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Right-to-work constitutional amendment passes through Senate committee

Briana Bierschbach//March 12, 2012

Right-to-work constitutional amendment passes through Senate committee

Briana Bierschbach//March 12, 2012

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

A contentious proposal to enshrine so-called “right-to-work” language in the state’s Constitution passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, as union members flooded the Capitol and protested outside the committee doors.

The constitutional amendment passed in the GOP-controlled committee on a 7-6 vote after more than three hours of debate. GOP Assistant Majority leader Bill Ingebrigtsen voted against the bill alongside all DFLers on the committee. Right-to-work still has an uphill battle passing through the full Legislature before it can go before the voters this fall.

GOP Sen. Dave Thompson, the chief sponsor of the proposal, told committee members the bill would give workers the option to opt out of joining a union and paying dues, but would not hinder the collective bargaining process.

“What that really amounts to is a job tax, and I don’t think we ought to pay a job tax in this country,” Thompson said, adding that 23 other states have passed right-to-work laws. “I believe the time has come.”

Union members and other right-to-work opponents circled the Capitol committee room and filled the halls, chanting “Just vote no!” and “Hey hey! Ho ho! Union busting’s got to go!” The sound often drowned out testifiers and senators in committee. A crowd of onlookers watched from a committee overflow room.

Supporters of the amendment argued that unions have become unnecessary in the new, global economy, adding that right-to-work would force unions to adapt to the changing marketplace. Opponents, mostly members from unions, said the bill would attack collective bargaining power. It would would also give those who opt out of joining a union and paying dues a “free ride,” opponents argued, as they would still enjoy union protection.

DFLers readily opposed and criticized the bill. Among Republicans, a schism over the right-to-work  issue has intensified.

In an unusual move, Thompson made a motion on the Senate floor Thursday to re-refer the bill from its stalled position in the Senate Jobs Committee to the Judiciary Committee. DFLers questioned whether Republicans had the votes to pass the measure out of the Jobs Committee, and while the motion passed, several Republican senators hesitated to cast a “yes” vote.

Late last week, PIM confirmed that GOP Sen. Chris Gerlach’s direct mail house, Capitol Direct, sent out pro-amendment flyers on behalf of the conservative Freedom Club PAC to his GOP colleagues who were purportedly wary of passing right-to-work.

Ingebrigtsen, the only Republican to vote against the proposal, said he is concerned about passing right-to-work as a constitutional amendment without first going through the proper legislative process. GOP Sen. Julianne Ortman said while she has concerns about the bill hindering the ability of the private sector to bargain on behalf of its workers, she believed voters are “perfectly capable” of deciding on the issue this fall.

Republican Sens. Dan Hall and Gretchen Hoffman said they have been forced to join unions and pay dues in the past, even though they didn’t share the union’s principles. “These are constitutional issues, they are jobs issues,” Hall said. “I believe this is a constitutional thing we are doing. This will take away some of the power of the union. That’s life.”

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