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In Midwest, GOP avoids union battles

Fifteen months after taking control of Minnesota's Legislature, Republicans have put a gay marriage ban on this November's ballot, moved to expand gun rights and cast dozens of votes to cut state spending. But there's one issue where they failed to get traction: watering down the strength of organized labor with a right-to-work law.

The problem isn't so much opposition from Democrats. And it isn't a lack of enthusiasm for the idea, which many conservatives consider essential for creating a business-friendly economic climate. The problem lies with Republicans who fear triggering a huge rebellion among opposition labor unions and sending a surge of sympathetic voters to the polls in November to vote Democratic.

In Minnesota and elsewhere across the Midwest, the question of what to do about the right-to-work issue is pitting Republican against Republican, straining relationships among longtime allies and weighing cherished ideals against political tactics.

"We wait and we wait and we wait, and then if we get the opportunity and we fail to take it, then the issue is done," said Michelle Benson, a frustrated Republican state senator from suburban Minneapolis who sounded off after House and Senate leaders' recently decided not to move on the issue.

The passage of a right-to-work measure in Indiana this year emboldened supporters in Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Missouri to try to carry the initiative across across the Rust Belt. But many GOP leaders were instead more impressed by the furor that the unions kicked up in defeat. Throngs of protesters mobbed the state capitol in Indianapolis and Democratic lawmakers periodically disrupted the legislative session with boycotts. Huge demonstrations also came after Wisconsin Republicans stripped public employees of collective bargaining rights last year.

The Minnesota proposal had one committee hearing last month -- provoking a labor protest and AFL-CIO sponsored TV ads. Although union membership has declined nationally in recent decades, organized labor remains a political force in Minnesota, with the AFL-CIO boasting about 300,000 members. A big Democratic turnout this November could make it more difficult for Minnesota's GOP to defend the more than 30 state House and Senate seats they seized from Democrats in the 2010 election.

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