first fell. They turned out members by the thousands to knock on doors, attend conventions and put at least $3 million into elections. Now, after years of watching their agenda languish, unions are beginning to see the political fruits of their labor.
As union membership dips in Minnesota and nationally and other states dramatically cut union power, labor here is gaining political influence. Since Democrats took over the Capitol this year, unions have seen some top priorities become law and others move toward adoption.
“I think that everybody that watches politics understands that Democratic politicians and the DFL Party in this state [are] strongly supported by unions,” said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, who sponsored a measure to restrict unions last year, when Republicans were in power. “They put a lot of money into their campaigns and now they’re getting paid back.”
That, he said, is part of the political process. “Those people who support you and you are ideologically aligned with are going to get the kinds of things that they expect,” Thompson said.
Gov. Mark Dayton says his support for labor’s goals has little to do with the political cash they spent in the past two election cycles.
“I think it has everything to do with the people who were here today and who they are,” Dayton said, after addressing hundreds of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) workers at a recent Capitol rally.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, a retired union negotiator, agreed. “I think the agenda of Democrats and the Democratic platform is closely aligned with the agenda of organized labor,” Bakk said, noting that the two groups share “common goals and objectives.”
On Monday, a legislative panel heard one of labor’s chief goals — a bill to allow elections that could unionize an estimated 12,000 people who work as personal care attendants, or PCAs, and another 9,000 in-home child-care providers. Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, called it “one of the biggest union power grabs in recent memory,” but Dayton has promised to approve the measures if they reach his desk.
A year after a court shot down their plan to jointly unionize in-home child-care workers, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) and SEIU are seeking to organize separate groups — child-care providers by AFSCME and personal care attendants by SEIU.
A debate before the Senate State and Local Government Committee recalled the emotional battle over child-care unionization last year. Supporters, including union leaders and care providers, said AFSCME representation could elevate the profession and improve state subsidies without affecting the relationship between parents and providers.
“Please vote to empower our pink-collar profession,” said Clarissa Johnston, a provider in Mounds View.
Opponents say the union model does not work for in-home small businesses that are owned and run by sole proprietors. They accused the unions of heavy-handed tactics, including co-mingling licensed and unlicensed in-home providers, even though the two groups have little in common, as a way of prevailing in an election vote.
“This scheme is to pull more taxpayers’ money into the union and away from the people who need it the most,” said provider Kelly Heaton. Added Trisha Berger, a provider from Esko who opposed the union: “Most of us walk around with baby spit-up and peanut butter hand prints on our backs.”
The committee will vote on the measure at a future meeting.
A union-friendly island
Unions’ friendly reception in Minnesota’s halls of power stands in contrast to the frozen protests in neighboring states like Wisconsin, where Republicans hold the leadership reins.
“We are kind of an island right now, certainly in the Midwest,” said Brad Lehto, Minnesota AFL-CIO chief of staff. “There is no doubt that labor in other places is having a very difficult time.”
Wisconsin erupted in protest — and then a recall fight — after Republican Gov. Scott Walker moved to clip labor’s power. In Michigan unions are fighting a new “right to work” law in court, while Indiana unions are grappling with a similar new law in that state. Right-to-work laws curtail unions’ power.
Last year, Minnesota Republican lawmakers, then in charge of the Legislature, attempted and failed to get the votes to pass a similar right-to-work measure.
The attempt was enough to stoke labor’s anger, and when the session ended, union members turned their attention toward getting labor-friendly lawmakers into office.
When the DFL took over the Minnesota House and Senate, it was clear things had changed.
“We can feel the palpable difference. We actually are here to support things, not to be against things. This is the first time in a long time,” Seide said last week just before he removed the “Union Thug” button from his green AFSCME jacket to meet with Dayton.
The unions are actively supporting Dayton’s budget, which, among other changes, calls for higher taxes on the wealthy. Dayton has said he supports unions. One of the first bills he signed this year ratified public employees’ contracts, which had been stymied by last year’s Republican-led Legislature.
Meanwhile, DFLers are proposing — and approving — measures that would never have seen daylight when Republicans were in charge. Legislative leaders have already offered full support for increasing a minimum wage that is one of the nation’s lowest and giving unemployment benefits to workers locked out by their employers. Some DFLers also back a union proposal to set hospital staffing levels.
“In 2011 and 2012, bill after bill was introduced to curtail the rights of working Minnesotans,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson said earlier this year. “This new Legislature has an opportunity to chart a new course and produce positive change for middle-class families.”