'Right to Work' Bills Face Uncertain Future in an Election Year
Share with others:
ST. PAUL -- For the first time in more than three decades, Minnesota Republicans are basking in majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, so on matters that need no signature from the Democratic governor, they can do as they please. Priority No. 1, to some: put a measure on the ballot that would allow workers to avoid paying fees to unions they choose not to join. Critics view the proposed measure, which would amend the state Constitution, as a plain attack on unions.
And yet, on a recent afternoon, Senator Dave Thompson said he had grown doubtful that the "right to work" amendment he hoped to put before voters this fall -- a proposition requiring no approval by the governor -- would survive a vote of his fellow Republican legislators, or even find its way out of Republican-controlled committees.
"I've been told that no hearing has been scheduled and that a lot of people are concerned, so I guess this isn't going to move anywhere," Senator Thompson said on Friday, days after the proposal drew hundreds of protesting union supporters to the halls of the Legislature, and after an advertising campaign critical of the idea began airing around Minnesota. "It's not about the policy. There is a tremendous fear of the political ramifications -- it boils down to that, nothing more or less," he said.
After costly, bruising political showdowns with union forces last year in Wisconsin and Ohio, Republicans in some state legislatures are facing a tugging match within their party -- between passionate conservative members like Mr. Thompson, a freshman who was among hundreds of legislators swept into statehouses in 2010 who want to push forward, and a more moderate bloc not sure it is wise to take on labor so directly now.
The dueling pressure comes at a key moment in an election year -- not only for the presidency, but for more than 5,900 state legislative seats around the nation -- with Republican leaders eager to keep newfound legislative majorities in capitals like this one.
The much-publicized union battles last year, which led to a recall campaign against Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and to the repeal of a bill limiting collective bargaining backed by Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, seemed likely to quiet such efforts. But some Republicans have pushed ahead, to the discomfort, in some cases, of their fellow Republicans.
In Michigan, some lawmakers have pressed for right-to-work legislation, even though Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has deemed the matter divisive and has said, again and again, that he does not want such legislation to reach his desk this year. Adding to the friction, labor leaders there are trying to get their own constitutional amendment on ballots this fall that would block measures from the Republican-held Capitol that they see as anti-union.
In Arizona, a Republican-leaning, right-to-work state, proposals have been advanced that would limit collective bargaining and require annual approval by workers to deduct union dues from paychecks, even as union members have rallied and Democrats have said they consider this a state they could actually contest in the presidential race.
In Utah, where Republicans control the state Legislature, a proposal to limit collective bargaining to matters of wages and benefits did not make its way out of a committee before the session ended last week.
Many right-to-work advocates were energized this winter when Indiana, with little debate within the Republican ranks that control state government, passed a bill making it the 23rd right-to-work state. It was the first state to take such a step in a decade, bringing new energy to similar proposals in Missouri and New Hampshire.
But in St. Paul, some Republican leaders have been more muted. Kurt Zellers, the House speaker, was quoted earlier this year by The Minneapolis Star Tribune as saying "there's not a fever" in his caucus for an amendment on the right-to-work idea. And colleagues say that some moderate Republicans have, in private conversations, alluded to fears: Would a ballot referendum come November ignite the state's strong Democratic base? And what might that mean for Republican dominance in the Legislature, where every seat is up for election this fall?
"What you're seeing is a collision between the Republican brain and the Republican heart," said Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "The union shellacking of Governor Walker and Governor Kasich has sent a message around America -- and certainly to Minnesota."
Supporters of the constitutional amendment exempting those who choose not to join unions in Minnesota from having to pay the fees say it is not an anti-union measure, has nothing to do with Wisconsin, and has nothing to do with limiting collective bargaining.
"This is simply the most effective jobs bill this Legislature could bring through," said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, who has sponsored the bill in the House. He says that right-to-work states, mostly outside the Midwest and Northeast, have an easier time luring new companies.
But critics like Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat, say "right to work" (a term many in his party consider misleading) lowers wages and conditions for workers and aims to take away the power and purpose of unions. Mr. Dayton's stance helps explain why Republican lawmakers here are urging a constitutional amendment rather than merely passing a state law as Indiana legislators did. Lawmakers need simple majorities in each chamber to put an amendment on the ballot.
"They know I would veto legislation if it would go into the statutes so they're taking this other route," Mr. Dayton said. "It's part of this national right-wing playbook. They're trying this in numerous states. I assume they've got serious money behind it and I assume we'll see that kind of destructive, deceptive advertising next fall if it's on the ballot."
Lawmakers here still need to decide whether to put the right-to-work question on the ballot at all, and that prospect looked dim -- at least for now. Minnesota has long been a Democratic stronghold for presidential candidates (the last Republican won the state in 1972). Republican state legislators swept to power in the 2010 election but their dominance is narrower -- 72 to 62 in the House, 37 to 30 in the Senate.
And there are other constitutional amendments that might drive turnout this fall. Legislators have already agreed to let voters decide whether to limit marriage to a man and a woman, and they have considered measures requiring a voter-ID provision and a legislative supermajority for tax increases.
To Charlie Weaver of the Minnesota Business Partnership which includes the chief executives of the state's largest companies, the right-to-work issue feels risky. While a provision would help recruit new employers to the state, Mr. Weaver said, it could cost Republicans their seats in St. Paul, leaving Democrats in charge of both the Legislature and the governor's office.
"So you get this, but what if you also get devastatingly bad legislation for growing jobs for the next two years? Then what?" said Mr. Weaver. "We just aren't sure whether this is a politically wise thing to do or not."
First Published March 21, 2012 12:00 am