A Minnesota Senate panel has approved a proposed constitutional amendment to make union membership and the payment of union dues voluntary for all workers.
Members of the Senate judiciary committee advanced the bill Monday by a vote of seven to six. The bill now goes to the Senate Rules Committee but its future is not clear.
Senate GOP Majority Leader Dave Senjem said last week that he did not view the amendment as a priority. The House version of the bill has not yet had a hearing.
Early on Monday, union members showed up by the busload for the hearing on what is known as the "right-to-work" amendment. They filled nearly every hallway in the State Capitol.
Alex Budnick, a union carpenter from St. Paul, said he thinks the proposed amendment would hurt middle-class Minnesotans.
"It's not just about unions, it's about everybody else in the middle class," Budnick said. "This bill isn't going to help anybody."
Union members continued making noise for most of the three-and-half hour meeting, especially while supporters of the measure testified. Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, told members of the committee that his bill would let voters decide in November whether workers should be compelled by law to join a union or pay union dues.
"This is really all about choice and freedom and the opportunity to do what you want to do and not to do those things that you prefer not to do as it pertains to unions," Thompson said.
Under current law, Minnesota workers can already opt out of union membership. But they are required to pay a share of the cost of collective bargaining. Those "fair share" fees are capped at 85 percent of the full membership dues.
Still, Thompson and other amendment supporters contend the requirement is bad for business. Peter Nelson of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, said he believes the switch to a so-called "right-to-work" law would benefit all Minnesota workers.
"We believe that right-to-work will raise wages, because it will force unions to work harder to recruit members," Nelson said. "Because higher wages is a key recruitment tool, unions will need to focus their work on higher wages.
"Additionally, we believe a right-to-work state will attract more capital investment that leads to more jobs. More jobs means more demand for workers, which will put upward pressure on wages."
Other supporters who testified included a nurse, teacher and state employee who all said they object to providing financial support to organizations they don't agree with. But several opponents of the amendment argued that the fair share requirement is necessary to pay for a contract-bargaining process that benefits union members and non-members alike. They said it prevents "free rides."
DFL Sen. John Marty of Roseville said he thinks the amendment would end up destroying unions and collective bargaining.
"If you don't think that's the case, I think you just have to step out the door for a minute," Marty said. "You'll find out that not only do the unions understand it, but the workers get it. And they feel strongly about it."
Unions have protested proposed changes in labor laws in other states, and union leaders warn that similar confrontations could play out here. Mike Buesing of AFSCME Council 5 questioned why lawmakers would want to start that kind of fight.
"We have all seen the recent dramatic events in Wisconsin and Ohio and in many other states across our nation," Buesing said. "I cannot see how any clear-thinking elected official would want to stir this hornets nest going into this re-election year."
But seven of the eight Republicans who control the committee voted in favor of the measure. GOP Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria joined with the five DFLers who voted no.
Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, said when it comes to labor law, he's ready for some changes.
"Unions have done much good over the years but I believe that unions, for many years, have overreached in what they have been doing," Hall said. "Minnesota needs to be set free from the control and the intimidation."