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Minnesota right-to-work bill narrowly advances in Senate

ST. PAUL -- Conservative Republican state Sens. Gretchen Hoffman and Bill Ingebrigtsen often see eye-to-eye. But the two who live in adjoining districts were on opposite sides Monday as a Minnesota Senate committee voted to ask voters to decide w...

Union members at Capitol
Hundreds of union members from across Minnesota filed into the state Capitol Monday, March 12, 2012, to protest a proposal to allow residents to decide whether they want to join unions. This crowd watched the committee meeting on television in the Great Hall; others watched on televisions around the Capitol. (Photo: Don Davis, Forum Communications)

ST. PAUL -- Conservative Republican state Sens. Gretchen Hoffman and Bill Ingebrigtsen often see eye-to-eye.

But the two who live in adjoining districts were on opposite sides Monday as a Minnesota Senate committee voted to ask voters to decide whether to end the practice of requiring employees to join unions or pay dues.

Hoffman voted with Republicans, other than Ingebrigtsen, to approve the so-called right-to-work proposal by Sen. David Thompson, R-Lakeville. On the 7-6 vote, the Senate judiciary committee sent the bill to another committee.

Hoffman, from Vergas, is a nurse. When she took a job in Minnesota she was forced to join a union, even though she said the organization did not match her values.

"I always felt I could better represent myself," she said.


Ingebrigtsen, from Alexandria, helped form the first union representing workers in the Douglas County Sheriff's Department.

"We were being treated unfairly," he said, adding that organizing a union "brought some fairness to the professionalism in our neck of the woods."

Several hundred union members from around the state gathered, chanting outside the hearing room "just vote no" and "hey, hey, ho, ho, attacks on workers have to go," at times drowning out testifiers.

Hurt vs. help economy

Thompson argued that the measure will speed job growth and increase wages by making joining unions a choice. Currently, if workers don't want to join a union in a unionized workplace they still must pay 85 percent of dues.

"This is really about choice and freedom," Thompson said. "I believe Minnesota will prosper economically if we change this rule."

Opponents argued that wages and job growth in right-to-work states are, in fact, lower and said Thompson's bill is an effort to crush unions.

Damon Kapke, a faculty member with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, said right-to-work laws hurt the middle class and are "about unfairness, not fairness. It is unfair to ask unions to represent those who do not pay dues."


Mike Buesing, president of AFSCME Council 5, said passing the amendment would result in Minnesota families earning thousands less each year, which "will hurt our economy, not help it."

Uphill battle

The bill may face an uphill battle.

While Republicans often enjoy support from business leaders, even those organizations are not jumping on board. Jim Pumarlo, a spokesman for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the organization will not take a stance on right to work.

David Ross, president the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, said his organization also has not officially weighed in. But he acknowledged in an interview that he has concerns about whether passing the bill is worth the rancor it likely would cause, at least based on similar measures discussed recently in Wisconsin, Indiana and other states.

"I'm not seeing tangible illustration of much upside in the middle of the tumult," Ross said.

But, Thompson does have supporters.

Ten people testified in favor of the bill during the three-hour hearing, including Becky Swanson, a former Worthington resident who runs a Dakota County day care business. Swanson said she has worked hard to build a successful business and she wants to partner with parents rather than unions.


"They are the ones that help us determine where our business is going to go," Swanson said about parents. "Please protect us so we can remain free if that is our choice."

Amendment instead of law

Ingebrigtsen said he was uncomfortable that Thompson took the measure up as a constitutional amendment before trying to pass it as a law first. A constitutional amendment bypasses the governor, in this case Democrat Mark Dayton who would be unlikely to sign it if the issue were presented to him as a regular law. Once the House and Senate pass a constitutional amendment proposal, it goes directly to voters.

Thompson said eight of 23 right-to-work laws have passed as constitutional amendments and added that he took the amendment route because the Constitution is more difficult to amend and not subject to change when a different party takes political power.

A companion bill in the House has not had a hearing.

Monday's hearing generated the largest turnout in the Capitol in some time. The committee room was packed quickly, and other union workers who rode buses from all over the state gathered around television sets around the Capitol to watch proceedings.

When the committee adjourned, state troopers and other security officials escorted them to an elevator, with union members lining the way chanting "shame on you" and "we'll be back."

Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.


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