The bitter struggle over union power sweeping through the Midwest is poised to descend on St. Paul, if Republican legislators decide to take the plunge.

Their quandary is whether to push a proposed right-to-work constitutional amendment, a flashpoint for political warfare since the 1940s. Advocates in the GOP-controlled Legislature want it on the ballot.

Passage by voters would make Minnesota the 24th state in the nation to allow employees who opt out of unions to avoid paying dues or fees. But a full debate could lead to the kinds of protests and energized union voters that have made Wisconsin ground zero for labor activism.

"The question is, is the juice worth the squeeze?" said Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents the state's largest corporations. Weaver's members support right to work but worry that the blowback could jeopardize Republicans' legislative majorities in November.

By putting pressure on union coffers, the law makes it harder to organize or maintain unions. Union membership is lower -- sometimes off the charts -- in traditional right-to-work states, which are centered in the South, Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions. In the Midwest, Iowa, Indiana, North Dakota and South Dakota are right-to-work states, while Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio are not.

Other labor-management issues have come to the fore in the Midwest following Republican statehouse gains in the Tea Party-influenced elections of 2010. But the right-to-work amendment would be a much bigger fight. Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, and Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, introduced the proposal with great fanfare weeks after Indiana approved it, seeking to put the issue before voters as a proposed constitutional amendment, which skirts the veto pen of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. It remains on hold.

No fever for amendment

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said "there's not a fever" among his caucus for the right-to-work proposal; Republican committee chairs Tony Cornish of Good Thunder and Morrie Lanning of Moorhead have spoken against the idea. Zellers, along with Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said their members are weighing the right-to-work measure along with other proposed amendments that could join the marriage definition amendment already placed on the ballot.

The experience of other states in the past two years may be part of the calculation.

• In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker pushed through strict limits on public-employee collective bargaining in 2011, triggering massive Capitol demonstrations, a Democratic walkout and recall elections that could cost him his job this summer. But, bargaining limits remain in effect, and Walker has become a hero to fiscal conservatives.

• Ohio Republicans -- Gov. John Kasich and legislators -- enacted a similar bargaining restriction, only to see it revoked last year in an overwhelming referendum vote that fired up unions and Democratic supporters.

• Indiana this year passed, and outgoing Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed, a right-to-work law that prompted walkouts by Democrats. Both sides are girding for battle in November.

Minnesota's labor supporters have been skirmishing with Republicans over Dayton's executive order that set a union election for some child-care providers. The right-to-work debate focuses on the very presence of unions -- whether they are a needed counterbalance to corporate power or an obstacle to efficiency, change and global competitiveness.

Supporters like Sen. Thompson say right to work is a matter of "employee freedom" that lets expanding businesses know the state is business-friendly.

"In my opinion, there's nothing we can do that is more beneficial for people's freedom and liberty, and creating a better business climate in this state,'' he said.

Opponents say the proposal would starve existing unions and make it hard to organize. They point to studies that show a better overall quality of life -- in everything from wages and benefits to educational attainment and health -- in "free-bargaining" states like Minnesota.

Jennifer Michelson of Eagan, a veteran nurse and union member at United Hospital, said her counterparts in right-to-work Iowa have a hard time raising enough to keep the union going. She said union dues, like taxes, may not be voluntary but "go for the common good," and the union presence raises the wages of nonunion workers in the same field.

George Raymond, of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said his state, with 9 percent unemployment, loses out to expanding companies that "just don't want to hassle with unions. The perception is out there if you're a union shop, you've got more problems than if you're nonunion."

Jeff Harris, spokesman for the Indiana AFL-CIO, said the state adopted right to work once before, in 1957 and repealed it in 1965. "What happened from '57 to '65 is citizens rose up, changed their elected representatives, changed governors and repealed right to work. It's certainly the thing we are focusing on now," Harris said.

There is one exception to the anti-union movement among new Republican majorities in this region. In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has resisted right to work, saying it is "divisive" and "creates an environment where people are not working together."

Eliot Seide, executive director of Minnesota AFSCME Council 5, said organized labor is gearing up to fight back, should lawmakers opt to put right to work on the November ballot. Their action, he said, could turn the State Capitol into another center of Midwestern union activism.

"They would bring Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana here to Minnesota," Seide said.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042