Union leaders enlisted by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison said Thursday that they are under attack at the national level and need the state’s next attorney general to fight for Minnesota workers.
A group of union members reiterated their support for Ellison’s bid in a news conference at the AFL-CIO headquarters in St. Paul. They criticized his Republican opponent, Doug Wardlow, saying he was a foe of working Minnesotans during his one term in the Minnesota House.
“We have got to make sure that in our state we have an attorney general who will stand up for workers,” Ellison said at the news conference.
Wardlow responded with a statement calling Ellison a “radical Washington politician” and saying Ellison wants to talk about anything other than his former girlfriend’s allegation that he abused her in 2016. Ellison denies the allegation, and an investigation commissioned by the Minnesota DFL Party did not substantiate it.
“Here is the truth, as Attorney General, I will protect and defend all Minnesotans. I will be an independent voice, beholden to no political party,” Wardlow’s statement said.
Union members said they continue to stand by Ellison after the abuse allegation; in recent days, he has returned to an active campaign-trail schedule. With unions ranging from pipe fitters to letter carriers endorsing him, Ellison is pitching himself as the workers’ candidate and telling voters he would fight to make sure unions remain strong in Minnesota.
He noted Wardlow’s push for right-to-work legislation during his 2011-2012 term in the Minnesota House. Wardlow was chief author of a bill to add a ballot measure to change the state’s constitution so individuals would be guaranteed an option not to join or pay dues to a labor union. DFLers and Republican leadership did not get behind the attempt, and it failed to progress.
Wardlow said in an interview last month that if elected he would not use the attorney general’s office to address right-to-work legislation.
“That is a policy question; that is for the Legislature,” he said. He declined to say more about his support for the issue when he was a lawmaker.
“I don’t think that’s really pertinent to the attorney general’s race,” Wardlow said.
John Westmoreland, executive director of Minnesota AFSCME Council 5 and an Ellison supporter, said Wardlow’s work in the Legislature is very pertinent to how he would interpret potential future legal changes.
More than half of states have right-to-work laws that allow workers to opt out of joining a union or paying dues. Public sector unions in states like Minnesota, which does not have such a law, were dealt a financial blow by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June in the case of Janus v. AFSCME. The court overturned a decades-old practice in Minnesota and elsewhere that required nonunion members to pay “fair-share” fees, in lieu of dues, to cover some union costs.
Attorney General Lori Swanson, a DFLer, was one of many state attorneys general who supported AFSCME’s effort to keep the fees in place.
That ruling essentially made Minnesota a right-to-work state when it comes to public sector unions, Westmoreland said. Now, he said, union members are watching for future legal changes that would impact the private sector as well as efforts to undo prevailing-wage requirements.
Minnesota’s prevailing-wage law ensures that people working on state-funded construction projects are paid a certain rate set by the state.
“How is a law change going to get interpreted by the state of Minnesota?” Westmoreland said. “Well, legislators write laws. The interpreter is the attorney general. Whose side are they on? That matters.”
Joe Fowler, a member of the Laborers’ union affiliate Local 563, noted that Minnesota is economically outperforming Wisconsin. The neighboring state eliminated workers’ right to collective bargaining, added right-to-work legislation and altered its prevailing-wage law. Such changes could come swiftly in Minnesota, he said.
“We didn’t get higher wages because this is something the corporations or the employers just wanted to give us,” Fowler said. “We fought for those things, and don’t forget that it is a fight to maintain them here in Minnesota.”