Labor, reeling elsewhere, poised for gains in Minn.

Sugar boycott
Locked-out union workers of Crystal Sugar in Fargo, N.D. gathered outside a Fargo grocery store on Monday to mark the kickoff of a boycott of Amercian Crystal Sugar products. The contract dispute between American Crystal and 1,300 union workers ended earlier this month after more than a year, when workers agreed to accept a contract after rejecting it four times earlier.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Sitting side by side before state lawmakers, Minnesota Orchestra horn player Brian Jensen and third-generation sugar worker Becki Jacobson couldn't have come from much different worlds. But they had something in common: both had gone through lengthy labor lockouts, and both were asking the state to make unemployment benefits considerably more generous.

In most states, where costs are still being cut, the proposal would be out of the question. But in Minnesota, it's just one in a raft of union-friendly bills moving through the Legislature, giving union workers the prospect of big victories even as their brethren are reeling elsewhere.

As economic changes batter organized labor nationwide, eroding its membership and political power, Minnesota has emerged as one of the few places where unions are faring well.

Democrats hope they're creating a bulwark in a more hostile world.

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"There's been a general war on anyone who is working class and has a union by trying to take union rights away,'' Democratic Rep. Michael Nelson. "Here in Minnesota maybe we're ahead of the curve in pushing back.''

But Republicans see dire consequences ahead, including a possible business backlash.

Tim Zavadil
Tim Zavadil, Minnesota Orchestra clarinetist and member of the negotiating committee, speaks during a rally in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. Minnesota Orchestra management locked out the musicians after contract negotiations reached a stalemate.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"No state in the country is advancing more anti-business, anti-private sector legislation than the state of Minnesota,'' said Rep. Pat Garofalo, among the outnumbered House Republicans who can't stop the onslaught.

Most remarkable is that until recently, Minnesota was among the Midwestern states where labor was limping as manufacturing declined and the recession ratcheted up pressure to cut government spending. Republicans held the governorship or part of the Legislature since 1990. Union membership in the state dwindled to about 14 percent of the workforce over a decade.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Wisconsin, conservative Republicans who won power effectively eliminated collective bargaining for most public workers. And Michigan and Indiana passed business-friendly right-to-work laws, despite furious union protests.

That tide hasn't turned. In many statehouses, bills that would make it harder for unions to collect dues or make political contributions have been debated this year.

But suddenly, it's a different story in Minnesota. The change is due to an abrupt power shift when Democrats last fall managed to recapture both chambers of the Legislature. With Gov. Mark Dayton, a longtime union champion, already in place, labor is back in business and ready to reap the benefits of its campaign investments.

The Legislature may give labor a longtime priority -- the right to organize home day care workers and personal care attendants, which would help rebuild union membership. Lawmakers could make the state's minimum wage the highest in the nation at nearly $10 an hour and are poised to require hospitals to regularly report staffing numbers, a victory for nurses union.

Other bills would cut public subsidies to organizations that engage in lockouts and would help unions organize hotel workers and those in other buildings erected with public aid.

There's more to come on the wish list.

"You back an animal into the corner and nature's going to react: Fight or flight. Right now we're in the fight mode,'' said Rep. Jason Metsa, a Democrat from the union-heavy Iron Range in northern Minnesota. "You can only push someone so far before they start pushing back.''

Republicans say it's just a matter of time until the Democrats overreach, with other more business-friendly states ready to take advantage.

Businesses "may look harder at going somewhere else because of the changing landscape here in Minnesota,'' said Rep. Tim O'Driscoll, the lead Republican on the House committee where many of the union bills began their trek.

According to an Associated Press analysis of campaign reports, unions pumped more than $3.7 million into Democratic races and the state party last year, and steered millions more toward independent campaign groups. Both chambers flipped, giving Democrats a 12-seat House margin and an 11-seat Senate edge.

The proposal to force companies to pay unemployment for up to three years during lockouts is the most generous provision of its kind in the nation. The measure has passed the House; it was stripped from a Senate bill but will be in play in end-of-session negotiations.

"I couldn't afford Christmas presents for my granddaughter last year because my unemployment ran out,'' said Jacobson, one of 1,300 employees of the American Crystal sugar company who were locked out for 20 months before a settlement was reached this month.

Jensen, the Minnesota Orchestra player, is still on the sidelines almost seven months into a lockout with his family of five burning through their assets.

"Because of a situation beyond our control we find ourselves in need,'' he testified.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk warned that unions wouldn't get all they sought, and complained that lawmakers had faced "a challenge kind of managing their expectations.'' But union members were clearly optimistic.

"The war on public workers is finally over,'' said state parks and trails worker Connie Andrews. "You're not being targeted. You're not being blamed.''