Senator offers controversial ‘Right-to-Work’ constitutional amendment

by T.W. Budig

ECM Capitol Reporter

Republicans gathered on Thursday, Feb. 2 to present a proposed constitutional amendment that if approved by voters would ban joining a union or paying union dues as a condition of employment.

Sen. Dave Thompson, Republican from Lakeville, heralded the proposed amendment — often generically referred to as “Right-to-Work” — as

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, presented a so-called "Right-to-Work" proposed constitutional amendment on Feb. 2 at a Capitol press conference. Thompson, flanked by a number of area lawmakers, argues the proposed amendment reflects economic liberty. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

touching at the heart of economic liberty.

Democrats were unimpressed.

“It’s an attack on working folks,” said Sen. Kenneth Kelash, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the Carpenters’ Union for 35 years.

But Thompson, in detailing the proposal, also stressed what the proposed amendment would not do.

“This in no way changes collective bargaining in Minnesota,” said Thompson. “Zero.”

The only thing the proposed amendment would change is that nobody would be forced to join a union, he said.

Flanked by a group of lawmakers, House bill author Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazzeppa, argued having voters pass the proposed amendment in November would inspire a “renaissance” in job creation in Minnesota.

Republicans argue that Minnesota by becoming a Right-to-Work state would invite an inflow of investment and workers.

Drazkowski suggested the reason Delta Airline, which merged with Minnesota-based Northwest Airline, decided to base its corporate office in Georgia is because Georgia is a Right-to-Work state. He called the proposed amendment the most important pro-jobs bill the lawmakers could pass.

The lawmakers argued that the proposed amendment was not anti-union. Indeed, Thompson, in reviewing the legislation, noted that the legislation prohibits employers from making non-union involvement a condition of employment.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, gestures while fellow Republicans look on. Drazkowski is carrying the proposed amendment in the House. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, a former member of two different unions, said the intention of the proposed amendment was “very simple.” Hann believes the amendment will pass the Minnesota Legislature and be passed by voters.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton does not have veto power for constitutional amendment proposals.

“I think people should be free to join unions. I think it’s a constitutional right,” Hann said.

Hann also argued that if unions and union benefits are so appealing, “why do you need a law to force people to join?” he asked. Hann views the proposed amendment, if passed by voters, as forcing unions to make clearer their benefits — invite greater transparency.

But Democratic lawmakers depicted the proposed amendment as divisive and another Republican gift to the wealthy.

“(It’s) nothing more than Right-to-Work for less,” said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.

The Democrats, including House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said no Democratic lawmaker would vote for the proposed amendment.

They suggested that in part, Republican support for the amendment stems from a desire to sap union-based campaign support for Democrats.

Sen. Kenneth Kelash, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks at a Capitol press conference as two other Democrats look on. Kelash is a longtime union member and views the proposed amendment as an attack against working people. (Photo by T.W. Budig)


“It does not protect anybody’s rights,” Kelash said.

Beyond this, the reason some businesses are unionized is because the management agreed to it, he explained. “This is not a one-sided thing,” Kelash said.

In union shops, non-union employees do pay union dues, but only partial dues, he said.

Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson depicted the proposed amendment as the latest of an unending Republican stream.

“This is yet another desperate attempt from Senator Thompson, Representative Drazkowski, and out-of-state special interests to publicize a bill that has bipartisan opposition in the Legislature,” she said in a statement.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 Director Eliot Seide in a statement argued the proposed amendment if adopted would drive down wages, not increase them.

“We must stop this attack on everyday people who deserve a decent job, health care, and a secure retirement.  Until we do that, big money bullies will never get enough,” she said.

Republicans argue wages in Minnesota would be higher today had so-called Right-to-Work law been enacted here years ago. More than 20 states have enacted similar law, they say.

Professor of Work and Organizations John Budd at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota said it’s difficult to determine the impact of Right-to-Work law on wages. For one thing, the states that have Right-to-Work laws have had them for a long time, he explained. Beyond this, comparing the economies of states is difficult — plainly Minnesota and Mississippi, for instance, are dissimilar.

States that offer lower wages, weak workers’ compensation laws, weaker environmental permitting process, probably are magnets for business, he explained. “Of course, business would like that,” Budd said.

But is that the kind of state in which you’d like to live, he asked?

Because politics is part of the Right-to-Work debate, it’s hard to find a set of facts everyone will agree on as a basis for debate, Budd explained.

Personally, Budd feels there’s a degree of anti-union sentiment in the Right-to-Work debate. Big employers have successfully worked with unions for years in Minnesota, he said.

Currently, 15.6 percent of the Minnesota workforce is unionized — the percentage over the past decade has fallen, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About 8 percent of the Minnesota private sector is unionized, and about 57 percent of the Minnesota public sector, according