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Capitol labor rally, with a ’60s flashback vibe, cheers Gov. Dayton’s spirited defense of public workers

Nurses and firefighters, state employees and teachers, steel workers, Teamsters and elected officials packed the Rotunda Tuesday to say that Minnesota’s unions won’t take any Wisconsin-like attacks on them lightly or politely.

Gov. Dayton speaking to attendees of Tuesday's union rally at the Capitol.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Gov. Dayton speaking to attendees of Tuesday’s union rally at the Capitol.

The Minnesota Capitol is packed. People are singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying hooray for their side. The Rotunda is ringed with more than a thousand demonstrators, packed six, eight, 10 deep.

They are a chorus delivering “Solidarity Forever” and “This Land Is Your Land.” Guitarists are strumming. The throng is chanting, “The Workers … United … Will Never Be Defeated.”

The signs — some hand-made, some printed en masse by unions — read: “Stop the Assault on Collective Bargaining,” “What’s Disgusting? Union Busting,” “Heroes: Wisconsin Democratic Senators,” “Workers Rights Are Human Rights.”

A retro rally
This was Tuesday afternoon, barely 72 hours after a call by union leaders for a demonstration to back the public employees in Wisconsin and, barely 18 miles west of the border, show the strength of unions in Minnesota. The response was remarkable. Under the lovely and safe Capitol Rotunda, in the “people’s house,” it was the good old days, when workers were feisty and employers were nervous.

Flashback to the Sixties?

“The 1930s,” said Sen. Ellen Anderson, the St. Paul DFLer, speaking of a pivotal time when unions rose up, when child labor died, the minimum wage was born, and the weekend off was created, when being a working stiff didn’t mean you were the enemy.

On the first floor, on the second balcony, on the highest reaches of the third overhang, nurses and firefighters, state employees and teachers, steel workers, Teamsters and elected officials gathered to say that Minnesota’s unions won’t take any attacks on them lightly or politely.

Some Minnesota GOP legislators have introduced bills to, among other things, severely cut the state workforce, freeze state employee wages, restrict strikes by public school employees, eliminate mandates for equal pay for women public employees and place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to make Minnesota a “right-to-work” state.

“The cycle of history,” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, among many DFL political leaders on site, told MinnPost. “People are looking for scapegoats.” So public employees, in particular, are the scapegoats du jour. They need not be, said the mayor, who has kept city budgets under control.

As for the Capitol rally, the mayor said, “It at least says we’re not going to go quietly into that long good night.”

Not this crew, with the songs, and the chants, and the rallying cries.

“Who does the work?” AFSCME Council 5 leader Eliot Seide, the rally’s MC, shouted. “WE DO!” the crowd responded. “Who does the work? . . . WE DO!”

Enter Mark Dayton.

The guv’s strong words
We’ve never wanted to be Wisconsin — Packers, Badgers, cheeseheads, beer for breakfast, Day-Glo orange overalls, etc. — and, dammit, more than ever we still don’t want to be Wisconsin.

That was the message, that was the spirit, that was the hope of the assembled, And Gov. Mark Dayton confirmed it. We know Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — he of the uncompromising union-busting ilk — and Mark Dayton, he’s no Scott Walker.

In his own awkward, sometimes choppy — but always blunt — way, the heir to a department store fortune stole the show in front of the champions of the working class.

First, he told the now hushed gathering to be “respectful, be responsible and peaceful for one another and even for those with whom you disagree … Because this is not Wisconsin, this is Minnesota …”

Cheers.

“Drastic extreme measures will not become law here. They won’t become law here because I’m here,” Dayton said, and drums beat.

“Working men and women’s basic rights to organize for wages, benefits, safe working conditions will not be taken away here, because I’m here.”

Hoots, hollers, more drum beats.

“Public pensions will not be eliminated … because I’m here.”

A roar from the crowd.

He took a shot at “right-wing billionaires” — the Koch brothers — who he said have helped finance a campaign to “divide worker against worker. We will not let them divide middle- class families against middle-class families. We will not let them divide neighbors against neighbors.”

Union members, supporters and elected officials gathered to say that Minnesota's unions won't take any attacks on them lightly or politely.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Union members, supporters and elected officials gathered to say that Minnesota’s unions won’t take any attacks on them lightly or politely.

He cited stats about how most Minnesota teachers haven’t received raises in recent years, about how they are paid less than teachers across the nation.

Referring to Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, who was quoted in January as saying he sought to “strangle the beast” that has become the public employee unions, Dayton said: “You’re not the beast, I’m not the beast … People who plow the highways in the middle of the night … people who pave the streets during hot summer days … People who teach our children … I’m proud to be a public employee.”

Signs wave. Voices rise. Sound rolls around the Rotunda: “We’re not in Wisconsin.”

No Republicans in sight
This was a GOP no-fly zone Tuesday. The Minnesota Republican Party weighed in with news releases, but nary a presence in the halls of the Capitol during or after the raucous rally.

“Instead of taking part in a photo op orchestrated by big labor regarding the Wisconsin budget, Dayton should get serious about his home state’s finances,” said GOP chairman Tony Sutton in a statement. “If Dayton wants to spend his time on Wisconsin-related issues, maybe he should move to Madison.”
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said in another statement: “I’m disappointed that Gov. Mark Dayton decided to attend a rally focused on the budget battles in Wisconsin … He has chosen to support Wisconsin teachers who are feigning illness and deserting their students in order to attend partisan political rallies.”
 
It got some people to thinking. What if Republican candidate and former Rep. Tom Emmer had defeated Dayton in November? How much different would the climate in Minnesota be? How much different would Tuesday have been?

AFSCME’s Seide noted that the difference between Wisconsin and Minnesota is Walker and Dayton and “8,700 votes,” Dayton’s narrow margin over Emmer.

Were Emmer governor, “This rally would be 20 times bigger than it was today,” said St. Paul Mayor Coleman, because the stakes would be even higher.

Said Sen. Anderson: “We would be Madison, Wisconsin,” meaning Emmer and a GOP-controlled Legislature would be in total control of the state political apparatus.

And Anderson, a Democratic senator, might be in hiding somewhere.

“Maybe I’d be in Wisconsin,” she said. Perish the thought.

Anderson said it’s been reported that some union members voted for Gov. Walker in Wisconsin. “I’m sure there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse,” she said. “I think that people are learning fast that elections matter.”

What of all the folks on the balconies at the Capitol? Did they vote? Some did for Dayton, clearly. But their friends, their families? Where were they in November as the GOP fairly and squarely grabbed the Legislature?

“I don’t know,” said AFSCME’s Seide, as the crowd dispersed, as the Capitol returned to a quieter place. He cranked down his cheerleading and turned reflective. “I don’t know … But they’re here now,” he said. “They’re here now.”

Will they be there making noise at the Capitol over the next weeks and months? Will they have Dayton’s back? Or will it fall on this governor alone to make sure that this is not Wisconsin because he’s here?