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Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, left, and Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers

David Joles, Star Tribune

'Right-to-work' push appears stranded in Legislature

  • Article by: RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER
  • Star Tribune
  • March 17, 2012 - 12:15 AM

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem said Friday that he does not think there are enough votes in the Legislature right now to pass a proposed "right to work" constitutional amendment this session.

"The votes, frankly, aren't there on our side yet," said Senjem, R-Rochester. "And they are not there yet from the standpoint, as far as I'm aware, from the House's perspective."

A fight over the proposed "right to work" amendment would reshuffle the state's 2012 election dynamics, with unions and business groups likely to pour millions to win the newest battleground state for the divisive issue. If the legislative votes do not materialize, the Capitol would be spared the raucous fights over workers' rights that recently have rocked Capitols around the Midwest.

Already this week, hundreds of angry union members who see the measure as an attempt to bust unions and lower wages and benefits packed the Capitol as a Senate committee approved the measure by a single vote. Republicans pushing the proposal say it will make the state more competitive for homegrown businesses and help attract new ones.

Senjem said that one hearing may be all the measure will get this year, "unless and until" there are signs that a majority of lawmakers support the move. The House has yet to take a vote on the bill, and so far has no plans to do so.

On Friday, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, avoided making any predictions about the measure's fate. He said he personally supports it but does not know how many of his colleagues will join him.

"It is something we continue to talk about," Zellers said.

Supporters say the fight is well worth it. A total of 23 states -- Indiana being the most recent, in February -- have adopted "right to work" laws.

The proposal would allow employees of unionized companies to not pay dues or fees -- a change from current state law, which requires nonmembers to pay for union services. Critics say this is really a union-busting effort, designed to starve unions of cash they often use for political activity.

"Right to work" states generally have far lower union membership than Minnesota, where 15.8 percent of all workers are unionized.

Although Republicans in Minnesota generally support the measure, already some Republicans have broken ranks to oppose it. On Monday, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, joined his DFL colleagues in voting against it, and Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, sided with Democrats on a procedural vote. Moreover, two House committee chairmen -- Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, and Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead -- have criticized it.

There were other signs of discord, as well. Last week, Deputy Senate Majority Leader Julianne Ortman blasted fellow Republican Sen. Chris Gerlach after his private bulk-mail business sent out mailers to voters in her district urging them to pressure her to support the measure. She later voted for the proposal in committee.

This year, business groups have remained quiet on the issue. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership have not weighed in. Charlie Weaver, head of the partnership, has said members like the concept but worry that the reaction to the bill could hurt Republican legislative prospects in November.

If lawmakers approved the "right to work" measure, the question would go to voters on the 2012 ballot. That would mean heavy campaigning -- and fundraising -- on both sides. A possible result: less campaigning and fewer dollars for legislators' election-year efforts.

Legislators may also be eager to avoid the kind of vitriolic union demonstrations that have shutdown Capitols -- including in Indiana and Wisconsin -- in recent years. The scenes of shouting protesters and pitched battles are likely not the images they want the electorate to carry with them as they go to the polls.

Sen. Dave Thompson, chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said his colleagues should not fret about demonstrations. "We shouldn't be driven by fear, we should be driven by principle," he said.

The Lakeville Republican said he didn't mind defending the bill in committee on Monday although his words could barely be heard above the din of protesters' shouts.

"Obviously, the American system was working well," he said. "People were allowed to voice their concerns and their support and I sincerely believe that's what makes this country great."

Staff writer Jim Ragsdale contributed to this report

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb

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