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Union, work-force, wage bills split Minnesota political parties

ST. PAUL A series of Republican-led proposals in the state Legislature have unions accusing them of trying to weaken organized labor and lower the standard of living for working-class families. At least 200 unionized workers and labor activists o...


A series of Republican-led proposals in the state Legislature have unions accusing them of trying to weaken organized labor and lower the standard of living for working-class families.

At least 200 unionized workers and labor activists overflowed a hearing room Thursday to speak out against a proposal for a constitutional amendment to eliminate mandatory union membership, a plan to reduce the state's work force by 15 percent and a bill that would temporarily freeze wages for government workers.

Supporters say the proposals allow freedom and fairness in the workplace and prevent the state's bureaucracy from becoming bloated.

The proposals, contained in three separate bills, thus far have moved forward through legislative committees along party-line votes, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposed.


The plan drawing the most ire from organized labor is a proposed statewide constitutional amendment that would appear on ballots in the 2012 general election.

It would ask voters to outlaw closed union shops -- unionized workplaces where workers have essentially no choice but to join the union and pay dues or be terminated. From government offices to assembly plants, such arrangements are common, but not universal, throughout the state. (The Pioneer Press editorial department is currently under such a structure.)

"I've heard repeatedly from people who have been forced to become members of unions who would like to have the right to say no,

and they can't," said the bill's chief author in the House, State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Republican from Mazeppa. "They believe they're not getting the value from their unions (that) they expect. Many employees are paying thousands of dollars a year (to) their unions."

The amendment wouldn't outlaw any union to create more freedom and opportunity in the workplace.

The amendment would make Minnesota one of 22 so-called right-to-work states, most of them in the South and West, that outlaw closed shops. Drazkowski pointed to studies suggesting the economies with such provisions are stronger and workers earn more, but union leaders say it's the opposite.

"All workers -- union and non -- in right-to-work states earn $5,000 less a year," said Shar Knutson, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, whose unions represent about 300,000 workers, in testimony to a House committee Thursday.

Unions complain a ban on closed shops weakens them because it allows workers to enjoy the same benefits the union has bargained without joining the union. As unions are weakened, wages fall, they argue.


Jerry Hanson, an inspector for the city of St. Paul and a member of the pipefitters union, pointed to a study from the U.S. Department of Labor showing right-to-work states have a higher rate of work-force fatalities than states without the closed-shop ban. "It's a threat to safety on the job site," Hanson said.

It's unclear whether the constitutional amendment would make it on the ballot coming out of the Legislature. Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, opposes right-to-work.


Two other proposals opposed by unions and Democrats seek to reduce the size of the state's work force and change its wage structure.

The first seeks to reduce the state's work force of roughly 34,000 by 15 percent over the next five years as part of a multi-pronged attempt to lower the state's expenses as lawmakers face a projected $6.2 billion shortfall.

"This bill brings short-term savings, long-term cost reduction and lasting structural change to Minnesota government," state Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, said last month when he introduced it in the House.

On Thursday, Republicans passed the bill, which would employ early-retirement incentives and layoffs, out of the State Government Finance Committee en route to the Ways and Means Committee. It's unclear how much money it would save.

Downey also has authored a proposal to freeze nearly all aspects of compensation for state employees until at least July 2012, when a study would compare wages of Minnesota state employees to their peers in the private sector and seek to equalize them. In addition, the plan would allow employees currently paid based on union contracts to be paid bonuses based on job performance.


"This bill is about empowering employees, many of whom are in this room," Downey said Thursday as he testified before the House Government Operations and Elections Committee in a room overflowing with union members, including state workers, who often grumbled at Downey's remarks and applauded at criticism.

Rep. Steve Simon, a Democrat from St. Louis Park, accused Downey of singling out state employees. Citing figures showing that the state appropriated money for slightly fewer state employees in 2010 than in 2001, he asked Downey, "Do you acknowledge that our workers are actually not part of the problem?"

Downey responded with a different set of data showing that the number of authorized full-time employees has increased by 350 in the past three years.

Brian Rice, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Professional Firefighters Association, said the attempt to compare compensation of emergency workers in the public sector with anyone in the private sector would be senseless.

"You allow cops to kill people, to use deadly force," Rice said. "It's a unique thing. You don't do that with the security guards at the Mall of America."

The committee passed the plan Thursday. It now heads to the State Government Finance Committee.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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