As session begins, Minnesota unions see opportunity for investments in infrastructure, frontline workers

Essential workers marched outside the Capitol during a union rally last summer.

With a projected $7.7 billion budget surplus, state lawmakers have an historic opportunity, union leaders said, to fully invest in public services, infrastructure and frontline workers during the 2022 legislative session, which began today.

Lawmakers traditionally take up capital investments – the so-called “bonding bill” – in even-numbered years, but the record surplus, coupled with unspent federal pandemic relief funds, could allow for more broad spending measures this year, including long-delayed compensation for frontline workers.

Unions also plan to lobby for pro-worker policy changes like paid family leave, and to remain vigilant in preventing attacks on existing worker rights and protections from gaining traction.

While Gov. Tim Walz and a labor friendly DFL majority in the House have expressed an appetite for robust investments and pro-worker policies, the outlook is less rosy in the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow majority.

“The Senate has proven to be an obstacle – if not a roadblock – for years to paid family and medical leave, as well as more recently frontline worker pay,” said Melissa Hysing, the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s legislative and strategic research director. “The challenge is always going to be the Senate.”

Minnesota unions are sure to advance their own priorities to the Capitol with solidarity from the labor community. But here’s a look at the agenda unions crafted together as part of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, which unites over 1,000 affiliate unions and 300,000 working people.

Union tradespeople called on lawmakers to pass a bonding bill outside the Capitol in 2020.

• Infrastructure jobs

Not only is it a bonding year, but the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden last November, gives Minnesota an opportunity to leverage additional funds for capital investment and create tens of thousands of family-sustaining jobs.

The Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, the voice of the state’s construction unions, praised Walz’s Local Jobs and Projects Plan, unveiled earlier this month. In a statement, Executive Director Tom Dicklich said the $2.7 billion infrastructure bill would leverage funding to support “statewide projects for years to come.”

“The passage of the Local Jobs and Projects act will provide an opportunity to create a solid pipeline of projects that can sustain the construction industry and the jobs it provides,” Dicklich said. “We thank Governor Walz and his team for putting forward this plan and urge all lawmakers to work together to make these needed investments in the jobs and infrastructure that Minnesota deserves.”

At a rally in downtown Minneapolis in December 2021, advocates called on legislators to stop playing politics with a fund created to compensate essential workers.

• Frontline worker pay

Last July, Minnesota lawmakers set aside $250 million in funds to compensate essential workers for keeping the state running during the COVID-19 pandemic. But workers never received a penny, as lawmakers on a bipartisan working failed to agree on who should be eligible.

Republicans on the working group blocked any plan that did not direct the payments to a narrow pool of health care workers, first responders and long-term-care workers. But unions, including the Minnesota Nurses Association, argued against excluding any frontline worker.

Hysing said the Minnesota AFL-CIOwill support Walz’s proposal to give each of the state’s estimated 667,000 frontline workers a $1,500 bonus, calling it “unfinished business.”

Julie Bleyhl, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5, called Senate Republicans “disrespectful” for seeking to exclude retail workers, bus drivers, janitors and others from the payments. Many Minnesotans have churned through their paid time off – or gone without pay – to quarantine or provide care for themselves and their families.

“While the need for public services has increased dramatically for many years, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a particularly devastating impact on our workforce, through forced overtime and COVID-19 exposure,” Bleyhl said. “That is why our union remains steadfast in our commitment to fighting for frontline worker bonus pay for all frontline worker heroes.”

• Paid family leave

In more unfinished business, the Minnesota AFL-CIO will continue to co-chair a statewide coalition of labor, faith and community organizations lobbying to extend paid family and medical leave benefits to all workers in the state.

The coalition supports creating a statewide insurance pool that would cover the cost of replacement wages for workers who take time off for the birth or adoption of a child, or to be with an ailing family member. Workers would be eligible for up to 12 weeks of leave, with benefits ranging from 55 to 80 percent of their typical wages.

The program is included in Walz’s proposed spending package, and House DFL leaders have proposed using part of the budget surplus to pre-fund benefits for two years.

“Working people should never be forced to choose between a paycheck and taking care of themselves and the people they love, and lawmakers can take action so we never have to make that choice again,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy said.

• Workers’ Compensation eligibility

Unions will encourage lawmakers to extend the law, passed in 2020, creating a presumption that first responders and health care workers who contract COVID-19 did so on the job, making them eligible for Workers Compensation benefits.

• Wage theft

Despite passing with bipartisan support in 2019, Minnesota’s new wage theft law – the strongest in the nation – has been a target of attempts to weaken its protections and soften penalties on offending employers. Hysing pointed to Republican proposals last year that would have stripped language requiring employers to notify new workers of their wages before their first shift.

“So workers wouldn’t know until after they’ve received their first paycheck what they’re supposed to receive,” she said. “One of the first defenses against wage theft is workers knowing what they’re supposed to be paid – that shared understanding between the worker and employer about what the wage is for work performed.

“We will continue to work to maintain these hard-won protections and make sure workers get paid for the work they’ve done.”

For updates on the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s work at the Capitol and alerts about how to take action, follow the federation on Facebook and Twitter, sign up for text and e-mail alerts.


  1. […] Advocates at the press conference called the governor’s proposal a necessary first step, and they urged legislators to act during the session that began Monday. […]

  2. […] Unions representing nurses, food-production workers, janitors, public employees and other workers called on Republicans who control the Senate to follow House members’ lead and take up the $1 billion measure, which would tap into the state’s projected $7.7 billion budget surplus. […]

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