Amid barrage of legislation, workers ask ‘Where is the focus on jobs?’

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Construction workers in hard hats and safety vests mixed with nurses and professional employees at a packed legislative hearing Thursday on a proposal to freeze wages and undermine public workers’ right to collective bargaining. Amid a slew of such anti-worker legislation, union leaders asked, “Where is the focus on jobs?”

In a scene likely to be repeated many times in the coming months, unions and allies turned out to protest legislation they say will undermine the middle class and destroy – not create – good-paying jobs in Minnesota.

The bill before the House Governmental Operations Committee, HF 192, authored by Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, encapsulated many of the issues of concern to workers. In addition to mandating a wage freeze for state employees and undercutting their rights under the Public Employment Labor Relations Act, it originally mandated a 15 percent cut in the state workforce and included a so-called “Right to Work” provision.

At the hearing, Downey eliminated the latter two provisions because they are already moving through the Legislature as separate bills. The committee passed Downey’s amended legislation on a party-line vote, but not before several people testified in opposition and Democrats on the committee raised numerous objections.

‘Bad for working families’
“HF 192 is bad for Minnesota and bad for working families,” said Josiah Hill, a high school English teacher and president of the St. Croix Education Association. “There are union families out there and there are working families out there that are going to be hurt – hurt badly – by this bill.”

Many speakers took aim at the so-called “Right to Work” proposal that would ban unions and employers from bargaining contracts that require workers to join the union or pay for union representation.

Supporters of “right to work” say it gives employees the right to decide for themselves whether or not they want union membership. But unions say it weakens collective-bargaining rights and allows workers to pay no dues and still get all the benefits of union membership.

“Right-to-work” states generally have lower rates of union membership and poor health and safety standards, according to studies. Workers in “right-to-work” states earn, on average $5,333 per year less than workers in other states.

“I’m sure you would agree with me we shouldn’t ever be asking middle class families to work for less,” said Shar Knutson, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

“Who can afford a $5,500 a year cut in pay?” asked Jerry Hansen, a union pipefitter.

Other speakers said Downey’s bill, by mandating a pay freeze and a mechanism for management to unilaterally implement changes in compensation, undermines the state’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act, which sets the terms for collective bargaining in the public sector.

“The PELRA law was a model for harmonious relationships between government and public sector unions,” said Brian Rice, an attorney representing fire fighters and police. “Rep. Downey’s bill throws that out.”

Representatives of public workers said several proposals at the Capitol are scapegoating public service workers for the state’s economic difficulties. They point out that state employment has remained flat for the past decade and workers have endured pay freezes and higher workloads.

Measures touted by the Republican-controlled Legislature, such as a freeze on all school employee pay that passed the Senate this week and a bill to undermine collective bargaining by requiring school districts to sign individual teacher contracts, are also viewed as attacks on workers.

‘A new model’
Downey called his proposal a “new model . . . intended to empower employees, improve results and align” state government with practices currently in use in the private sector, he said.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, disagreed, saying the focus of the legislation was wrong when higher property taxes and skyrocketing health and human service costs are the real causes of the state’s economic troubles.

“State employees are not driving the increase in government spending,” Winkler said.

The heated debate left many of those watching in the hearing room – and in an overflow room in the State Office Building basement – scratching their heads and wondering what had happened to a legislative session that was supposed to focus on jobs and reviving the state’s economy.

Union members will call attention to the jobs issue at the AFL-CIO’s Day on the Hill rally Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 11:30 a.m. in the Capitol rotunda. After the rally, participants will fan out to meet individually with lawmakers and remind them of the more than 200,000 Minnesotans who are still looking for work.

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