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'Right to work' push has unions stewing and a fight brewing

A 'right to work' push in Minnesota leads to boycotts by Democratic lawmakers and protests in multiple states.

By Brian BakstAssociated Press / February 2, 2012

Bob Hedrick, Max Hutka and Steve Adams, from left, wait outside of the Indianapolis Statehouse on Jan. 4, 2012. Several legislatures have seen pushes to enact labor legislation that would ban labor contracts requiring all workers to pay union fees.

Darron Cummings/AP/File

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ST. PAUL, Minn.

Republicans pulled Minnesota into an explosive issue Thursday by introducing legislation to make union membership optional, setting the stage for a fight that has triggered boycotts by Democratic lawmakers and large protests in other states.

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GOP senators introduced the plan as a proposed constitutional amendment, meaning it would need only a simple majority in the House and Senate — and bypass Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton — to get on the ballot. If voters ultimately approved it, the amendment would bar labor contracts from requiring both public and private workers to pay union fees or compelling membership.

Democrats have vowed not to support the proposal, but Republicans have narrow majorities in both legislative chambers. Still, some GOP lawmakers have been skittish about the issue, leaving its fate in question.

Sen. Dave Thompson, a Lakeville Republican, said proponents are heading into the campaign knowing it's a volatile issue. But he stressed that the measure doesn't change the ability to collectively bargain in places where unions exist.

Thompson and other advocates said such laws help create better business environments and spur job growth because employers are more hesitant to expand in places where unions are more prevalent.

Union leaders argue that such measures give employers cover to pay lower wages and benefits.

Sen. Barb Goodwin, a Democrat from Columbia Heights, said the plan is simply an attempt to weaken unions, one of the major backers of the Democratic Party.

"The playground bullies are attacking working people again," Goodwin said. But, she added: "It will bring working people out to vote. And that's not a bad thing."

Almost half of U.S. states have such right-to-work laws. Indiana became the 23rd right-to-work state on Wednesday, when the state's Republican governor signed the measure into law. It ended a contentious two-year political fight that included large union protests, and lawmaker walkouts and stall tactics — including Democrats in the House fleeing the state for five weeks last year and refusing to enter the chamber for several days this year.

Such efforts are usually backed by Republicans, who say their right-to-work plans are better for business.

In Minnesota, Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa, the chief sponsor in the House, claimed that workers relocate from "forced-unionism states to right-to-work states."

"This initiative will give Minnesotans the opportunity to reverse the hinges on the doors," he said.

However, experts say many factors influence states' economies and that it's nearly impossible to isolate the impact of right to work. For major industries, access to supplies, infrastructure, key markets and a skilled workforce are key factors, according to business recruitment specialists. For a state's workers, the impact of right-to-work legislation is limited because only about 7 percent of private sector employees are unionized.

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