Emboldened by victories won at the polls in November, the state’s largest labor federation will push an ambitious legislative agenda that calls for hiking the state’s minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits for locked-out workers and expanding the freedoms and protections Minnesotans enjoy in the workplace.
The Minnesota AFL-CIO, which represents more than 1,000 affiliate unions and more than 300,000 members statewide, unveiled its “Agenda for Middle Class Dignity and Fairness” at a Capitol press conference today.
Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson said the agenda’s “common-sense proposals” – along with the proposed state budget outlined by Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this month – represent a positive alternative to the attacks on workers that marked the previous 2011-12 legislative sessions.
Dayton’s budget “puts middle class families first by recognizing the need for new investments, but also raising revenue fairly to pay for those investments,” Knutson said. But, she added, there are other steps lawmakers should take to “level the playing field” for middle class workers. Those steps include:
• Raising the minimum wage to $10.55 per hour and “indexing” it, so that the rate is adjusted for inflation in the future.
Minnesota has the “unfortunate distinction,” Minnesota AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Steve Hunter said, of being one of four states with minimum wage rates lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. (Five southern states have no minimum wage laws at all.)
Workers in Minnesota can be paid as little as $5.25 per hour, according to the Department of Labor.
Raising minimum wage to $10.55 per hour would restore the buying power it had in 1968.
“Hard work should be supported with a wage that can support a family, and it’s ridiculous to think that someone can support a family at $7.25 an hour,” Hunter said.
• Extending workers’ unemployment benefits for the duration of a lockout – and adding a penalty to the unemployment tax paid by employers who lock out their workers.
“As long as the clock ticks, an employer has an incentive to lock workers out, while also putting a strain on the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund,” Knutson said. “This is what’s happened to the 1,300 employees of American Crystal Sugar.”
Becki Jacobson, who has been locked out of her job by the Moorhead-based sugar beet cooperative since Aug. 1, 2011, said many of her fellow union members opted to leave the region or take early retirement after their unemployment benefits ran out last year.
Knutson said the Minnesota AFL-CIO is working with lawmakers on a bill to hold accountable employers, like Crystal Sugar, that choose to force workers onto unemployment rather than engage in contract negotiations – and also “give employers pause” before they engage in such a war of attrition.
• Protecting Minnesota workers’ credit privacy and workplace freedoms.
Knutson and Hunter said they hope to see two bills introduced in the coming weeks: the Worker Freedom Act, which would give employees the right to walk out of workplace meetings aimed at changing their vote, religion or union affiliation; and the Credit Privacy in Employment Act, which would ban the use of credit checks in employment-related decisions.
“This is really a fundamental workplace protection that all Minnesotans should have,” Knutson said.
Several examples of bosses telling their employees how to vote emerged during the 2012 presidential campaign, most notably the case of a Florida timeshare company CEO, who warned his 7,000 workers via e-mail that layoffs would be the result of a victory for President Obama.
The use of credit checks in employment decisions – from hirings and firings to promotions – is also on the rise. A July 2012 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 47 percent of U.S. employers run credit checks on their job candidates.
The practice creates a catch 22 for job seekers who have faced financial crisis.
“This recession forced many people into financial situations that have impacted their credit scores,” Hunter said. “That credit score can sometimes be the only reason somebody is not a hired for a job that would return him or her back to the middle class.”