January 19 was the coldest night of the winter — so far — but that didn’t deter a roomful of union members from turning out to Champlin City Hall to learn more about a coming threat: a proposed “Right to Work” amendment to the Minnesota constitution. Union members at the meeting, organized by the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, would learn that the drive to bring “Right to Work” to Minnesota is part of a national campaign funded by the same group of corporate CEOs pushing for similar legislation in other states.
“It’s a coordinated national effort to take out unions and eliminate working peoples’ voices in the workplace and in politics,” they would hear from Adam Robinson, MRLF community and political organizer.
First, however, Robinson posed a question to the group: “What are some of the values and benefits you receive from belonging to a union?”
The room of some 60 union members didn’t need much prompting. People quickly shouted out: a living wage, health care, safety, training, pensions, “building strong communities” and “being treated fairly and respectfully in the workplace.”
One person cited a bumper sticker she had seen: “The middle class: brought to you by your union.”
“These are the things we’re fighting for when we talk about stopping ‘Right to Work,’” Robinson explained.
In the 22 states which currently have “Right to Work” laws, wages for union and non-union workers are an average of $5,538 per year less than in states without such laws. Employers in “Right to Work” states also are less likely to offer benefits like health insurance and pensions.
The broader community suffers, too, when workers’ collective power is undermined by “Right to Work” laws.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of workplace deaths is 50 percent higher in “Right to Work” states.
“Right to Work” also impacts public education, bringing lower school funding and larger class sizes. For example, during the 2008-2009 school year,, “Right to Work” states spent only $9,005 per student compared to $10,966 in Minnesota.
Robinson said he didn’t like using the anti-union side’s language, “Right to Work.” He noted: “it’s confusing language. It’s misleading and it’s not fair.”
Technically, he explained, so-called “Right to Work” laws prohibit employers and unions from negotiating agreements that make union membership and payment of dues a condition of employment.
What people really need to know about “Right to Work,” he said: “It’s an attack on unions and an attack on workers rights to collectively bargain.”
On a large screen, Robinson’s PowerPoint presentation projected the language of a possible constitutional amendment in Minnesota: it uses nice-sounding language like “individual freedom to decide.”
The language is so confusing, Robinson said, that even many union members could think “Right to Work” is something they should support.
“The way it’s worded throws you off,” one audience member commented.
“It’s frustrating as hell to know they’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes,” said James Samuelson, St. Paul, a member of IBEW Local 160.
“If this thing passes, it would be devastating for the whole state,” said Bruce Blase, Blaine, a member of Pipefitters Local 539.
“We don’t want no part of it,” Blase added. “We’d end up like South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska.”
“This affects all workers whether they’re union or not. Everybody’s wages are going to go down,” another audience member commented.
“You know this is the beginning of a fight and we need to keep moving forward from here,” Robinson said.
The most important thing, Robinson said, was for everyone to begin talking to co-workers, neighbors and friends about the “Right to Work” amendment and how it threatens Minnesota’s middle class.
He also encouraged everyone to call their state legislators and tell them, “‘Right to Work’ is wrong for the middle class.”
Passing a “Right to Work” amendment through the legislature requires only a simple majority in both the House and Senate. Governor Dayton would have no veto and the question would go on the November 2012 general election ballot.
Before adjourning, the group took some time to try putting the message in their own words with practice conversations with the person sitting next to them.
Robinson said the MRLF and local unions would be repeating briefings like the one in Champlin.
The message about the threat from “Right to Work,” Robinson said, is most effective when coming from a fellow union member. He encouraged people to come to “train the trainer” briefings so they can learn to become effective messengers.
One person urged: “what everybody in this room needs to do is go out and be vocal and be as mad as you are tonight and talk to ten people and tell them to talk to ten more people.”
“We need to rise up like Wisconsin did… We need to rise up like Ohio did. We can beat this,” Robinson said.