Labor is under assault at the state Capitol more than at any time in decades:
• Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, has come forward with a bill that would slash the state workforce by 15 percent.
• Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, is among those seeking to make Minnesota a so-called “right to work’’ state.
• Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, is pushing a bill that would freeze teacher salaries and take away the right of teachers to strike.
The big question is whether labor has the clout to resist these dramatic changes in how Minnesota works.
“We are a battleground state.’’ That’s how Shar Knutson, president of the AFL-CIO, summed up the status of labor at an afternoon news conference.
That’s not exactly the sort of “bring-it-on’’ statement a labor leader of a generation ago might have countered in response to these Republican challenges.
For the moment, labor has one ally in its corner. At a news conference this morning, Gov. Mark Dayton spoke with disgust of the language used by Downey in calling for a 15 percent state workforce reduction.
Downey said Minnesota must “strangle the beast’’ in defending his call to reduce the state workforce through a series of furloughs, layoffs and early retirements. It is Downey’s contention that cutting the workforce is a key component of government reform.
“I’m shocked,’’ Dayton said of Downey’s “strangle the beast’’ language. “Public servants are not beasts. They are fellow citizens. To demonize people is very unfair and unnecessarily divisive.’’
He also said that it is “a myth’’ that there’s been a substantial increase in the number of public employees. Minnesota, he noted, ranks 31st in the nation in number of state workers per capita.
The governor said some Republicans are “exploiting’’ an issue in “difficult economic times.’’ He said it’s an effort to “drive a wedge between Minnesotans.’’
Instead of “divisive” and “demonizing” language, Dayton said that legislators should “take time and the care to really understand these issues and complexity and to hold public hearings and allow for public input on all sides of the question.”
DFL legislators and union leaders were quick to say kind things about public employees and teachers. But they are in the minority. The Republican-controlled Legislature now can pass bills they once only talked about.
Of course, Dayton can veto legislation he doesn’t like. But labor leaders believe there’s at least a chance that Republicans could go the amendment route, bypassing the governor and going straight to the voters with amendments to the state Constitution that could eliminate a teacher’s right to strike or make Minnesota a “right to work state.’’
Right to work laws, which have prevailed in such low-wage states as South Dakota, prohibit unions from requiring workers at even union facilities from joining a union or paying dues.
Steve Hunter, secretary-treasurer of the state’s AFL-CIO, said the phrasing “right to work’’ has initial appeal to many workers.
“They say, ‘Right to work? Sure, everyone should have a right to work,’ ’’ Hunter said. “We have to explain further what that really means, what that will do to wages and benefits. Then, they usually understand it’s going to hurt them.’’
But Hunter also said that all of his body’s member unions are being encouraged to educate their members about what could be at stake if the “right to work’’ issue should appear on the ballot as an amendment in 2012.
Knutson said that she is hopeful that even many in the Republican caucus won’t support some of the more radical labor proposals, including right to work language, currently being talked about by some members of the caucus.
She believes that many Republicans understand that anti-labor proposals might alienate some working-class people who have voted Republican in recent years. Additionally, she says that some Republican veterans are reluctant to use the amendment process as a way to create legislation.
On the other hand, in both the House and Senate, the Republican caucus is filled with newcomers. Many of those newcomers have more strident views on labor issues than the old guard and, at this point, have little respect for the go-slow traditions of the Legislature.
That means the labor movement should be prepared for any eventuality.
And this is a difficult time for labor: There is high unemployment. Many workers who have retained jobs have lost benefits and have little empathy for those who are fighting to hold onto traditional benefits, such as pensions.
“They are driving wedges between working people,’’ Hunter said. “We have to stop blaming the guy whose making a dollar an hour more than we are and see that the problem is the guy whose making millions and millions more than the working person.’’
The big hope for labor, Hunter said, is that the political pendulum in the country seems to swing faster thant it once did. He believes that the momentum that led to Republican domination in the last election may swing the other way by 2012.
It wasn’t the strong language of some Republican legislators that brought AFL-CIO leadership to the Capitol today. Rather, the organization, which says it represents 300,000 people, was making its annual statement of what labor sees as the top legislative priorities.
• Create “family-sustaining’’ jobs with a $1 billion bonding bill that targets “shovel ready” projects. Such a bill would put 27,000 people to work immediately, Knutson and Hunter said.
• Balance the budget fairly by raising the income tax rate on Minnesota’s wealthiest people.
• Stay “focused” by working on the big problem, the budget deficit and high unemployment, instead of getting sidetracked on divisive issues.
Not surprisingly, some of the labor issues that have been raised by Republican legislators are seen as divisive.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.