ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Republican senators got a taste Monday of the fight over labor rights that gripped other Midwestern statehouses in the last year, with a committee narrowly passing legislation to curb union power even as hundreds of demonstrators chanted and yelled just feet away.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a constitutional amendment that would let voters statewide decide if Minnesota should be a right-to-work state, with voluntary union membership. The vote was 7-6, with one Republican joining the committee's five Democrats to vote no.
Union members flooded the hallways outside the hearing room, waving signs. Protesters were loud enough that people testifying on the bill were drowned out by chants of "kill the bill" every time someone entered or left the room.
If the amendment were to pass the full House and Senate, voters in November would decide whether Minnesota's Constitution should be amended to make membership voluntary in both private and public unions. Membership is not compulsory under current law, but non-union employees in most unionized shops are required to pay a "fair share" fee of up to 85 percent of normal dues.
The Senate committee's action far from guarantees a statewide vote. Some legislative Republicans don't want the issue on the ballot, knowing it would pick a massive political fight with unions. The bill's chief Senate sponsor said he has no promise from his majority leader that the full chamber will take it up this year.
Sen. Dave Thompson said he's pushing it anyway. The Lakeville Republican said the right of workers to determine the details of their own employment status is so fundamental that voters themselves should decide if it belongs in the state constitution. There's also a pragmatic reason for Republicans to pursue the issue by referendum rather than changing the law itself: Any attempt to do so would meet an almost certain veto from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, a strong supporter of unions. Governors cannot stop the Legislature from putting constitutional amendments on the ballot.
"I believe the ability to work for the employer of your choice without having to pay a third party to do so is as fundamental to our economic liberty as, say, property rights," Thompson said.
The hearing drew union shop employees both for and against the amendment. Elaine Kollar, a teacher at a public high school in an Anoka County juvenile detention center, said she is forced to pay $700 a year in union dues.
"I don't know where my dues go," Kollar said. "Do I have any say in any of this? The answer is no."
Supporters said adding Minnesota to the list of 23 right-to-work states nationwide would be good for the state's business climate, but they acknowledged it's difficult to show a direct connection. "You cannot look at one factor. But if you look at studies that have attempted to control other factors, the influence of employee freedom seems to be positive on economic growth and employment," Thompson said.
But Ursula Tuttle, a registered nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, said she lived in Oklahoma in 2001 when voters there approved a right-to-work measure. She voted in favor, she said, and later regretted it.
"I believed it would create jobs. It didn't," Tuttle said. "It didn't create jobs, and we stayed poor."
Several critics argued that lifting the "fair share" requirement would result in workers in union shops getting the benefits of union bargaining — salary increases, better benefits, improved workplace conditions — without having to pay for it.
"If this bill passes, it allows for freeloading," said Sara Van Asten, a match teacher at North Hennepin Community College in Golden Valley. Van Asten said she's worked four years without a raise, and worried what would happen if her union is weakened.
"We currently have a strong union, and even with our strong union, I am overworked and underpaid," she said.
The most recent state to become right-to-work was Indiana, where Republican legislative majorities approved it earlier this year and the Republican governor signed it into law. The debate over various bills seen by unions as undermining collective bargaining rights have flared in state Capitols around the country this year and last, as Republicans who gained power in numerous statehouses have pushed to weaken union strength.
"I believe unions have done much good over the years, but I also believe the unions for many years have overreached," said Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville. "Minnesota needs to be set free from the control and the intimidation."
Critics of the measures in Minnesota and elsewhere see an effort to dilute the strength of a political movement that largely backs Democrats. Brad Lehto, chief of staff at the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said that would come at the expense of those most likely to be represented by unions: "The people who daily put their lives in danger to keep us safe, who educate our children, who keep our drinking water clean, people who are with us when are loved ones are born and when they die."
Not every Republican is on board. The amendment has yet to get a committee hearing in the GOP-controlled House. In the Senate, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, joined Judiciary Committee Democrats to vote against the bill.
A former county sheriff, Ingebrigtsen said he'd been hearing a lot about the issue from former law enforcement colleagues.
"As sheriff, it didn't matter if you were union or not. If I needed to fire you, I did," Ingebrigtsen said. "Unions were very good to work with as long as you were straight up and straightforward."
Associated Press reporter Alexandra Tempus contributed to this report.