It’s no secret that recent years have been grim for organized labor. With the construction trades still reeling from the collapse of the housing market and a persistently weak economy, the bright moments for most unions have been few and far between. In that context, the successful campaign to keep a “right to work” constitutional amendment off the ballot this November counts as a major triumph.
The proposal, which would have weakened unions by allowing workers in unionized shops to opt out of paying dues, never made out it out of committee. In large part, this was because Shar Knutson and Harry Melander made it clear that defeating the measure at the polls was their number one priority. The two longtime labor leaders came away from the legislative session with another plum for their constituents: the successful campaign for a new Vikings stadium. That project is expected to employ some 8,000 construction industry workers over a three-year period.
Melander was elected president of the 50,000-strong Minnesota Building & Construction Trades Council in 2009. A native of St. Paul’s East Side, he graduated from Johnson High School in 1973, received his bachelor of science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, and spent 25 years in the construction trades, where he worked his way up as an organizer. A resident of Mahtomedi, Melander has served on the Metropolitan Council since 2011, along with numerous other boards and commissions.
In 2009, Shar Knutson became the first female president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. In that role, the 62-year-old St. Paul resident represents about 300,000 members of 100 different unions. For a decade prior, she was the president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation (where she was also a trailblazer for her gender). Knutson got her start in union life in St. Paul City Hall as an AFSCME member. Later, she was hired as a policy analyst in the administration of former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel, specializing in labor, health and immigration issues. Among her public policy bona fides, Knutson is credited for her role in the successful 1999 campaign against the proposed outsourcing of union jobs at St. Paul’s water works.