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GOP push for ‘right to work’ amendment could produce ‘another Wisconsin’

The warning shots across labor’s bow seem to be getting louder.

Minnesota Legislature

More constitutional amendments in the works

There are other amendments that could make it through the Republican-controlled Legislature and end up on November’s ballot.

Voter ID is almost a certainty. And an amendment that would require legislative bodies to pass any tax increase with a 60 percent supermajority might survive.

But a “right to work” amendment was seen as unlikely because it could prove to be even more explosive than the gay marriage amendment, which already is headed to the ballot.

The conventional Capitol thinking had been that the last thing the GOP would want in the upcoming election is another issue that would stir the passions of so many.

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Now, however, there are signs that even reluctant Republicans might have little choice but to vote on the issue.

One key sign is that the House and Senate leaders on the bill are Rep. Steve Drazkowski and Sen. Dave Thompson. And even though they may be seen as outliers in their own conservative caucuses, they are determined legislators, unlikely to back down to pressure even from their Republican peers.

There are other signs, too, that this amendment could make it to the floor — and perhaps from there to November’s ballot.

On Wednesday, the Indiana House passed a “right to work” bill that is expected to sail through that state’s Senate and quickly get the signature of Gov. Mitch Daniels. Assuming that happens, Indiana will become the first state in a decade to pass such a bill.

Right-to-work advocates release study

Still another sign: On Thursday, the Center of the American Experiment and the Minnesota Free Market Institute, which are merging, held a briefing to extol the virtues of “right to work.”  The briefing seemed almost like an effort to establish a foothold for conservative Minnesota legislators.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski
Rep. Steve Drazkowski

During the briefing, a study was unveiled showing that Minnesota workers would have made more money in 2008 if the state had adopted right to work in 1977.

This study, it should be noted, differs greatly from most studies that indicate wages are lower — sometimes dramatically lower — in right-to-work states.

In a nutshell, right-to-work provisions mean that unions no longer could require membership, or collect dues from non-members who work in a union shop.

Although most right-to-work states are in the South, three of Minnesota’s neighbors — North and South Dakota and Iowa — have such laws.

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And last year, of course, Republicans in Wisconsin and Ohio both passed laws that stripped most public employee unions of fundamental collective bargaining rights. But in both those states, the counter-punching has been ferocious.

In November, Ohio voters overwhelmingly repealed the efforts to strangle public employee unions, giving Gov. John Kasich a political bruising from which he may never recover. Meantime, more than 1 million Wisconsinites have signed petitions seeking the recall of Gov.

Scott Walker. That story continues to unfold.

Again, go back to the conventional thinking in Minnesota, which was expressed before the start of the session by Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, an old union man himself.

“They [Republicans] have seen what happened in Ohio and Wisconsin,” Bakk said. “That’s the last thing they want to see happen here.”

A repeat of Wisconsin and Ohio?

Shar Knutson, who heads the state’s AFL-CIO, said there was nothing surprising in the American Experiment/Free Market Institute study.

“What we saw today is identical to what we’ve seen in Ohio and Wisconsin,” she said. “This is a national effort being pushed by corporate interests.”

She vowed that the Minnesota Capitol will be filled “as never before” if this amendment advances toward the floors of the House and Senate.

Thompson, a freshman senator from Lakeville, said the amendment he will propose “is not a shot at collective bargaining.”

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“It’s about employee freedom,” he said. “This amendment does nothing to prevent anyone from joining a union or organizing a union. It simply means that you would have a choice whether you want to or not.”

Thompson said he has polling that shows that the measure has “overwhelming support” among Minnesotans.

At this point, Thompson said “there’s absolutely” a desire by Republicans he has spoken with to push the measure forward.

“I can’t say it’s unanimous because I haven’t spoken with everyone in the caucus yet,” he said.

Knutson said, however, that labor supporters have had conversations with a large body of legislators.

“I think there would be bipartisan opposition,” she said.

The dilemma, however, for many Republicans is that if Drazkowski and Thompson push hard, they may be forced to vote on the measure. And while it may be easy for Republicans to say they support right to work, it would be another thing to have to vote for it.

Thompson seems to have little empathy for those legislators who want to be cautious.

“I’m here to do what I believe is right,” Thompson said. “If that costs me an election in November, so be it.”