What labor unions want from a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party trifecta

By: - November 17, 2022 7:30 am

Construction workers and labor activists march through downtown Minneapolis to call on developers to improve labor standards and agree to independent monitoring on June 16, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

In his victory speech on election night, Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged his union backers and the legacy that’s in the name of his party: Democratic-Farmer-Labor.

“This is a union state,” he said.

Labor unions spent millions to secure Walz’s re-election and help his party take control of the House and Senate for the first time since 2013.

The last time the DFL had a trifecta, workers saw some of the biggest gains in decades. Lawmakers increased the minimum wage by 50% and tied it to inflation. They expanded Medicaid benefits for tens of thousands of Minnesotans, and they passed a law allowing 19,000 personal care attendants to unionize.

Having played a central role in the DFL’s success at the polls this year, labor unions will arrive at the Capitol with a laundry list of proposals that could transform work for millions of Minnesotans.

Top priorities include a $15 an hour minimum wage, paid family leave and paid sick time. Public employees — including teachers, police officers, public defenders and other government workers — are also seeking large increases in funding as lawmakers create a $55 billion or more two-year budget, spend a projected $12 billion budget surplus and consider a multi-billion dollar public works bill.

Labor activists may also try to codify workers’ rights to collectively bargain with a constitutional amendment, as they did in Illinois this year. The Legislature would need to put the proposal before voters for approval. If passed, it would protect unions from future lawmakers passing so-called right-to-work laws, like those in Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas.

Unions also have specific requests with significant implications for some of the state’s largest industries.

Minimum staffing levels for hospital nurses

Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner leads a rally of union nurses outside U.S. Bank’s corporate offices in downtown Minneapolis on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A DFL-controlled Legislature is poised to pass regulations on hospital staffing levels that the nurses’ union has been pushing for over a decade.

The bill, called “The Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act,” requires hospitals to have a minimum number of nurses on duty per patient, according to staffing plans developed by committees made up of nurses and hospital administrators.

Minimum staffing ratios are a holy grail for nurses but fiercely opposed by hospital leaders, who are loath to surrender control of management decisions to their employees while increasing labor costs. Nurses say hospital leaders are responsible for chronically understaffed wards which are driving up patient injuries and driving nurses out of the profession.

Registered nurses are the most in-demand workers in the state. Nursing vacancies in Minnesota have doubled since 2019, and a recent national survey found half of nurses are considering leaving the field in the next year. The most common reason nurses was “unsafe staffing” levels.

Earlier this year, the House passed the nurses’ bedside bill backed by the Minnesota Nurses Association, which represents 20,000 nurses. The bill floundered in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Senate DFL leaders said it was a “legislative priority.”

If passed, the bill would resolve a key sticking point in negotiations between some of the state’s largest health systems and 15,000 unionized nurses, who have yet to reach an agreement after a historic three-day strike in September.

After the bill failed in the Legislature, the nurses’ union brought its demand for greater control over staffing levels to the bargaining tables of seven health systems in the Twin Cities and Duluth area, including Allina Health, Fairview Health Services and Children’s Minnesota.

A spokesperson for the nurses’ union says they plan to continue to push for minimum staffing levels in contract negotiations as well as at the Legislature.

Staffing levels have been a major roadblock — along with wages — to reaching a deal. Nurses aren’t willing to surrender the issue, while hospital leaders have told nurses the issue is a non-starter.

The nursing bill also aims to attract and retain nurses with student loan forgiveness and funding for mental health support. The bill includes funding for violence prevention as well, aimed at addressing the surging number of attacks against hospital workers in recent years.

Full funding for public schools 

The teachers’ union held a news conference soon after Democrats swept the Legislature to say they will be demanding “big things” from the party they supported as they draft a new two-year budget.

Education Minnesota is among the DFL’s most important allies. The union wants to see a multi-billion-dollar investment in public schools to increase teacher pay as well as expand special education staff and mental health support.

“We’re not going to accept small,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht. “We know that there is a big price tag, but there are big expectations on our schools and the staff who are working there, so we’re going to be asking for those bold asks.”

Walz, a former teacher, has frequently said he also supports “fully funded schools,” though the definition of that has been vague.

In 2019, Specht proposed an additional $4.3 billion in spending over two years due to inflation and enrollment growth. This was before the pandemic exacerbated academic challenges and inflation reached 40-year highs.

New regulations for Uber and Lyft 

Uber and Lyft drivers have begun organizing themselves to press state lawmakers to force the tech giants to address long-standing driver complaints of meager wages, unsafe working conditions and a lack of transparency.

Drivers for Uber and Lyft are classified as independent contractors, which means they are responsible for the cost of their vehicles and aren’t entitled to protections afforded to other workers like minimum wage, overtime pay and workers’ compensation.

Workers say they want to retain the freedom they have as independent contractors to set their own hours but also want a guaranteed minimum wage, paid sick leave and access to a third-party appeals process for deactivation.

Some Minnesota DFL lawmakers are pushing to pass a more stringent definition of “independent contractors” and force Uber, Lyft and other app-based services like DoorDash to classify their gig workers as employees. That would also have implications for other industries, such as construction, where workers are often misclassified as independent contractors.

More funding for home health care workers 

Nora Clark helps her client, Scott Semo, shave. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The shortage of home health care workers has reached tragic levels, with a growing number of disabled and elderly Minnesotans lacking adequate care.

There were more than 15,000 vacancies for home health care jobs at the end of 2021, a 60% increase over 2020, according to the most recent state data.

Workers and employers say the median wage, around $15 an hour, is too low to attract qualified candidates.

“It’s just not enough to recruit people and when there’s not benefits associated with the contract,” said Jamie Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa, the union that represents about 19,000 of the state’s personal care attendants.

Gulley said the union is pushing for a $20 minimum wage in negotiations with the state, which pays for home care workers with state and federal Medicaid dollars. They’re also advocating for benefits like retirement plans and health insurance. Many personal care attendants’ incomes are so low that they qualify for MinnesotaCare, the state’s public health insurance program for low-income workers. They could lose that state-subsidized coverage as wages rise.

Home health care is a much less expensive alternative to nursing homes, and Gulley argues ensuring there are workers to care for people in their homes will pay off in the long run.

New standards for nursing homes 

SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa will renew its push for a nursing home standards board, which passed the DFL-controlled House earlier this year.

“This is an industry that has overwhelmingly failed our state during the pandemic, whether it’s the residents or the workers,” Gulley said. “There needs to be a set of minimum standards that everybody’s held to in order to make nursing homes a place where people want to go to work and where people get great care.”

The Minnesota Nursing Home Workforce Standards Board would be composed of representatives from nursing homes, workers and the state commissioners of health, human services and labor.

The board would be able to set minimum wages, staffing levels and other working conditions. The board would also establish training requirements and certify worker organizations, including unions, to provide that training.

Unemployment benefits for school bus drivers

Bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other support staff in schools and universities aren’t eligible to collect unemployment benefits during the summer months.

Rather than having to find temporary work for three months each year or go without a paycheck, many workers have found more stable, year-round work. That’s contributed to a labor shortage that’s led to disruptions across the state, from canceled school bus routes in many districts to abbreviated dining hall hours at the University of Minnesota.

School bus companies have boosted driver wages, which has helped, but unions representing school support staff will push the Legislature to expand unemployment benefits to their members.

Gus Froemke, spokesman for Teamsters Local 320, said school districts had been able to get by with part-time workers and retirees picking up driving shifts. But he said that labor pool has dried up since the pandemic began and hasn’t rebounded.

“It was never posed as a career, and now they want people to sign up for nine months,” Froemke said. “Who wants to choose a career path if you know you’re gonna be laid off for at least three months and have no income?”

Froemke said the Teamsters Local 320 will also push for the Legislature to elect a member of the labor community to serve on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.

Public construction projects

construction workers
Construction workers mix concrete for a bridge in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The unions representing laborers, carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, and other construction workers are salivating over the prospect of a large infrastructure bill. The divided Legislature failed to pass a spending and borrowing bill — called a bonding bill around the Capitol — as they typically do in even-numbered years.

House Democrats initially pitched a $3.5 billion bonding bill, while Walz identified $2.7 billion in spending priorities. That was whittled down through compromises with Senate Republicans to about $1.4 billion, but lawmakers failed to seal the deal.

Projects with government funding require workers to earn a “prevailing wage” and are often awarded to unionized contractors, making a larger spending bill a boon to the building trades.

With full control of government, Democrats will be eager to go big to address a backlog of maintenance work ranging from water infrastructure to historic landmarks to roads and bridges. State lawmakers will also look to fund more affordable housing development and climate change resiliency projects.

Adam Duininck, government affairs director for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, said they’re optimistic a unified Legislature will also quickly authorize funding for state highway projects that are eligible for matching funds from the federal government. The sooner the Legislature acts, the more projects they can start in the 2023 construction season.

“It maybe would have been used as a bargaining chip,” Duininck said. “I think now we can get it done quicker and get those road and bridge projects built.”

Greater accountability for labor abuses

The building trades have had success lobbying for increased worker protections even with a divided Legislature.

In 2019, state lawmakers passed one of the toughest wage theft laws in the country, making it a felony if in excess of $1,000. While no one has yet been charged criminally with wage theft, the Legislature earlier this year granted new investigatory powers to the Commerce Fraud Bureau, which specializes in white-collar crimes.

Most building trade unions endorsed Attorney General Keith Ellison and expect him to live up to his campaign promise to go after exploitative contractors, who are often non-union and pull down wages with lower bids.

Ellison created a wage theft division when he first took office in 2019 and boasts having ramped up enforcement. Ellison recently filed a lawsuit against a subcontractor on the sprawling Viking Lakes project for obstructing an investigation into labor abuses by state regulators.

Duininck, with the carpenters’ union, said they would like to see legislators build on their recent work by passing a law that makes general contractors liable for labor abuses on their job sites. Construction work is usually managed through layers of subcontractors, which can shield large developers from accountability for labor violations like wage theft and worker misclassification even as they save money from the exploitation and may know about it.

The proposal has implications for a wage theft case the carpenters’ union has been instrumental in building at the Viking Lakes project, which is being developed by the Wilf family members who own the Minnesota Vikings.

MV Ventures denies knowing about any wage theft violations but said its subcontractors should be held accountable if the allegations are sustained.

Big raises for public defenders 

After voting to strike for the first time in state history, public defenders and support staff believed they were on track to win the most significant wage gains in recent memory.

They called off the strike and agreed to moderate wage increases in exchange for the opportunity to reopen negotiations if the Legislature appropriated more money to the beleaguered Board of Public Defense, the state agency that oversees roughly 470 public defenders and 200 support staff across the state.

State Democrats and Republicans agreed to a 50% increase in funding, but the proposal died when negotiations broke down over other items in a massive public safety bill at the end of the legislative session.

Public defenders on the whole earn far less than prosecutors, raising concerns about fairness in the justice system and thwarting efforts to attract and retain attorneys. Public defenders, who earn a starting wage of around $70,000, say they’re already struggling with unethically large caseloads because of a shortage of public defenders.

In September, the Board of Public Defense adopted a budget proposal offered by rank-and-file public defenders, who are unionized with the Teamsters Local 320.

Under the proposal, the state would fund an additional 165 attorneys and 142 support staff for public defense.

Public defender salaries would also be brought in line with those of prosecutors, who are employed by counties. The base salary of an entry-level public defender would increase from $70,146 to $82,908 in 2024. Assistant public defenders at the top of the pay scale would earn as much as $157,097 a year, up from a maximum salary of $123,093 today.

Democrats seem likely to sign off on the proposed budget, or something close to it, given the state’s large surplus and the bipartisan support for a massive funding increase.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.

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