Union battle heats up in A.G. Swanson's office

AG Lori Swanson
Attorney General Lori Swanson has been involved in an ongoing dispute with some of her employees over union organizing.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Year-old union-busting allegations against Swanson surfaced again last month when three of her staff attorneys went public with their concerns.

Susan Damon, Daniel Goldberg and Amy Lawler sent a letter to Swanson on behalf of a union organizing committee, asking her to recognize what they described as "the will of the staff to be represented by a labor union."

They also asked Swanson to support efforts to clarify the state collective bargaining law for public employees, to specifically include attorneys and other at-will employees in the attorney general's office.

Amy Lawler said she and her colleagues believe a union would protect them if they speak out about workplace problems.

"There are a lot of things that are really wrong with the office right now that are a real disservice to the public," Lawler said. "And as a result, we're losing the best talent, the brightest minds. People don't feel like there's anything they can do to improve the office, so they just leave, or get fired. "

"There are a lot of things that are really wrong with the office right now that are a real disservice to the public."

Lawler has worked in the complex litigation division of the attorney general's office for less than four months. But it didn't take long for the recent law school graduate to get caught up in office politics.

Lawler said she was on the job just a week when an attorney, who introduced himself as the head of the office social committee, took her out for coffee and delivered a strong anti-union message.

"He started talking to me about why we didn't need a union," Lawler said, "how people only need unions if they are lazy and don't want to do work, and if they're not very good at their jobs and they need protection."

Lawler said the attorney claimed union organizers within the office were backed by an outside political faction intent on bringing down Lori Swanson.

Lawler said the same attorney later approached her and other employees, asking them to sign what she described as a loyalty petition.

"The second paragraph is all about how great Lori Swanson is, how she's the first attorney general to graduate at the top of her class, how she's the first attorney general with such extensive public and private experience, how she never brings politics into the office, how she's all around a great leader," Lawler said. "And then the last paragraph is about how we decry the union's tactics, we don't want them representing us and they don't speak for us."

Lawler said she did not sign the petition. Instead, she sought out those in the office trying to organize a union and joined their cause.

Other longtime employees of the attorney general's office told MPR News about the petition, as well as anonymous anti-union literature found in the office. They asked that their names not be used, because they fear retaliation or the loss of their jobs.

The attorney general's office declined interview requests for this story. A spokesman issued a statement saying, "the issue of whether confidential attorneys can form a union has been around for 20 years. Attorney General Swanson is focused on doing her job for the people of Minnesota."

But in a memo to employees last month, Lori Swanson said she strongly disagreed with many of the accusations contained in the letter from Lawler and the two other attorneys.

Swanson called the letter an embarrassment that undermined the work of the office. She also claimed the letter was a political swipe, rather than a good-faith attempt to communicate.

Officials with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 raised concerns about the attorney general's office last spring, after a majority of attorneys signed union cards. AFSCME accused Swanson of firing a lawyer from her staff for union organizing. Swanson denied the allegation at the time.

The issue came up again three months later, when Swanson appeared on MPR's Midmorning program.

"It's up to the lawyers to decide, do they want representation? If they do, who do they want to represent them? There's lots of organizations out there who could potential represent people," Swanson said at the time. "And on what terms? There can be all kinds of terms for representation. But it's not an issue for the boss or the employer to interfere with, and I have not done that."

Swanson appears to have abandoned that hands-off approach.

In response to last month's letter, Swanson conducted her own survey of staff opinions. She brought in two retired judges to help with the balloting. Results of that survey indicated a majority of employees did not support the union organization.

But union supporters said Swanson's method, which included captive audience meetings, was coercive and disrespectful. They also said many pro-union attorneys were not invited to the voting sessions.

After the vote, Swanson sent a letter to Damon, Goldberg and Lawler accusing them of mounting personal and public attacks on the office. Swanson also referenced an outside legal opinion she received last year on the issue.

In that opinion, Minneapolis lawyer John McDonald said the state's Public Employee Labor Relations Act had no application in the attorney general's office, and he advised Swanson not to meet and confer with union organizers.

McDonald wrote that such discussions would expose the office to potential lawsuits from employees who don't want a union.

A lawyer for AFSCME disagrees with that opinion.

In Swanson's written response to the three attorneys last month, she also accused them of creating a public spectacle with their letter. She said it "brought embarrassment" to the office.

Lawler said she thinks Swanson missed the point of the letter.

"There was nothing personal in it," she said. "And it wasn't a heated or inflammatory letter. Her response was so draconian and so harsh, just this crackdown."

Lawler said Swanson wrongly tried to frame the union effort as some kind of vendetta. A former employee offered a similar assessment.

Jody Wahl left the attorney general's office in January after 25 years. Wahl said she saw more than 50 professionals leave the office in the past year, but it appeared to her that Swanson wasn't interested in the reasons.

She said the attorney general never recognized the union discussion as a management issue.

"There wasn't an understanding that this was truly an internal, staff-driven effort to have conversations with their colleagues about whether obtaining union representation would work to benefit the work of the attorney general's office," Wahl said. "Instead, it appears there was a sense that this was driven by outside forces, by former political rivals or former staff members, or whatever. And that isn't the case."

Republicans in the Minnesota House have been asking questions about DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson and her office for nearly a year, but they haven't received many answers. They want DFL leaders to allow a hearing into the union-busting allegations against Swanson.

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, said a hearing would give the attorney general an opportunity to restore public confidence.

"I'm a Republican," Emmer said. "I don't care. She can run the office the way she wants. But it's the office I care about. People need to know that that office is credible, reliable and is operating the way we expect it to, to protect the state of Minnesota and its citizens."

Union leaders are also trying to turn up the heat at the state Capitol. A recent post on the AFSCME Council 5 Web site urged members to call the attorney general, as well as the legislators who head up the House and Senate committee that oversee her office budget.

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