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Chamber right-to-work question stirs confusion

Paul Demko//July 27, 2012

Chamber right-to-work question stirs confusion

Paul Demko//July 27, 2012

Sen. Jeremy Miller was the only Republican to vote against so-called right-to-work legislation in March. But he indicated support for it on a candidate questionnaire circulated by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce this summer. “I may have misread that,” Miller told Capitol Report. Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher

When so-called right-to-work legislation came up for a floor vote in March, Sen. Jeremy Miller was the only Republican to vote against the proposal. Although it was merely a procedural vote to send the proposed constitutional amendment to a different committee, organized labor was grateful for the freshman legislator’s public opposition. In recent weeks the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 have both endorsed Miller over his DFL challenger.

But when asked about right to work on a candidate questionnaire circulated by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce this summer, Miller indicated that he supports the change to labor law, which would prohibit requiring payment of union fees or dues as a condition of employment. Why the reversal? Miller now says that he simply made a mistake in filling out the questionnaire and that he should have indicated opposition to the proposal.

“I may have misread that,” Miller told Capitol Report. “It’s a confusing question.”

But some labor officials have seized on the Chamber questionnaire to suggest that Miller is being disingenuous with voters. Leslie Sandberg, senior communications adviser for the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE), argues that the freshman Republican also misled voters by writing in the Winona Daily News that the state has a $1.3 billion surplus — despite projections of a $1 billion-plus deficit for the next biennium. “Either he lied to labor or he lied to the Chamber – and it looks like a troubling pattern of dishonesty exists,” Sandberg said. (MAPE is backing Miller’s DFL challenger, Jack Krage.)

Miller strongly challenges that characterization. “I didn’t lie to anyone. My voting record speaks for itself,” he said. “I misread the question.”

Thwarting right-to-work legislation has been the top priority of organized labor at the Capitol during the past two years of Republican legislative rule. Passing it was a chief concern for some Republicans, most notably Sen. Dave Thompson and Reps. Steve Drazkowski and Doug Wardlow. But during the last legislative session, the contentious issue never came up for an up-or-down floor vote in either chamber, in large part due to divisions within the GOP majority caucuses.

Some unions have responded by endorsing an unusually large number of Republican legislators in this year’s House and Senate contests. The carpenters union has announced support for 23 GOP incumbents, while the 49ers backed 16 GOP incumbents in its initial round of endorsements.

Miller not alone

But Miller is not the only GOP legislator who indicated support for right-to-work legislation on the Chamber questionnaire while also receiving union endorsements. At least four other incumbents — state Reps. Tim Sanders and Tom Hackbarth and state Sens. Julie Rosen and Dave Senjem — have also been endorsed by either the carpenters, the 49ers or both.

Sanders cautioned that his response doesn’t necessarily mean that he would support a right-to-work proposal in the future. “I think one of the reasons that I got some union support was I was willing to listen to them and consider and weigh the options,” Sanders said. “Is it possible that I would support some sort of right-to-work legislation if I felt like it was the right thing for the state of Minnesota? Sure.”

Jason George, political director for the 49ers, said he takes Miller at his word that the Chamber questionnaire was an innocent mistake. “He’s on record. He’s voted against right to work,” George noted. “He has publicly said he doesn’t support right to work. So I absolutely take him at his word that he made a mistake in this case, and I think he’s got a track record to show that.”

As for the others legislators who indicated support for right to work, George indicated that the union will need to have more discussions about the issue with their endorsed candidates. “I need to have a conversation with those folks,” George said. “It’s fair to say that we’re concerned about it … It’s a very critical issue for us, and one that we don’t equivocate on our feelings about.”

Kyle Makarios, director of government affairs for the carpenters union, is similarly reluctant to criticize its endorsed candidates for indicating support for right to work. “The people we endorsed are pro-jobs and we considered mostly to be helpful last year in the fight against right to work,” Makarios said. “We were successful with a Republican Legislature last year in defeating right to work. We appreciate their support in the past, and it will be a continuing conversation.”

AFSCME Council 5, another major public-sector union that has been critical of the GOP-controlled Legislature, has not yet endorsed in Miller’s district. Jim Niland, the group’s political director, points out that the union’s members vote on endorsements, but he thinks it highly unlikely that the group would support any candidates who back right-to-work legislation. “I think we’ve had a pretty consistent pattern of only supporting people who support collective bargaining rights,” Niland said. “Knowing where our members are on this issue, I think it would be extraordinarily unlikely.”

Question confusion

The Chamber questionnaire did not use the words “right to work,” but described the change in law that’s typically associated with that phrase. The exact wording: “Do you support legislation eliminating the requirement that all workers in a union shop be required to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment?”

Laura Bordelon, the Chamber’s senior vice president for advocacy, concedes that some candidates may have found the question confusing. “We were surprised that some people indicated yes, that some people indicated no, and that some people didn’t answer,” Bordelon said. “To be honest with you, the answers were inconsistent enough that it made us have an internal discussion about if we were clear with the question. We just had some surprising responses.” (The Chamber did not support putting a right-to-work constitutional amendment on the ballot this year, but it does back making such a change legislatively.)

Miller doesn’t want to leave any lingering confusion about his stance. On Thursday he indicated that he plans to call the Chamber and ask that his answer on the questionnaire be changed. “In my opinion, it’s not a huge deal,” Miller said. “I’ve had conversations with the labor folks and they know where I’m at on this issue.”

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