OPINION | Election analysis: Train wreck for Minnesota workers?


If organized labor’s predictions hold true, Tuesday’s election results amount to a train wreck for Minnesota’s workers.

Labor-endorsed candidates lost numerous races for the Legislature, turning over control of both houses to the Republican Party. The election for governor is still in limbo, with a recount possible to break the deadlock between labor-endorsed DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer.

In Minnesota’s 8th District, which includes Duluth, the state’s most unionized community, and the blue-collar Iron Range, Republican Chip Cravaack won a narrow – but stunning – victory over Congressman Jim Oberstar, the longtime, labor-backed incumbent.

The change at the state level will have an immediate – and detrimental – impact on Minnesota workers, based on claims made during the election season. For starters, even if Dayton prevails to become governor, it’s unlikely he’ll have a multi-billion-dollar bonding bill on his desk within days of taking office.

Dayton and the DFL majorities in the current Legislature had promised to swiftly enact a bill that would employ an estimated 27,000 Minnesotans to rebuild the state’s infrastructure.

Instead, Governor Dayton would likely do battle with lawmakers intent on cutting state services and aid to local governments. Emmer, if elected governor, would lead the charge in making those cuts.

Unions representing public workers say state and local communities have already cut to the bone and any further reductions would devastate public services. Firefighters, for example, recently fought back efforts to eliminate the full-time positions in the Brainerd Fire Department.

No doubt pensions for public workers, negotiated over many decades in exchange for wage and other concessions, also will be under attack.

All this will occur as the state struggles with a projected $5.8 billion budget deficit and a jobless rate that stands officially at 7 percent, but is likely much higher if you take into account the many who have simply stopped looking.

When the Republican-controlled Legislature goes into session in January, the glib language that characterized the budget debate on the campaign trail will give way to the serious, punch-in-the-stomach reality that there are no easy answers. The plain truth is that any meaningful cuts would come at the expense of the state’s most vulnerable people – such as the elderly in long-term care. Health care costs eat up an ever-increasing portion of the state and federal budgets, making them a major contributor to the deficits.

Will lawmakers step up to offer real solutions to the health care crisis and economic stagnation? National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka cautions that Republicans should not interpret the election results nationally as a mandate to implement draconian cuts and ignore the needs of the working class.

The string of losses across the nation might also lead Trumka and other labor leaders to re-evaluate their approach to elections. Clearly, many union members either voted against their own interests (as defined by their union) or stayed home on Tuesday. Unions and their allies felt compelled to pump in massive amounts of money to promote their candidates to counter the record-level spending by the other side – a juggernaut unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing such spending, with no requirement to disclose the sources of the money.

In such a climate, the labor movement can choose to stay on the treadmill – and potentially continue to suffer losses – or jump off and engage in a strategy that goes beyond electoral politics to build support for the goals of economic and social justice. Their decision matters, because despite their shortcomings, unions remain the strongest force for raising the standard of living for workers, whether here in Minnesota or across the world.