There's a battle brewing at the State Capitol over whether union membership and union dues should be voluntary.
Republican lawmakers propose a constitutional amendment that would let voters make Minnesota a right-to-work state.
Supporters and opponents of the proposal are gearing up for a fight.
A new report from a conservative think tank argues that voluntary union membership would be good for the economy. The Center of the American Experiment study contends that a switch to right to work status could improve Minnesota's standard of living.
Doing so would raise the annual average per capita income as much as $3,000 higher, estimates Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University and the study's author.
There are already 22 states that allow for voluntary union membership. Vedder said his research shows those right-to-work states attract more workers and more business investments.
"If you provide an economic environment that is pro growth, that is pro opportunity — or perceived by businesses that way — and you bring in resources to the state, you bring in machinery and capital," Vedder said, "you will, in the long run raise wages for workers."
Union representatives were quick to dispute the study and its conclusions. Richard Kolowdziejski, political affairs director for the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, said a study last year from the University of Notre Dame showed the exact opposite affect on wages.
Under current Minnesota law, workers can already opt out of union membership, but they're required to pay what's known as "fair share" dues to cover the cost of collective bargaining. Kolowdziejski said under a right to work law, unions would still have to represent workers who aren't paying union dues. He claims the amendment is part of a broader, corporate-backed campaign to undermine unions.
"Business stands to gain a lot of money by passing a right to work bill here. The workers don't stand to get anything but a loss of rights, a loss of wages, a loss of safety in the workplace," Kolowdziejski said. "And frankly, they will get less if a right to work bill passes."
The Republican-backed bill is called "Freedom of Employment." If approved by voters, the amendment to the state constitution would prohibit union membership or the payment of union dues as a condition of employment. It would also allow current union members to keep their jobs if they quit their union. Constitutional amendments only need majority support in the House and Senate to get on the ballot. The governor has no say.
Sen. Ken Kelash, DFL-Minneapolis, objects to the goal of the bill as well as the process supporters are using.
"It's just wrong. Constitutional amendment is a terrible way to go. It's not any way to legislate," Kelash said. "It seems that if the argument that they have was worthwhile, they would be able to make that argument in the Legislature and get it past the governor. That hasn't been the case."
The Senate sponsor of the bill has a different view. Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville said he doesn't like to use the constitution "willy-nilly." But in this case, Thompson said it's the right move.
"I guess I don't know how else to say it other than I consider it to be an essential part of our economic freedom and liberty," Thompson said.
"And a constitution is an appropriate place to protect those things. And allow the people at large, not just elected officials to make that decision."
Thompson expects to introduce his bill within the next week or so. In the House, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa is sponsoring the same bill.