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Wendy Reuer, Published February 01 2012

Minnesota ballot may see right-to-work law

MOORHEAD – Lawmakers want voters to decide if Minnesota should become a right-to-work state like its neighbors in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.

A bill to put the right-to-work issue on the November ballot is being authored by state Republicans Sen. Dave Thompson from Lakeville and Rep. Steve Drazkowski from Mazeppa.

Thompson, a freshman senator, said his bill is finished and will be introduced today.

Right-to-work laws prohibit unions from forcing workers into membership or collecting dues from non-union members for representation.

Proponents of right-to-work laws say making union membership a choice increases average wages and attracts business. Opponents say it strips unions of power and finances, which weakens the voice of workers to negotiate better pay and working conditions.

Thompson said the amendment proposed by his bill, the Employee Freedom Act, would not diminish union power.

“It simply states that if an individual doesn’t want to join the union or pay dues they can’t be compelled to do so as a condition of employment,” he said.

John Riskey, president of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 167B Union, said the legislation is bound to lower wages.

“You can call it the right-to-work-for-less. That’s more accurate,” said Riskey, who represents union workers at American Crystal Sugar Co. plants in both Minnesota and North Dakota, a right-to-work state. Unionized Crystal workers have been locked out for six months, unable to reach a labor contract with the sugar cooperative.

He said the union still has nearly 100 percent membership in North Dakota.

Although Riskey said he doubts it would have a direct effect on his unions, he said having a right-to-work law in the state would be “un-Minnesota.”

“The fact remains that those laws exist so corporations can pay the workers less and line their own pockets more,” Riskey said.

Democratic Sen. Keith Langseth of Glyndon said the right-to-work bill is one more way Republicans are trying to stifle the middle class.

“The middle class isn’t doing very well. I don’t think it’s going to pass. I think there are some Republicans who don’t even support it,” Langseth said.

One of those Republicans is Rep. Morrie Lanning of Moorhead, who doubts the bill will pass the House.

“I’m opposed. I just don’t think we ought to be pursuing that at this point in time,” Lanning said.

Thompson said he hasn’t taken a headcount of fellow lawmakers, but he pointed to polls showing 70 percent of Minnesotans in favor of right-to-work laws.

The issue of curbing union power has bubbled up in lawmakers’ consciousnesses across the nation after last year’s showdown between Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and state workers, which drew heated protests at the Capitol in Madison.

On Wednesday, Indiana became the 23rd state in the nation to adopt a right-to-work law, the first to pass such a law in more than a decade.

Right-to-work advocates also got a boost when the Center of the American Experiment – a conservative nonprofit think tank – released a study claiming right-to-work laws would increase prosperity in Minnesota last week.

According to the study’s author, Ohio University Professor Richard Vedder, the average personal annual income per capita would have been $2,360 to $3,072 higher in 2008 if the state would have passed a right-to-work law in 1977.

Riskey said residents in this area don’t have to look too far to see those numbers don’t necessarily add up.

“(Becoming right-to-work) is not going to increase the wages. You can look right here, the ones that are not union, their wages are less. Especially in our industry,” he said.

However, Thompson disagrees, saying North Dakota was far ahead of Minnesota in attractiveness to new business, even before the oil boom.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530