The Potluck

Democrats and Republicans court blue collar voters at Minnesota trade unions convention

By: - July 21, 2023 3:11 pm

Gov. Tim Walz speaks to union leaders at the annual Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council convention in Duluth on July 20, 2023. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

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DULUTH — Gov. Tim Walz traveled north on Thursday to court blue collar workers at the annual Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council convention in Duluth.

He made the stop after doing a ridealong with a Duluth police officer as part of his “workforce tour” aimed at highlighting industries sorely in need of workers.

The building trades unions played a critical role in helping Democrats win a trifecta last November, for which they were rewarded with the most significant legislative sessions for labor in recent memory. That includes a new law aimed at curbing wage theft — a scourge of the construction industry — and historic $2.6 billion in funding for infrastructure to be built by union tradesmen and women.

Yet the building trades are largely made up of a demographic group quickly slipping away from Democrats — non-college educated white men — which makes the trades convention a kind of lek for politicians from both parties.

Walz spoke directly to that challenge: “I recognize for many of you, if you’re in leadership, that sometimes those issues outside the economic issues, outside the labor issues, start to draw on your members and start to get them a little confused. Don’t be confused at all of the folks who stand in front of you at this convention. They better be delivering on union priorities … You’ll get good people, they’ll come up here but they’re ‘right to work’ … They didn’t support the infrastructure bill … It’s like your damn neighbor comes to your barbecue and doesn’t bring anything. Yeah, he’s a nice guy but bring something to the damn table.”

In other words, ignore the culture issues and stick to what matters: Who is delivering projects and labor-friendly legislation?

Walz won a standing ovation from the crowd. He was then followed by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks, who boasted of his work boot credentials and support for blue collar work.

“It’s good to be amongst people that I can definitely relate to. When I’m not here talking in front of people, dressed up in a suit, I also have my concrete boots on. I come from a small family business where we do concrete,” Johnson said. (Unmentioned: He’s a lawyer and owns a law firm with his wife.)

Johnson, who got a hearty seated applause, was able to tout delivering a bonding bill that Republicans supported after cutting a deal with Democrats in the final days of the legislative session. He also highlighted his support for training opportunities for the trades and not directing all young people into four-year college programs.

Republicans’ appeal to many blue collar workers — thanks in large part to former President Donald Trump — presents a strategic problem for unions. Unions endorse politicians from both parties, whose support they need for infrastructure spending. But a Republican majority could pose an existential threat to unions by making Minnesota a “right to work” state, meaning workers covered by union contracts would no longer be required to pay dues.

And there’s a bevy of other ways Republicans could weaken unions, proven through their highly successful, 50-year project to halt the power of organized labor, from President Ronald Reagan firing the air traffic controllers to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s war on collective bargaining.

Asked what is left to do after such a successful legislative session for labor, union leaders said permitting reform.

They said it’s harder to build in Minnesota than in North Dakota or Iowa. And that’s not just for things that liberals hate like mines and pipelines. Building solar farms, schools, affordable housing and factories all require months or years of bushwhacking through red tape.

“You have to build things. You have to have schools. You have to have a source of minerals to power the economy. You have to have pipelines to move things around,” said Dan McConnell, president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council. “Obviously we need to have strict oversight of all these things … But we need to build things.”

Former king of the state Senate Tom Bakk, a union carpenter and Democratic leader turned political independent, also made an appearance.

Bakk, now a semi-retired mining and tobacco lobbyist, was in town for the ribbon-cutting of Essentia Health’s new hospital. Three million work hours went into constructing it, he told everyone he shook hands with.

Bakk said that after the Reformer broke the story about Mayo Clinic’s ultimatum over the nurse staffing bill, he called Walz and told him no way could he lose billions in Mayo investments to Arizona or Florida. It’d be the only thing people remembered about him, Bakk said, and big organizations like Mayo don’t bluff.

Bakk was in leadership the last time Mayo Clinic made an ultimatum to state leaders over $500 million in state funding for Destination Medical Center. Bakk told me then-CEO Dr. John Noseworthy never threatened to leave Minnesota.

But Noseworthy did say, “There are 49 states that would like us to invest in them. That’s the truth.”

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, 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.