DFL state Rep. Jen Schultz of Duluth had many critiques of Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber on Monday when she announced her campaign for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District. But one reason she felt she could wrest the district back from the GOP was Stauber’s relationship with labor.
A handful of prominent trades unions backed Stauber in 2020 — which is somewhat rare for a Republican — in a district where organized labor still holds political sway. Stauber, however, faced backlash from unions when he voted last year against the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill approved by Congress and President Joe Biden.
“Labor walked out on Stauber,” Schultz said after a news conference at the Minnesota Capitol in Saint Paul. “They’re upset.”
When it comes to leaders for those prominent trades unions, however, the picture is more complicated. Though several interviewed are frustrated with Stauber’s vote on the infrastructure bill, they also credit him with support for mining projects or pro-union stances and votes.
Schultz may face an uphill battle to win over groups that have favored Stauber, like the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, enough to win endorsements and votes, in part because of opposition by some in the DFL to industries like copper-nickel mining.
“The record on Congressman Stauber is very clear,” said Jason George, business manager for Local 49. “This union isn’t in any way walking away.”
GOP earns some union backing
For years, unions in northeast Minnesota were almost synonymous with Democrats, since there was long-standing support within the party for collective bargaining and union-backed policy.
But a few unions representing workers in the trades have sided in recent years with GOP candidates in Minnesota. The North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters in 2018 endorsed GOP Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis, though the union endorsed Democrat Angie Craig in 2020 after she ousted Lewis.
Stauber was endorsed in 2020 by 10 unions, including Local 49, the carpenter’s union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers and even the slightly more left-leaning Laborer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA) Minnesota and North Dakota. (The endorsements also included two police unions.)
George, and leaders in LIUNA and the carpenter’s union said they try to work both sides of the political aisle these days. “Democrats have never wavered on labor rights,” George said. “But what I’ve seen in the last ten years is them completely waver and completely change their position on jobs. We’re in this weird position where Republicans support the jobs not the union, Democrats now support the union and not the jobs. We’re trying to find candidates that support both.”
On the issue of jobs, George was referring in large part to copper-nickel mining, which has gained broad support among Republicans but has divided the DFL.
Three companies have proposed mines in northeast Minnesota that could bring more than 1,000 jobs in total, but a contingent of Democrats have opposed some or all of the projects because of environmental risks like the potential for water pollution. The mines seem to be more unpopular in Democrat-heavy Duluth than in other parts of the huge 8th District, which now stretches east to Bemidji and south to Hugo in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Stauber’s opponent in 2020, Quinn Nystrom, was endorsed by plenty of labor groups, including unions representing teachers and state workers, but also from trades unions like the United Steelworkers and the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.
What some unions like about Stauber
George said his union has appreciated Stauber’s support for copper-nickel mining, advocating against the Biden administration and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s efforts to halt or delay the Twin Metals project near Ely and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
George said Stauber has held multiple hearings on the issue and invited the union to testify. “Congressman Stauber has been there every step of the way on mining,” George said. “There’s no greater champion for domestic sourcing of copper, nickel and other precious metal mineral mining in the country.”
Schultz didn’t answer questions about mining at the press conference Monday, though she said she supports miners and the industry. At the Capitol, Schultz has supported legislation that would likely delay copper-nickel projects.
George also praised Stauber’s record on advocating for the logging industry and said taconite mining generally has strong support from Republicans and Democrats. On the two biggest labor policy issues for Local 49 — “right to work” laws that block unions from requiring people to join and the prevailing wage — George said Stauber has a “100 percent voting record” and has convinced other House Republicans to side with unions on those issues.
Adam Duininck, government affairs director for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, said Stauber has been strong on prevailing wage issues, project-labor agreements and support for industry that creates jobs. Duininck echoed George, saying Stauber had even advocated for other Republicans to join him on certain labor issues.
“Every Congress they have votes to either get rid of Davis-Bacon altogether or vote not to include Davis-Bacon on either transportation infrastructure bills, or clean water wastewater bills, sometimes the airports and other kind of surface transportation bills …,” Duininck said, referencing a federal law that says contractors on federal jobs must pay workers no less than locally prevailing wages and benefits. “And he’s been 100 percent.”
In a statement, Stauber campaign spokesman Johnny Eloranta said “Rep. Schultz has been voting in St. Paul for endless job-killing tax increases and was a lead co-author of the most anti-mining legislation to date.”
“Pete is fighting for hardworking, middle-class skilled laborers, their families, and all Minnesota workers which is why he received resounding endorsements last election from nearly a dozen labor unions,” Eloranta said.
Unhappy over infrastructure bill vote
Still, Schultz is right that labor has been unhappy with Stauber for voting against the infrastructure bill last year. Thirteen Republicans voted for the package in the 435-member U.S. House and another 19 Republicans in the 100-member U.S. Senate voted for the bill.
When he voted no, Stauber said in a press release that he was a fan of infrastructure spending, but argued the $1.2 trillion bill was “inextricably” linked to a different, larger, social spending bill that would have funded child care initiatives, climate change provisions and a host of other programs. The Build Back Better Act was still under negotiation however, and never attracted enough support in the Senate to pass.
Minnesota is expected to receive an estimated $6.8 billion from the infrastructure bill, paying for projects to repair and build roads and bridges, improve water infrastructure and build things like high-speed internet lines and electric vehicle charging stations.
“I will say the last couple of years we’ve been a little frustrated, we were frustrated that he didn’t vote for the infrastructure bill,” Duininck said. “It was a very important vote for our organization.”
Tom Dicklich, executive director of the Minnesota State Building & Construction Trades Council, said the coalition of unions was disappointed in Stauber’s vote, and George said they had a “major disagreement” with the Congressman. “That was a bad vote that he took,” George said.
Kris Fredson, public affairs director LIUNA’s Minnesota chapter, said they endorsed Stauber in 2020, but sharply criticized the infrastructure vote and Stauber for subsequently touting infrastructure funding in the district. The bill means tens of thousands of jobs for laborers for at least a decade, he said. “So for Rep. Stauber to say when he was running in 2018 he was for infrastructure and then vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” is an issue, Fredson said.
Schultz levied her own critique on Monday, saying Stauber “voted no to repairing roads and bridges, no to investing in ports, no to broadband during a pandemic .. he voted no to replacing lead pipes.”
Stauber also voted against the PRO Act, which would offer protections for workers who are trying to organize, though George argued Democrats pushed a more partisan version of the measure and didn’t work with Stauber.
Can Schultz win back labor endorsements?
The question is, however, whether Stauber’s labor record will cause more voters to back Schultz, or trades unions who had supported the Republican to flip.
George said in his view the “good outweighs the bad,” describing the infrastructure vote as a “hiccup” while saying Stauber has pledged to fight to make sure money that has been approved will successfully make it to the 8th Congressional District. “I would be very surprised if we didn’t endorse him again,” George said.
Duininck said the carpenters are probably in a similar place on a potential endorsement, though when weighing the good and the bad on Stauber he said: “I think it’s somewhere in between.”
Stauber might be on shakier ground with LIUNA.
Fredson said the union hasn’t started its endorsement evaluation process yet, wouldn’t comment on Schultz and noted they appreciate Stauber’s support for prevailing wage laws that are crucial for construction workers. But he also said their union hoped “Rep. Stauber wouldn’t be just another partisan Washington politician.” And he criticized Stauber for signing on to an amicus brief with more than 100 House Republicans supporting a longshot lawsuit from the Texas Attorney General meant to overturn the presidential election.
“Unions are democratic organizations, democracy matters,” Fredson said. Signing on to the amicus brief “was a deliberate attempt to invalidate 20 million Americans votes in the 2020 elections,” he added. Other trades unions MinnPost talked to didn’t mention the lawsuit or said it wasn’t directly tied to union work or policies.
A press release from the Schultz campaign highlighted praise from Beth McCuskey, president of the Duluth Central Labor Body, who said in a statement that Schultz has had a 100 percent AFL-CIO voting record in the Legislature. “Unlike Stauber, who votes against labor, Schultz has been fighting for workers her entire career,” McCuskey said.
One factor influencing union endorsements is political power. Duininck said they do give weight to incumbents and consider whether someone is likely to win or whether they are a member of the party likely to control the House or Senate. Stauber is favored in the district and Republicans are favored to retake the U.S. House in the fall elections.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t a factor but they have to be good on the core issues,” George said. “That’s what makes somebody like Congressman Stauber a good ally is that on the Republican side of the aisle is where we’ve historically struggled getting people to support our labor issues”
Eloranta, the Stauber spokesman, alluded to Stauber’s potential power in the next Congress, should he win and should Republicans have a House majority. “When it comes to fighting for labor union members and their families, Minnesotans in the 8th district know there is a clear choice between Rep. Schultz, who is a radical Twin Cities liberal in Duluth clothing, and Pete, who will become the Energy And Minerals Committee chair next Congress and continues to build a strong track record fighting for our way of life,” he said.