The push by progressive activists in Minneapolis and other Minnesota cities for laws forcing businesses to raise wages or require sick leave for employees has at least one prominent Republican at the State Capitol warning that conservatives could just as easily try to strip power from labor unions by city ordinance.
“Local control of labor ordinances doesn’t just mean progressive labor ordinances, it means conservative ones too,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. “Be careful.”
Garofalo is chief author of a bill moving through the House that would prohibit cities from passing their own workplace standards — and repeal sick-leave ordinances passed in Minneapolis and St. Paul last year. Labor groups and workers argue that the city ordinances are a necessary response to economic and racial disparities, while Garofalo and other Republican lawmakers who want the state to pre-empt such rules say a patchwork of local ordinances could hurt the bottom lines of businesses.
But Garofalo has also tried a different tack: suggesting that if cities controlled by DFLers raise wages or require paid leave, that Republican-led municipalities could also pass right-to-work ordinances.
No Minnesota cities have actually done so yet, and some lawmakers say they believe the issue is not a priority in city halls or at the Capitol this year. Opponents of Garofalo’s bill said his argument is a distraction and that he hasn’t provided evidence of the idea taking root in local governments.
Still, Garofalo — who is opposed to right-to-work laws — maintains that conservative groups are upping their campaign to pass such measures around the country, and targeting Minnesota cities.
Right-to-work laws prohibit agreements between employers and unions that require employees to join a union and to pay union dues. Such laws are now on the books in 28 states, including Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. A pair of Minnesota lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment to make Minnesota a right-to-work state in 2012, but the measure divided Republicans in the Legislature and never made it to the ballot.
Attempts at local right-to-work ordinances have been rare, and have faced legal challenges. When the city of Lincolnshire in northern Illinois passed a local right-to-work measure, four labor groups fired back with a lawsuit and a federal judge eventually struck it down. In Kentucky, labor unions sued over a county ordinance and won an initial victory before a higher court backed the county’s action.
That dispute was short-lived: After Republicans took control of the Kentucky House last November, the Legislature passed a statewide right-to-work measure that became law in January.
Groups hoping for a similar action in Minnesota are looking to Kentucky for inspiration. Though Republicans control the Minnesota Legislature, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is a likely roadblock in the path of any statewide law. Jason Flohrs, state director of the Minnesota Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said his group has begun reaching out to local elected officials to make the case for a local approach.
“We’re trying to share that information, why right to work is a good thing to workers, why workers should have the freedom and ability to choose, and talk about the economic benefits we’ve seen nationwide come from right-to-work legislation,” Flohrs said.
Those discussions are still in early stages, he said, but might be gaining some traction. Luke Hellier, a member of the Lakeville City Council, said he is exploring the idea because he believes it could make his city a more attractive destination for development and economic growth.
“If you’re building a road or something and can have the freedom to decide if you want to be in a union or not, and have employers be able to know and have some of that certainty, I think that can make Lakeville an attractive place to grow,” he said.
Dakota County Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg said she’s also had a conversation with Flohrs, but that a right-to-work ordinance has not been a topic of discussion for the county.
It’s unclear if other Minnesota communities are seriously considering such a move. Garofalo said he knows of other local officials looking into the idea, but declined to identify them. Officials with the League of Minnesota Cities said they have not received any requests for information or legal advice about right-to-work ordinances.
Cam Winton, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said some members of his organization have raised the issue, but that his group is focused on the pre-emption ordinance being debated in the Legislature.
“We’re focused on uniform labor standards, not on right to work,” he said.
Also uncertain is whether Garofalo’s bill would apply to cities looking to pass right-to-work ordinances. Chris Shields, a spokesman for the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said his group believes the bill’s narrow focus on workplace benefits means that it would not cover other issues. He said the AFL-CIO is not aware of any efforts to pass such measures here, and would fight them off if they appeared.
“We’ve had this debate on the state level, so we’re ready for it,” he said.