Unions see ‘a generational opportunity’ as state lawmakers begin work at Capitol

capitolWhen the Minnesota Legislature convened at noon Jan. 8, everything changed – and nothing changed.

What has changed? For the first time in a generation, the DFL holds majorities in both the Minnesota House and Senate, while also holding the governor’s office. What hasn’t changed? The state still faces structural budget deficits that the last several legislative sessions have failed to address.

For the state’s labor movement, winning back labor-endorsed majorities in both houses of the Legislature means 2013 won’t bring a cascade of extreme, anti-worker legislative proposals, as the last two sessions under Republican control produced.

Instead of playing defense against “right to work” and other anti-worker bills, labor will focus instead on urging lawmakers to pass bills that create jobs, fix the state’s broken tax system, support union organizing and collective bargaining and reinvest in public education.

In short, union leaders are looking forward to playing a little offense at the Capitol.

“With this Legislature we have a generational opportunity here,” said Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Jobs, revenue top list

The top priorities for the Minnesota AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor federation, will be legislation to increase revenue and to create jobs, said Jennifer Schaubach, the federation’s legislative director.

“This past election was a scream loud and clear,” she said. Minnesotans voted for legislative candidates who promised an end to budget shifts and gimmicks, and to raise revenues fairly to invest in the state’s future.

That means supporting services that make Minnesota great by increasing taxes on those who can afford to pay a little more, said Julie Bleyhl, legislative director for Council 5 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“We have a backlog of funding problems that past Legislatures haven’t dealt with and have put off,” Bleyhl said. “We have a structural deficit. We need to fix that. We also want to make sure that revenue is raised in a fair way and those that can afford to – the millionaires – pay their fair share as well.”

As the state’s economy climbs out of the recession, “we still desperately need jobs,” Schaubach said, which is why the Minnesota AFL-CIO will support a significant bonding bill to invest in state infrastructure and create jobs. Unions also will push to facilitate expansion of the Mall of America in Bloomington.

Job-creating investments will be a top priority for the Building Trades, Melander said. “We hope to see that there are measures to provide a long-term solution to transportation funding, including transit,” he added.

Schools, organizing, equality

Although jobs and revenue top the list of labor’s legislative priorities this year, union leaders say they plan to organize around several other issues, including:

• School funding. Many DFLers campaigned on paying back funds shifted away from schools and urged making new investments in education.

“The November elections have given us a chance to catch up on a decade of underfunding our schools,” said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union.

• Safe hospital staffing. The Minnesota Nurses Association has been pushing for legislation ensuring minimum staffing levels at the state’s hospitals since 2007 – an effort that will continue in 2013, Political Director Andrea Ledger said.

Several studies show a link between adequate nurse staffing and positive patient outcomes. Still, many of the state’s hospitals have been unwilling to commit to minimum staffing levels in contract negotiations, prompting union nurses to look to their lawmakers for action on the issue.

“Nurses believe every patient in the state is entitled to nursing care that allows them to be treated safely,” Ledger said. “We know that when there are the right number of registered nurses at the bedside, errors are reduced and accidents are prevented.”

• Organizing and collective bargaining. As always, the state’s unions will stand up for workers’ rights, including the right to organize.

The Legislature is likely to take up the question of whether home health care workers and child care providers subsidized by the state are allowed to form a union. And graduate assistants at the University of Minnesota, whose drive to join the United Auto Workers fell short last year, will seek to change the makeup of their potential bargaining unit, making it more focused on teaching assistants rather than research and lab assistants.

The Service Employees International Union plans to support graduate assistants at the Capitol, said Jamie Gulley, president of the SEIU Minnesota State Council. “We have the capacity to help, so we’re going to do that as solidarity on the organizing side,” Gulley said. “The SEIU is going to be supporting any bill for any union that will help grow the labor movement.”

– The Union Advocate contributed reporting to this article by Minneapolis Labor Review Editor Steve Share.

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