At convention, Trades build momentum for 2014 election push

Jessica Looman, an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, addresses Building Trades delegates.

Jessica Looman, an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, addresses Building Trades delegates.

ROCHESTER – With two new stadiums in the works and $1 billion in new state infrastructure investments – as well as jobs-creating regional improvements like the Destination Medical Center here – the Building Trades unions in Minnesota are riding a wave of momentum.

That momentum is at stake in elections up and down the Nov. 4 ballot, speakers warned delegates to the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council’s annual convention at the Kahler Hotel this week.

“With less than 100 days before the election, it becomes an anxious time,” Council President Harry Melander said. “We have made great progress, and to go backwards would be a shame.”

At the top of Building Trades unions’ agenda this year, Melander said, is re-electing Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. In an address to delegates yesterday, the labor-endorsed DFLer listed his credentials for re-election, including new investments in education and infrastructure, 159,000 new jobs statewide and the first increase in Minnesota’s minimum wage in a decade.

But those accomplishments, the governor acknowledged, would not have been possible without DFL majorities in the Legislature. He noted the change in atmosphere at the Capitol since voters ousted Republican majorities in the House and Senate two years into his first term as governor.

“I hope to come back, obviously, but I don’t want to come back with a Republican House of Representatives,” Dayton said, adding that it would mean “gridlock, deadlock and other budget showdown.”

“We need to keep moving ahead, and that’s going to mean a DFL house and a DFL governor because everything we’ve accomplished can be reversed.”

Gov. Mark Dayton greets Building Trades delegates at their annual convention.

Gov. Mark Dayton greets Building Trades delegates at their annual convention.

Challenges remain

As successful as Dayton and DFL lawmakers have been in bringing Minnesota’s economy back, Dayton noted that only half of the construction-industry jobs lost during the Great Recession have been recovered. Making needed investments in transportation and transit, he said, will keep the industry on the right path.

“There’s no avoiding the responsibility we have for deciding whether we want a better transportation system, the same one or something that’s going to continue to get worse,” Dayton said. “It’s going to take $6 billion just to keep things where they are now.”

The governor also reminded delegates that he was the last line of defense against efforts to undermine prevailing wage, which ensures fair pay for workers on public construction projects. That effort died in the Legislature, as did efforts to undermine collective bargaining via a Right to Work constitutional amendment. But both remain alive among Dayton’s challengers, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson warned.

Knutson gave a glimpse of Republican candidates vying to take Dayton’s place. All four major candidates said in a radio debate yesterday that they support “unsafe, unfair and unnecessary” Right to Work legislation, she noted.

“Jeff Johnson goes even farther,” Knutson added. “In a debate a couple days ago he said he wants to change prevailing wage laws. And a few months ago he told a group of activists he wants to ‘go all Scott Walker’ on Minnesota. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I know it’s not good.”

Hearing from both sides

Although the lineup of speakers was heavy on DFLers, two Republican state senators, Dave Senjem and Carla Nelson, whose district includes Rochester, made a pitch to Building Trades delegates as well.

“Your jobs cannot be – they should not be – a partisan issue,” Nelson said. “Construction jobs lead our economic recovery. Your industry is one of the largest growth segments in the Minnesota workforce, and we anticipate that will continue.”

In a show of bipartisan support for the Trades, the Senate voted 59-0 last spring to pass a new law that ensures firms working on public construction projects have a track record of obeying prevailing-wage, overtime and other labor laws.

“Minnesota is the only place in America where a responsible contracting law exists statewide,” Melander said.

Senjem also noted bipartisan support for bonding bills, the Minnesota Vikings stadium and the Destination Medical Center, a $6 billion investment, backed by public and private funds, that will transform the Mayo Clinic and downtown Rochester – and create thousands of construction jobs.

Senjem also recalled that as a majority leader in the Senate two years ago, he “took that Right To Work bill, and we put it in the drawer.”

“We didn’t need that kind of Minnesota,” he said. “We can work together. We don’t need that kind of conflict. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

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