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Offense Takes the Field for Workers

November 20, 2012 By Will Nissen, Fellow

A Losing Bet: Projecting Right to Work's Impact on Minnesota's Economy

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Now that progressives hold majorities in Minnesota’s legislature, workers can move from defending basic employment rights to expanding workplace protections that build community prosperity and help grow a middle-class workforce. To use a sports analogy, progressives forced a turnover in the election; it's time to go on offense. 

During the last two legislative sessions, conservatives introduced a number of policies attacking long-time workplace protections that traditionally held bi-partisan support; they included assaults on bargaining rights, equal pay rights, prevailing wages for construction workers, and state employees’ pension benefits. Policies to dramatically reduce the state workforce would have had a tremendously negative impact on community services. This is on top of cuts in revenue sharing with local governments that did cause property tax increases on middle-class families along with county and municipal job cuts.

Since Governor Dayton vetoed the most egregious worker attacks, conservatives tried to bypass him by introducing a constitutional amendment proposal instituting a Right to Work (RTW) law. This deceptively phrased policy would have lead to reductions in salary and workplace protections, along with diminished union participation. In the end, a strong coordinated push from Minnesota’s labor groups garnered enough bi-partisan support to suppress the most extreme Tea Party assaults on workers, including the RTW amendment proposal.

Minnesota 2020 examined the independent academic literature regarding Right to Work and concluded that despite conservatives’ claims about job growth, the policy would not grow jobs in Minnesota. In fact, studies suggest it would erode workers’ rights and wages by undercutting unions’ ability to advocate on behalf of their members.

The Minnesota 2020 report, Losing Bet, found RTW legislation decreases unionization levels by 6.6 percent, lowers rates of new member flow into unions by 46 percent in the first five years after passage, increases the free rider effect by 6 to 10 percent, and lowers overall union activity in states with the law.

Unions are the frontline of defense for all workers (organized or not). They lead the fight to ensure worker safety, fair salaries and benefits, and they advocate for workers’ rights and hold employers accountable to labor laws.

When it comes to growing jobs and advancing Minnesota’s economy, even the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, our state’s leading pro-business lobby, identifies RTW as a low priority. Instead it points to improving the states’ secondary education system, lowering electric and health service costs, making government services and budget processes more efficient, and improving and streamlining the permitting and regulatory processes that businesses have to navigate. In short, what makes Minnesota attractive to businesses has little, if nothing, to do with RTW laws.

Having said that, the business lobby as a whole and many businesses individually will continue looking for ways to keep workforce costs low and limit labor’s power.

Consider the fact that Minnesota saw positive employment growth from June 2010-2011, but saw median family income adjusted for inflation stagnate in the decade from 2000 to 2010, more must be done to ensure wage equality.

As we head into the next legislative session, we need to focus on priorities that strengthen middle-class wages and worker protections. Minnesota policymakers must also rebalance our fiscal system to achieve a better level of tax fairness. Education leaders must work to reverse a decade-long school funding decline to ensure our next generation of workers are qualified for good careers.

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