For the first time in almost forty years, Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate of the Minnesota Legislature for the previous two sessions. Despite the veto power of Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL), Minnesota Republicans made significant strides in the latest sessions–including placement on the ballot of the proposed Voter-ID and anti gay marriage amendments. Whether Republicans retain those majorities in November may have a significant impact on the direction of labor/employment law and various civil rights matters in the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions.
If the Republicans do retain majorities in both houses, one thing to expect is that Minnesota will join the likes of Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma in having its voters decide on a “right to work” amendment to the Minnesota Constitution.
Amending the Minnesota Constitution
The current ideological split between Democrats and Republicans is strong. The three-week shutdown of the Minnesota government in 2011 is a reminder of how that divide, when strong and accompanied by a split government, can make it difficult to get much accomplished without political compromise. Lacking a majority strong enough to override a gubernatorial veto, Republicans have been unable to turn much of their agenda into law without some form of compromise with Minnesota Democrats–who have been forced to do the same.
Both parties have thus faced difficulties in advancing policies that are wholly partisan and uncompromising; yet, where Republicans have been able to avoid compromise is via their ability to use a simple majority of the Legislature to push issues to voters in the form of constitutional amendments–which the Governor can do nothing about. Amending the Minnesota Constitution to reflect their partisan and uncompromising political agenda is a significant (and, I think, unfortunate) move by Republicans, as it ensures that even if they lose their majority, their policy preferences are embedded in the State Constitution in a way that is extremely difficult to change via the normal political process.
Responding to charges of extremism for making such a move, Republicans say that they are left with no choice; they argue that Democrats like Gov. Dayton of being even more partisan and extreme and that it should be left to the voters to decide issues which the parties clearly cannot agree; one such issue is whether Minnesota should be a “right to work” state.
Likelihood of “right to work” amendment
In early 2012, Minnesota Republicans toyed with the possibility of pushing a “right to work” amendment. Rumors floated that there was some trepidation on the part of some party members regarding the idea of amending the Constitution and the substance of “right to work” itself. At the time, neighboring Wisconsin was gearing up for a special vote that stood to recall several Republican legislators and the state’s governor and lieutenant governor for advancing anti-union measures. With all of the uncertainty, its not hard to understand why Republicans were hesitant to start a push for “right to work” policy with Minnesota’s notoriously labor-friendly voters, where the possibility of losing was very real. Colorado, for example, defeated such an attempt in 2008.
Now, though, consider that: -Wisconsin and Ohio catapulted the issue into the national spotlight and mainstream conscience. -Gov. Walker won his recall election in Wisconsin, landing a win in what was widely seen as a referendum on public unions. -Over $15 million is being spent on two proposed constitutional amendments this November, both of which are poised to pass and are showing Republicans how they can advance policy in the voter booth.
All of this combined with reelection this November might give Republicans the motivation they need to go after a “right to work” amendment. If they retain legislative control, get both the anti-gay marriage and voter-ID amendments passed, and if the current ideological divide of the parties stays its course, it is quite likely that Minnesota will be voting on such a proposal in the next two years.
Consequences of “right to work” amendment
“Once we control for our comprehensive set of both individual and state-level observable characteristics, we find that the mean effect of working in a right-to-work state is a 3.2% reduction in wages for workers in these states. We also find a 2.6 and 4.8 percentage-point reduction in employer-sponsored health insurance and employer-sponsored pensions, respectively. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the wage penalty for nonunionized workers is 3.0%, and the benefit penalty is 2.8 percentage points and 5.3 percentage points for health and pension benefits, respectively…The fact is, while RTW legislation misleadingly sounds like a positive change in this weak economy, in reality the opportunity it gives workers is only that to work for lower wages and fewer benefits. For legislators dedicated to making policy on the basis of economic fact rather than ideological passion, our findings indicate that, contrary to the rhetoric of RTW proponents, the data show that workers in “right-to-work” states have lower compensation – both union and nonunion workers alike.”
Gould, Elise; Shierholz, Heidi (2011). The Compensation penalty of “right-to-work” laws” at 8-9.
Joshua Newville is an attorney and mediator based in Minnesota. He litigates employment and civil rights cases, serves as a mediator for civil disputes, and provides employment law advice.