After a nearly four-hour debate, in a committee room ringed by chanting union members, a Senate committee voted 7-6 to refer the "right to work" constitutional amendment to its next stop at the Senate Rules Committee.

All DFLers on the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee voted against the measure. One Republican, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who helped organize a sheriff's deputies' union in the 1970s, voted against it; the remaining Republicans voted for it.

The vote means the bill is still alive. But no action has yet been taken in the House, and sponsors are not sure it has enough support to pass both floors. If it does, the question of the right to work would be put on the ballot; if voters approve, it would become an amendment to the state Constitution.

Union members turned out in force for this first hearing.

"Hey Hey, Ho, Ho. Union busting's got to go!" union members shouted as they ringed Room 15 of the Capitol, where the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee was scheduled to hear the bill, beginning at 8 a.m.

The bill is proposed as a constitutional amendment that, if approved by the Legislature, would also have to be approved by voters. It would make Minnesota a 'right to work' state, a significant change in union-management law that essentially makes it illegal to collect dues or fees from workers who choose not to be union members.

Shar Knutson, president of the AFL-CIO, said, "Right to work is wrong for Minnesota.... There's no reason to move this kind of language forward." She noted Minnesota's advantages in educational attainment and relatively low unemployment and lower percentage of people without health insurance.

"We';re doing it right in this state,and it's unnecessary to do this... In fact, it can be detrimental to Minnesota too."

Supporters argue that weakening union power will make Minnesota more attractive to new and expanding businesses, and will give employees the freedom to choose whether or not to support an established union at their workplace.

"Just vote no!" Union members and supporters shouted as committee members made their way through the crowds to begin the committee hearing. The crowd, overwhelmingly opposed to the bill, also filled several overflow rooms to watch the committee hearing on television. Knutson said the AFL-CIO hoped for 1,000 people and probably will exceed that number.

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville.

Union members shouted "Shame on you!" and "We'll be back" when they left after the committee vote.