Union fight builds at Capitol

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 3, 2012 - 7:04 AM

A proposed constitutional amendment to keep workers from having to join already is divisive.

The political strife over union power that has resounded through Capitol rotundas in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana may be on its way to Minnesota as Republican legislators push for a "right-to-work" constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, and Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, were flanked by more than 15 of their colleagues Thursday in proposing the amendment, which would allow all workers to decide whether to join unions and pay union dues, regardless of existing contracts that may require membership. "There is nothing more fundamental to my economic liberty than the ability to obtain employment, feed myself and my family, without having to pay another organization to do it," Thompson said.

Minneapolis DFL Sen. Ken Kelash, a former union carpenter, was just as forceful in opposing the amendment idea. "It does not protect anybody's rights," Kelash said. "It just helps lower the cost -- the wage rates for workers, union and nonunion alike."

The Republican legislators want to put the issue before voters in November, joining an amendment to bar same-sex marriages that is already on the ballot. The strategy skirts DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who opposes the concept and would likely veto it if it came before him as a bill. The governor has no authority to block a constitutional amendment if the Republican-controlled Legislature approves it.

Thompson and Drazkowski, joined by several prominent Senate committee chairmen, announced their drive a day after Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the policy into law and made Indiana the nation's 23rd right-to-work state. The Indiana Capitol was filled with angry labor supporters during the debate. Wisconsin, after more than a year of heated demonstrations and political battles over a law that limits public-employee unions, is headed toward a recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Ohio Republicans enacted restrictions on public-employee unions only to see the law easily defeated by voters in a November referendum.

Sponsors cite job creation

Drazkowski and Thompson said they think the change will make Minnesota more attractive to companies that want to build or expand businesses. "Job creation in states with employee freedom happens at twice the speed as it does in forced unionism states," Drazkowski said. He cited the decision by Delta Air Lines to base merged Delta-Northwest operations in Atlanta, a state with a right-to-work provision, and said Minnesota's labor policy creates a "job creation impediment." Delta has been based in Atlanta since the 1940s and acquired Northwest in 2008.

Thompson said the amendment and the underlying statute would apply to private and public-employee unions, whose members represent about 16 percent of Minnesota workers, and that it would protect those who want to be union members as well as those who do not.

The amendment to be submitted to voters would state: "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to guarantee all citizens the individual freedom to decide to join or not join a labor union, and to pay or not pay dues to a labor union?"

The law that would take effect if the amendment is passed says that no person "shall be required as a condition of obtaining or continuing public sector or private sector employment" to become a member of a union, or to resign union membership. It also prohibits a requirement that employees "pay any dues, fees, assessments or other charges" to a labor organization, and says that any subsequent labor contract that calls for such payments by all workers "is unlawful and unenforceable."

The proposed law allows workers to sue for damages under the provision and requires the court to pay legal fees if the worker prevails.

Unions see call to action

The "right-to-work" debate, also referred to by supporters as "employee freedom," has traditionally been a battleground, pitting the value of individual freedom against the benefits of collective action. Union leaders immediately attacked the plan.

"What this is all about ... is to force union members to pay for their representation of their nonunion co-workers," AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson said. She said the bill has bipartisan opposition and predicted it will be difficult to pass.

"Where threats like this have surfaced, you've seen the labor movement come in pretty strong," she said, adding she "wouldn't anticipate anything different" at the State Capitol.

John Budd, professor of work and management at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said battles over right-to-work laws date back to the 1940s and the issue has long been "an emotional and political lightning rod."

With the marriage amendment already on the ballot and a proposal to require all voters to show a current-address photo ID headed in that direction, it is unclear how many amendments, and which ones, Republican leaders and their members will support.

Steve Sviggum, a Senate GOP spokesman, said a four-member group continues to research amendment ideas. Two members are Thompson, the amendment sponsor, and Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who was also at Thursday's launch of the right-to-work amendment.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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  • State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, in front, answered questions about a proposed constitutional amendment to keep workers from having to join unions. State Sen. Dave Thompson, at rear, was among those listening.

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