The Potluck

With refinery safety bill, Republicans forced to choose between old friends and new

By: - June 22, 2021 12:12 pm

The Marathon oil refinery in St. Paul Park. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

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A bit more about a key vote Ricardo Lopez focused on in his roundup of Monday’s legislative activities:

An oil refinery safety bill that would have required refinery contract workers to have completed an approved apprenticeship program. Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, whose district includes the Marathon oil refinery in St. Paul Park, offered the mandate as an amendment to the jobs bill last week. (Listen to our podcast about the safety issues at Marathon.)

With 31 Democrats and the traditionally pro-labor Iron Range lawmakers Sens. Bakk and Tomassoni voting aye, Republicans kept the vote board open for 15 minutes while their 34 members stewed in an identity crisis: Are they the party of lunch bucket men and women of the construction trade unions that they increasingly see themselves as? They like the image and the usefulness of their newfound political allies after years of courtship. They’ve found common cause on issues like the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, which by contrast has divided Democrats. 

But if that’s who you are, you have to be there for your new allies when it really matters, and this refinery vote is where the rubber meets the road. 

That’s because it’s not just about safety, it’s about the refinery bringing in non-union contractors. And it’s not just about Marathon. It’s about whether Flint Hills — the much larger Koch-owned refinery in Rosemount — will follow suit. Flint Hills is one of the biggest employers of union construction trades workers in the entire state. If Flint Hills were to begin bringing in non-union contractors to replace union tradesmen, it would be devastating. 

So, back to Senate Republicans: They were suddenly faced with a choice between their new friends in the trades and their old friends: the oil industry, the Chamber of Commerce and the Koch empire. 

Friday, leadership was unable to whip votes against the trades, and the Bigham amendment passed overwhelmingly with 50 votes. 

But Republicans made their choice clear Monday when they sent their jobs bill back to the Finance Committee and stripped out the refinery safety measure the trades have lobbied for this session. 

Labor will choose to support whomever is in their corner in 2022. That’s for them to decide. 

If there’s a refinery accident, though, Minnesotans will know who to blame. 

Trades are at the Capitol this morning making a final push, although the ship has probably sailed. 

Update: Brought up again by state Sen. Karla Bigham on Tuesday, the refinery safety measure failed.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children