In 2021, Unions Will Press Legislature For Action For Working People

This article first appeared in Minneapolis Labor Review.

[UPDATE: Later in the day after Labor Review went to press, MN lawmakers announced a bi-partisan deal on extending unemployment benefits. The measure was signed into law by Governor Tim Walz December 17.]

With the state reeling from the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 session of the Minnesota legislature is set to convene January 5 and adjourn by May 17.

And, as the Labor Review went to press early in the day December 14, yet another special session of the 2020 legislature was scheduled to meet that very day to take up a COVID relief package.

In the days leading up to press time, a  relief package for businesses had bipartisan agreement. But the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate was not joining the DFL-controlled House in also backing relief measures for workers.

“We have an agreement,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman told the Labor Review late on December 13. But details were not available by the press deadline.

“Workers need a 13-week unemployment insurance extension,” said Melissa Hysing, legislative director for the Minnesota AFL-CIO. “At the end of December, 100,000 workers will have exhausted their benefits.” Many tens of thousands of families with unemployed wage-earners face the prospect of not being able to pay for groceries or for their rent or mortgage.

“Any COVID relief package must include relief for workers — it can’t just include businesses,” Hysing said. “Our position is you can’t have one without the other.”

If the legislature can’t find agreement on extending unemployment insurance during the December 14 special session, Hysing said, then “it would be the first thing they need to do” when the new legislature convenes January 5.

Interviewed December 10, Hysing said the Minnesota AFL-CIO was in the process of putting together the state labor federation’s legislative agenda and planned to announce it in January.

Interviews with representatives of several unions, too, found that legislative agendas still were taking shape.

All agreed that the 2021 legislative session will present special challenges — not just for addressing the issues facing the state — but also for how workers and their unions will be able to engage with legislators while the capitol is closed to the public because of COVD-19 restrictions.

The 2021 session of the Minnesota legislature will be a budget year, meaning the legislature will determine spending for state agencies and programs — and how to pay for them.

As the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s agenda has been taking shape, Hysing reported, “it’s all related to the pandemic and economic security.”

“The pandemic has hit working people pretty hard,” she said, while exacerbating racial and economic disparities that existed prior to the onset of the pandemic.

Hysing said measures advancing worker rights and safety during the pandemic likely will be part of the AFL-CIO’s agenda — including legislation to protect workers from retaliation if they speak out about unsafe conditions, as is currently mandated by the Governor’s peacetime emergency executive order.

Unions also will want to be sure that the pandemic isn’t used as an excuse to roll-back worker protections that already are part of state law, she said.

“We were advocating for paid family medical leave for years, now with this pandemic, it’s even more urgent,” Hysing added. That leave should include not just sick time, she noted, but also time to care for a family member and cover workers’ quarantine time, too.

With the state facing a budget deficit, “we need to make sure any budget fix is fair to working people,” Hysing said. “Working people have borne the brunt of the health and economic impacts of this pandemic… We can’t be cutting programs and services that working people depend on when people already are in crisis.”

If the state needs to raise revenues, Hysing said, wealthy individuals and corporations should be paying their fair share.

COVID-19 shutdowns have affected different sectors of the workforce differently, but one sector that’s been particularly hard-hit is the hospitality industry.

About 80 percent of the membership of UNITE HERE Local 17 currently are out of work, reported Wade Luneburg, Local 17 recording secretary.

These workers desperately need to see the state extend unemployment benefits, he said. Restaurants, hotels, sports arenas and airport concessions are either shutdown or barely operating — with no return to normal operations in sight.

And, he added, as the one-year mark of COVID-19 shutdowns approaches, many workers will be losing their recall rights when jobs do return — even workers covered by collective bargaining agreements.

“When we start hitting the one-year mark, the recall rights we had [under collective bargaining] start to click off,” Luneburg noted.

For that reason, he explained, UNITE HERE Local 17 will be advocating for state legislation to mandate that laid-off or former employees have certain rights to return to their old jobs when employers start hiring again.

“This recall legislation needs to be viewed through a lens of equity,” Luneburg emphasized. “I challenged the labor movement — and the legislature — it’s something right in front of us and it needs to be addressed.”

In addition to hospitality industry workers, construction industry workers also need the state to extend unemployment benefits.

Since March 2020, 87,000 Minnesota construction workers have applied for unemployment benefits, reported Jessica Looman, executive director of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council (more than the 76,000 food and beverage workers who applied, she said).

Due to COVID, “a lot of projects were postponed or put off or didn’t start,” Looman said.

“My goal is to get people to the construction season so we don’t lose people and they can get back to work,” she said.

“We’re incredibly excited to get started on the projects that were approved as part of the largest bonding bill in state history” earlier this year, she added.

Looking forward, Looman said, “we need to invest in all types of energy infrastructure,” pass a transportation bill, and be sure to protect prevailing wage requirements for all publicly-funded infrastructure projects.

For Operating Engineers Local 49, “the first priority will be defending the gains we’ve made in transportation infrastructure funding in the last few years,” said Local 49 business manager Jason George.  Right now, he noted, 50 percent of the auto parts sales tax is dedicated to highway funding. “We want to make sure it stays. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Local 49’s second priority: “we will be opposing any clean energy proposal that doesn’t have strong teeth that ensures skilled union construction tradespeople are building it,” George said.

“We will be watching the energy bill,” echoed  Adam Duininck, director of government affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. Right now, he noted, nuclear power plants and coal power plants provide good-paying union jobs. Union jobs, however, currently are less prevalent in the wind energy and solar energy sectors, he said. “We want to ensure those are good jobs in those industries,” he said.

Duininck noted that the Carpenters also will be watching as the legislature considers funding for affordable housing, another industry where prevailing wage union jobs are less prevalent — and where wage theft and misclassification of workers have been a problem.

COVID-19 issues are a priority for the SEIU Minnesota State Council, said its executive director, Brian Elliott. While SEIU still was finalizing its agenda, he said, “the number one thing is our members are almost exclusively essential workers. It’s not like my members can work from home.”

He said they need safety standards and adequate sick time, adding “we have people who are on their third or fourth quarantine… We have to get relief to folks who have to quarantine but are not getting paid.”

2021 brings contract negotiations for the state’s home care workers, he noted, and “we need a home care contract that’s going to improve wages for home care workers across the state.”

For AFSCME Council 5, 2021 priorities for state and local public employees are enduring, said executive director Julie Bleyhl: protecting collective bargaining, preventing attacks on defined benefit pensions, pushing for new and just state revenue.

With the pandemic, she added, “it’s important we fund the services the public depends on… It’s a health crisis. It’s an economic crisis. It’s also issues of racial and social justice.”

Advancing racial justice was also  a theme for the 2021 legislative session shared by Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union. “We’re really focusing hard on fully funding racially-just schools,” she said.

Education Minnesota had just adopted its 2021 legislative agenda and a new component, she said, will be “making sure racial equity is at the center of funding formulas for schools.”

She said a suite of bills will take aim at improving the wages, the work, and support of the state’s education support professionals. “They’re doing a lot in the pandemic,” she noted, and “these are the lowest-paid positions in our school districts.”

For all unions making their case at the capitol, this year will be different. “One thing we can’t do is pack the rotunda with hundreds or thousands of union members,” noted the Carpenters’ Adam Duininck. “But hopefully we can make our voices heard a different way.”

Expect unions to be calling on members to send e-mails and attend Zoom meetings or virtual town halls with their legislators.

“We’re going to need to be creative, that’s for sure,” Education Minnesota’s Denise Specht said.

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