If Sen. Dave Thompson has his way, the road to the 2012 election will feature many scenes like the one that unfolded early Monday morning at the Capitol. Chanting slogans like “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Union busting’s got to go!” and “Just vote no,” hundreds of sign-wielding union members gathered near the entrances to the hearing room where the Senate Judiciary Committee was taking up Thompson’s bill for a so-called right-to-work constitutional amendment. In the end, the committee passed the measure 7-6, with Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen casting the lone Republican no vote.
The bill now heads to the Senate Rules Committee, where its fate is uncertain.
The amendment would spell big changes in the state. If passed through the full Legislature and approved by voters in the fall, it would give workers the choice to opt out of joining a union and paying dues. Advocates say the bill wouldn’t change the collective bargaining process and would force unions to adapt to a changing global economy. Opponents, including those rallying at the Capitol, say it would weaken their ability to bargain for fair wages and would create a system of “free riders” who opt out of dues but still enjoy the protection of a union.
GOP Sen. Dan Hall, a minister and ardent right-to-work supporter, told committee members that he was not fazed by the noise outside, which drowned out the sound of lawmakers’ and testifiers’ voices whenever the committee doors swung open. “I will not be intimidated by the unions,” 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.”
Foes include some Republican senators who are opposed in principle to the amendment, but many more are worried about the potential backlash that Monday’s labor turnout underscored — that the ballot initiative could draw millions of union dollars to Minnesota and endanger their party’s legislative majorities.
Next door in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is headed toward a recall election after a contentious debate over restrictive labor laws, and in Ohio, a November referendum quickly undid a right-to-work law enacted by Republican lawmakers there. In Minnesota, the AFL-CIO has already created a political arm specifically to fight right-to-work. The group, We Are Minnesota, is airing anti-right-to-work television and radio ads across Minnesota, including targeted spots in the districts of GOP swing-district Sens. John Carlson, Joe Gimse, John Howe, Carla Nelson, John Pederson and Ted Daley.
As talks intensify at the Capitol surrounding the right-to-work amendment, rifts in the Senate and House Republican caucuses have bubbled to the surface. One lingering worry on the part of senators who see right-to-work as a threat to the fate of the GOP majorities is that Thompson may employ a so-called “nuclear option” — Senate Rule 5 — to move that the bill be pulled from the Rules Committee and brought straight to the floor. Sources close to the Senate GOP majority acknowledge that the specter of such a move fueled a heated debate in Monday’s caucus meeting.
In order to have any hope of prevailing, Thompson would need to use the Rule 5 gambit by Friday’s first committee deadline, because Senate rules dictate that afterward, it would take a supermajority of 41 votes for the motion to succeed.
House rules contain a similar provision in Rule 4.30, but such a motion can only be brought before the passing of the first committee deadline. Asked late last week if he was considering such a move in an effort to bring the bill to the floor, House chief sponsor Rep. Steve Drazkowski said, “I haven’t considered that. I’m certainly aware we have that option in our rules, but right now I’m focused on working through the committee process to try to move the bill forward.”
GOP senators divided on right-to-work
The Judiciary Committee vote came only after Thompson made an unusual motion on the Senate floor Friday to re-refer the bill from its stalled position in the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee to Judiciary. While that move succeeded, several Republican senators hesitated before casting their votes. Ultimately Gimse provided the necessary 34th vote by switching from no to yes near the end of a long period in which the board was left open.
Intra-caucus tensions over whether to put right-to-work on the ballot were exacerbated late last week when Capitol Report’s Briefing Room blog broke the news that Republican Sen. Chris Gerlach’s direct mail house, Capitol Direct, sent out pro-amendment fliers on behalf of the conservative Freedom Club PAC to some GOP colleagues who were purportedly wary of passing right-to-work. GOP Sen. Julianne Ortman, a target of the mailing, subsequently criticized Gerlach’s role in the Star Tribune.
GOP Sen. Claire Robling said she had heard she was targeted in the mailings but didn’t see evidence of it until last weekend, when her campaign manager walked up to her with a flier in hand at her district’s endorsing convention. “There are people that are unhappy with it,” Robling said. “I wish [Gerlach] hadn’t [sent out the mailings], but if he hadn’t someone else would have, so it wouldn’t have stopped anything. I wish he wouldn’t have, because it is causing some hard feelings among members.”
But Gerlach surprised everyone when he abruptly announced his retirement from the Legislature on Monday after 14 years at the Capitol. He didn’t mention the controversy in announcing his decision, saying it was time for him to focus on his family and his job. “While serving in the Legislature is truly an honor and privilege, the family and financial sacrifices are great,” he said in a news release. “Now is the time to reassess my personal priorities.”
Ingebrigtsen confirmed that he was also targeted with electronic pro-right-to-work mailings. He said he has no intentions of backing down on his position and thinks the measure would fail if it came up for a floor vote.
“I don’t think it stands the test of a constitutional amendment,” he said. “I would prefer it to go through the vetting process that [the] photo ID [constitutional amendment] did. That went through the process and was vetoed by the governor last session. If right-to-work had gone through that, then I would say OK, let’s look at this option, but to just throw it on there like that doesn’t sit well with me.”
GOP Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem acknowledges that the caucus is divided on the issue. “It’s still something that a lot of people are thinking about. There are people who are in favor of it strongly and there are people who are unsure, and that can change by the day,” he said. “It’s a close call.”
In the Senate, the bill will head next to Senjem’s Rules Committee, but he noted that the photo ID amendment must come up for a vote first because it is further along in the process.
Talks intensify in the House
The passage of right-to-work in Senate Judiciary has increased talks in the House GOP caucus, which have been stalled since the start of the session. On Monday House Republicans caucused the issue for the first time. No final decision on the bill was made in the three-hour meeting, a source close to the caucus said, adding that the discussion would resume later in the week.
Among those Republicans who are publicly against the measure: Taxes Chairman Greg Davids, Public Safety Chairman Tony Cornish and State Government Finance Chairman Morrie Lanning. Union lobbyists say there are as many as 20 House GOPers who are either against right-to-work or leaning toward a “no” vote. Democrats — all of whom plan to vote against the measure, according to the leadership — need only five Republicans to vote against the bill to defeat it on the floor.
Freedom Club literature hasn’t been limited to the Senate. In the House, GOP Reps. Steve Smith, Jim Abeler and Davids have also been targeted with right-to-work fliers in their districts.
Davids, who chairs the House Taxes Committee, says the fliers have not changed his anti-right-to-work position. He also says he will fight any move in the House to reroute the issue from one committee to another, as the Senate did. The House right-to-work proposal, authored by Drazkowski, is stalled in the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee.
“I will say I’m going to guard the process very closely,” Davids said. “I’m not going to support the shenanigans that went on over in the Senate. It has to move through the proper process. I may want to have some of my bills heard in a particular committee, but that is up to the committee chair and it needs to go through the process like all other bills.”