Right-to-work stalls in Legislature

The Employee Freedom amendment could still make it to the ballot in 2012.

Matt Herbert

As the legislative session winds down, the status of the Employee Freedom amendment is up in the air.

The constitutional amendment, introduced by Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, in early February, would allow workers to choose whether to join a union as conditions of employment. If workers choose not to join a union, they wouldn’t be forced to pay the dues.

The amendment has not moved through the Republican-controlled Legislature as quickly as some hoped — it’s still in the Senate’s Rules and Administration Committee. The legislation originally began in the Jobs and Economic Growth Committee and then was referred to the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee where it passed on a 7-6 vote.

David Schultz, a professor who specializes in law and politics at Hamline University, said Republicans may be wary of moving the amendment forward “because of the backlash that has occurred in other states when similar legislation has been passed, such as in Wisconsin.”

“They want to avoid further alienating voters,” Schultz said. “If the voter ID and marriage equality amendments are already on the ballot, this amendment might be overload.”

Schultz said if Gov. Scott Walker, who passed a law eliminating public unions’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin last year, survives the recall election, it may show that “big labor” can be taken on.

Sen. Mike Parry, a co-sponsor of the amendment, said there is support for the bill.

“I think a majority of the [Republicans] are supportive of the amendment, but how do you move forward?” Parry said. “It’s a very contentious amendment.”

Although the amendment has Republican support, Parry said he was unsure if there is any support from Democratic-Farmer-Labor party members, some of whom are supported by big labor unions. Many DFLers have voiced concern about the amendment.

Chris Shields, the Minnesota AFL-CIO spokesman, said hundreds of opponents showed up to the March 12 hearing of the amendment.

He said the Minnesota AFL-CIO attended the Senate hearings and also put out radio, television and online advertisements to educate Minnesotans about the proposed amendment.

Although the amendment has apparently stalled in committee, Shields said there’s still a chance of the amendment moving forward and getting on the ballot. He said similar amendments have been introduced every year, but this is the first time one has received a hearing.

Republican supporters say the change would lure more businesses to the state, while opponents say it’s an attack on unions.

Minnesota is one of the most recent states to join the debate over the legislation. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a right-to-work bill in February.

Parry said Minnesotans should decide the outcome.

“I think the people of Minnesota have a right to vote on this,” Parry said. “This is a huge issue, and it seems to be growing, and sooner or later it has to be put to bed, and the best way to do that is to let the citizens do it.”