Senate committee narrowly advances Right to Work amendment

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

With the chants of union activists ringing outside the in State Capitol corridor in St. Paul, a Senate committee March 12 on a 7 to 6 vote passed a proposed, so-called Right to Work constitutional amendment.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, saw his proposed constitutional amendment dealing with union membership and dues pass a Senate committee March 12. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

The proposed amendment, if approved by voters, would make it illegal to force someone to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.
“I’m a big believer in ideas,” said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, after seeing his Freedom of Employment amendment squeak by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

“We passed a big hurdle today,” said Thompson.

The Senate committee hearing attracted hundreds of union activists to the Capitol. Their chants — “Just vote ‘No’”  — and others pealed outside of the committee during much the more than three-hour committee hearing.

The decibels increased and fell with opening and closing of doors.

Although Thompson styled the demonstration as “what’s great about America,” other Republican senators struck sterner tones.

“I will not be intimidated by the unions,” said Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, commenting on the “disrespectful” voices outside the committee room.

Thompson styled his proposed amendment as a simple bill — about choice and freedom.

He called union dues a “job tax,” and argued that forcing someone to pay union fees for representation they do not want cuts at the heart of economic freedom.

But Thompson’s interpretation of the proposed amendment was not shared by opponents who depicted it as needless, intrusive, a stealth-attack on unionism.

“This bill is intended to, and will, financially cripple unions,” said Minneapolis Police Officers Federation President Lt. John Delmonico.

Among objections by opponents to the proposed amendment is that it legalizes and encourages “free riders,” employees who benefit through union representation, wanted or not, but who would no longer have to pay for it.

One amendment opponent made plain his feelings while standing outside of the committee room. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

One opponent characterized the “free riders” aspect as asking the Chamber of Commerce to represent businesses but not ask for membership fees.

Other union officials styled the proposed amendment as a threat against public safety.

Tom Thornberg. Minnesota Professional Firefighters president, argued his union’s advocacy on fire safety issues benefited not just union members but the public at large.

The proposed amendment “dishonors” the fallen firefighters who shortly will be memorialized on the Capitol grounds, he explained.

Andy Lindberg, of Carpenters Local 68, said he was a Republican and many other union members are Republican, too. He argued the proposed amendment simply fuels Democratic Party spin that Republicans are against workers.

Both advocates and opponents argued the amendment had wage implications for nonunion members.

Aaron Sojourner, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, said a study of the impact of Right to Work law in the State of Oklahoma suggests a similar law in Minnesota could lower wages for workers by about $1,800 per year — advocates cited studies finding just the opposite.

“There’s a lot of bad studies out there,” Sojourner said.

But others felt the amendment was needed.

Pat Purcell, of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said she knew her appearance before the committee would make her name “mud” among colleagues but argued that if union membership were valuable, passage of the amendment would not hurt them.

Becky Swanson, a Dakota County childcare provider who has been active in the childcare unionization debate, spoke on behalf of the amendment.

“Give us the chance to run our own businesses,” she said.

The proposed amendment sparked committee debate.

“I do think this is a really an ill-conceived bill,” said Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights.

Putting the proposed amendment before the voters was akin to letting the majority decide the economic fate of a minority, Goodwin argued.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, argued that unions provide workers with job securities — nonunion workers can be fired without reason.

“What’s the problem we’re trying to fix here?” said Latz.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, indicated the proposed amendment evoked complex issues.

“(But) there’s no yellow votes here. It’s green or red,” she said of options before committee members.

Hall argued the amendment would help Minnesota.

“It’s a freedom issue to me,” he said.

Sen. Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, called the vote before him the toughest he’d ever had to take.

“It’s tragic we can’t come up with these perfect things,” he said of finding compromise language.

After an attempt to send the bill to the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee failed, the proposed amendment was sent to the Senate Rules Committee.

“There’s no guarantee I’ll succeed,” said Thompson after the hearing of seeing his amendment go onto the ballot.

He hadn’t been intimidated by the loud protest, he indicated.

“I expect the rest of the day will be fine,” Thompson said.

One Republican committee member, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, voted against the amendment.

The committee action keeps alive the possibility the Republican Legislature could place three proposed constitutional amendments before state voters in November.

A proposed Photo ID constitutional amendment is moving through the House and Senate, while a same-sex marriage ban amendment was placed on the ballot last fall.

But no committee hearings have yet taken place in the House on the so-called Right to Work amendment.