Bobby Kasper: We’re organizing to amplify working people’s voice

Bobby Kasper

State lawmakers are more than a month away from the deadline for finishing their work, and although negotiations over big-ticket items like the state budget, an infrastructure bill and long-term transportation investments have yet to begin in earnest, it already has been a disappointing legislative session for Minnesota’s working families.

It’s been clear from the start that corporate interests – from health insurance companies to for-profit prisons – have the ear of Republican majorities at our Capitol.

GOP lawmakers ignored the sensible recommendation of union nurses, family farmers and advocates for the vulnerable to expand MinnesotaCare as an option for people seeking health insurance on the state’s individual exchange. Instead, we got so-called “reinsurance” legislation, a $542 million giveaway to insurers with scarcely any public accountability. It passed despite the insurance companies’ refusal to make any guarantees to consumers regarding affordability or provider choice. Worse, lawmakers payed for the bill by stealing $400 million from a fund dedicated to providing care to low-income Minnesotans.

The reinsurance scheme is shameful, but Republicans’ attack on local control might be worse. The House has passed a bill that would strip earned-sick-and-safe-time benefits from 150,000 working people in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and a similar measure is moving through the Senate. I served on the task force that crafted St. Paul’s historic earned sick time ordinance – the most progressive in the nation. I don’t think any of us involved in that process could have imagined that, less than a year later, legislators would seek to undermine our work – and put corporate priorities before our right to address the issues facing our local communities as we see fit.

When our elected officials listen to corporate lobbyists and not the working families and retirees in their districts, we get legislation that moves Minnesota in the wrong direction. That’s why, at the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, we’re organizing to amplify working people’s voice, from the local level to the State Capitol. Here’s how:

Holding politicians accountable. We can’t expect elected officials to be responsive to our concerns if we don’t let them know where we stand. In the days leading up to the House vote on local control, St. Paul RLF volunteers filled our phone bank, connecting union members with East Metro lawmakers undecided on the bill. And it worked, as one of the lawmakers we called, Eagan Rep. Laurie Halverson, voted to oppose corporate interference. I also had to call Sen. Greg Clausen over the issue.

Additionally, we’ve organized numerous town-hall meetings with elected officials across our area, which covers Chisago, Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties. These meetings give working people an opportunity to share, face to face with their representatives, the issues that matter most to them.

Shaping election campaigns. We wouldn’t be fighting the wave anti-worker, anti-public employee bills coming out of the Capitol if more labor-endorsed candidates had won in November. As a movement, we’ve got to get better at making the connection between political action and people’s wages, schools and retirement security.

No election is too small to warrant our attention. In St. Paul last month, working people packed a debate hosted by the St. Paul RLF and attended by all five candidates for mayor. It’s an encouraging sign that union members are excited at the opportunity to shape this critical race. It’s the same energy we’re seeing as we host phone banks in support of a labor-endorsed school referendum in North Branch, where teachers and school employees say the district’s buildings need safety and security improvements, facilities upgrades and new technology. I was also involved with superintendent interviews in the St. Paul district.

None of our efforts will be successful without the support – and participation – of union members and retirees. We need your energy, your voice and your participation. Workers Memorial Day on April 28 is a great opportunity to get involved. For updates on our campaigns, join our e-activist list, or like us on Facebook.

– President Kasper leads the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, with more than 100 affiliate unions in the East Metro.

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