Republican legislators in Minnesota are now setting out to make their state the newest front in the push for “right-to-work” laws hindering labor union organization. But can they pull it off?
State Sen. Dave Thompson (R) and state Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R) announced the proposal Thursday, calling it the “Employee Freedom Constitutional Amendment.”
In order to pass an amendment to the Minnesota constitution, both houses must pass the proposal under a simple majority threshold, then send it to the voters in November — thus bypassing the state’s Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, but also triggering what would likely be a very heated referendum campaign. The Republicans currently have a 72-62 majority in the House, and a 37-30 margin in the Senate.
Right-to-work laws are very common in the South and the West. This week, Indiana became the 23rd state — and more importantly, the first Rust Belt state — to adopt such a measure. Interestingly, Indiana Democrats had proposed a compromise of sending the bill to a referendum, which the majority Republicans rejected in favor of sending the bill directly to Gov. Mitch Daniels. In this case, Minnesota Republicans are seeking a referendum, in order to pass the bill over the head of a governor who opposes it.
The right-to-work law would go beyond the current crackdowns on public-sector unions, by forbidding private-sector companies and unions from negotiating a contract that would require the collection of partial union dues from non-members.
Unions must, in fact, negotiate on behalf of all employees within the bargaining unit, not just their own members. Thus, right-to-work laws enable employees to free-ride on labor negotiations, with the effect of damaging union financing and overall organization to begin with.
Thompson and Drazkowski said in a joint press release: “If Minnesotans vote in favor of this amendment, every Minnesota worker would still have the right to join or support a labor union, only now it would be his or her own decision. Union employees would still be able to collectively bargain the same as under current law.”
“In Minnesota law, if a worker refuses to pay union dues, they are fired. This isn’t fair and it’s definitely not free,” Drazkowski also said in the press release. “To me, this is the most important pro-jobs bill we can pass this session. It’s estimated that had Minnesota passed this amendment 30 years ago, the average Minnesota working family would be earning an additional $7,000 or more every year.”
So can the bill pass, given the relative closeness of the Republican majorities? With the Democrats prepared to vote unanimously against it, Republicans can only lose four votes in the House and three in the Senate.
“Well until you actually take the votes, it’s a maybe,” state House Minority Leader Paul Thissen (D) told TPM, also stating that his caucus would all vote against it.
Thissen further explained that some Republicans had tried to pass a right-to-work bill last year, as a regular statute, but the measure stalled in committee. Did it stall, TPM asked, more because of the certainty that Gov. Dayton would veto it, or because there were Republicans who did not want to pick the fight?
“I assume that Gov. Dayton would veto it, but I also think that they had some members on their side that were uncomfortable with moving this legislation forward, and so they didn’t want to pick the fight,” said Thissen. “I think that is what it is. There was a very strong showing from working people and organized labor at the Capitol here during the discussion. And I think there were enough Republican legislators who found that and understood that passing this legislation would be very bad for working people in Minnesota, and became gun-shy.”
The Republican majorities have previously passed an amendment for the November ballot to outlaw gay marriage, going around Dayton. There are also ongoing discussions about a Voter-ID amendment — which Thissen gave a higher probability of passing through the legislature than right-to-work — and an amendment to require super-majorities in order to pass a tax increase.
TPM’s messages to the state House and Senate Republican leaders’ offices were not immediately returned.