During the last two years, organized labor has largely sought to preserve the status quo at the Capitol. Republican legislative leaders repeatedly pushed proposals that were vehemently opposed by unions, most notably “right to work” legislation that would have prohibited requiring individuals to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
Thanks to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto pen, and a significant contingent of Republicans sympathetic to organized labor, the more far-reaching proposals were thwarted. Now that DFLers are in charge of all the levers of power at the Capitol, unions are in a position to push their agenda.
“I think organized labor has almost an equally powerful voice now as they did two years ago, but the agenda is very different,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who chairs the House Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs. “An agenda that is actually supportive of working people, as opposed to trying to undermine organized labor, is a different agenda.”
GOP Sen. Dave Thompson, of Lakeville, the chief sponsor of a right-to-work constitutional amendment bill in 2012, said he doesn’t plan to introduce a similar measure during the current legislative session. “Obviously, for political reasons, the DFL majority really can’t do anything to cut back labor’s influence and power,” Thompson said. “It would clearly be futile for me to do that.”
AFL-CIO lays out goals
On Tuesday the Minnesota AFL-CIO laid out four proposals that it intends to push at the Capitol. At the top of the list is increasing the minimum wage to $10.55 an hour — a nearly 50 percent increase from the current rate of $7.25 an hour. The AFL-CIO would also like to see the wage floor indexed to inflation so that it wouldn’t need constant readjustment. Labor officials point out that, when inflation is taken into consideration, the minimum wage they’re proposing is equivalent to 1968’s rate.
The other items on the AFL-CIO’s agenda:
• Unlimited unemployment benefits for workers who have been locked out of their jobs. Several high profile lockouts — including employees at American Crystal Sugar and members of the Minnesota Orchestra — have been in the headlines recently. The AFL-CIO also wants businesses that lock out their employees to face a financial penalty.
• Expressly allow workers to walk away from meetings aimed at influencing their views on labor matters or political issues. The labor group also wants a prohibition on firing workers who refuse to attend such meetings. Unions have long chafed at mandatory employee meetings where companies seek to dissuade them from organizing.
• Ban the use of credit checks in making decisions about whether to hire, fire or promote a worker.
At a press conference announcing the proposals, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson described them as “common-sense policies that are good for middle-class Minnesotans.”
Winkler agrees that an increase in the minimum wage is long overdue, although he’s not endorsing a specific wage level. Hearings on the issue are scheduled for February 25 and 27. “The history of the minimum wage is for every time it has an increase, it slowly declines because of inflation,” Winkler said. “So if we’re setting a minimum wage level, we should index it to inflation so it stays the same and doesn’t require legislative action all the time to catch it up again.”
But Thompson chafes at what he sees as unnecessary intrusions into the free market. “Wages should be driven by the market, not by legislators,” Thompson said. “I think the idea of indexing wages to inflation has no basis in economics anymore than you would index corporate profits to inflation.”
Winkler also thinks the change in unemployment benefits for locked-out workers makes sense. “I think it has a lot of merit,” he said. “I think that unemployment compensation would help [level] the negotiating playing field.”
Organizing personal care assistants
Beyond the AFL-CIO’s stated goals, many individual unions are also pushing proposals at the Capitol this legislative session. Perhaps most significantly, the Services Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Minnesota is seeking a change in law that would allow the union to organize personal care assistants who are hired directly by the individuals they care for. SEIU estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 workers could potentially be affected by such a campaign.
Last year SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) sought the right to organize child-care workers who receive state subsidies. Dayton issued an executive order calling for an election to determine whether they wanted union representation, but some daycare providers filed a lawsuit challenging his actions. In April a Ramsey County District Court Judge ruled that Dayton had exceeded his authority and scuttled the election.
Jamie Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, says this situation isn’t analogous because the workers are paid entirely with state dollars and the Legislature determines wages and benefits. “It’s just very different, because no one in this universe considers themselves a small business owner,” Gulley said.
He further argues that this group of workers is sorely in need of representation owing to poor wages and benefits. “There’s just a great deal of turnover,” Gulley said. “It’s a very important job, and it’s the fastest growing job in Minnesota.”
No legislation has been introduced. But SEIU and its allies have been meeting with legislators since the start of session and a lobbying day is scheduled for February 20.
Unions that represent nursing home workers are also looking for changes in state policies. They’re working in conjunction with the Minnesota Chapter of the AARP and Care Providers of Minnesota to push for a 5 percent rate hike for nursing homes in each year of the next biennium. That would cost roughly $50 million. Dayton’s proposed budget contains a 2 percent nursing home rate hike in each year of the biennium.
Rep. Patti Fritz, DFL-Faribault, intends to carry legislation proposing a 5 percent rate increase. “They’re 20 years behind,” Fritz said, of nursing homes. “What’s they’ve had is freezes and tweaking the rate.”
Fritz is also the chief author of a bill that would require annual reports on staffing levels at nursing homes. Facilities that fail to turn in the report would be fined $300. The proposal is being pushed by the United Steelworkers union, which represents some nursing home workers. “[The] certified nursing assistant is overworked all the time and underpaid,” Fritz said. “That’s where we’re still at.”
In recent years, the Minnesota Nurses Association has been pushing a bill intended to make sure hospitals are providing adequate levels of staffing to ensure public safety. No such bill has yet been introduced this legislative session, but any proposal undoubtedly will receive blowback from hospitals reluctant to lose authority over personnel decisions.
Thompson argues that unions will hold undue sway at the Capitol because of their tremendous support for DFL candidates during the campaign season. “What they would like to see done is going to have a tremendous amount of influence on this Legislature and this governor, given where the political support comes from,” Thompson said.
But Bernie Hesse, director of special projects for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189, doesn’t believe organized labor will necessarily come away from the legislative session satisfied, despite the new DFL-legislative majorities. “It’s certainly a different atmosphere, but it’s harder sometimes to play offense than to be in a defensive mode,” Hesse said.