ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota Senate committee on Monday passed a bill that would let voters statewide decide if Minnesota should be a right-to-work state with voluntary union membership.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Republican-sponsored bill on a vote of 7-6. One Republican, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria, joined five committee Democrats in voting no. Hundreds of union members flooded Capitol hallways during the hearing, sometimes chanting so loudly that people testifying on the bill were difficult to hear.
If it were to pass the full House and Senate, voters in November would decide whether Minnesota's Constitution should be amended to make membership voluntary in private and public unions. Membership is not compulsory under current law, but non-union employees in unionized shops must still pay a "fair share" fee of up to 85 percent of normal dues.
Elaine Kollar, a teacher at a public high school that's part of a juvenile detention facility in Anoka County, said $700 in yearly dues are taken from her paycheck.
"I don't know where my dues go. Do I have any say in any of this? The answer is no," Kollar said.
In all, 23 U.S. states now have a right-to-work law, the most recent being Indiana, where it was approved earlier this year by Republican legislative majorities and signed by a Republican governor. The debate over right-to-work measures has flared in state Capitols around the country in the last two years, as Republicans who gained power in numerous statehouses have pushed to weaken union strength. Minnesota supporters say right-to-work legislation would improve the state's business climate and improve the economy.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is a strong union supporter, but he would have no power to veto a statewide vote, which is what Republicans are pursuing. Some Republicans have been tentative about the massive fight with unions assured by pursuing the amendment, and the bill's chief supporter — Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville — said he has no promise from the Senate majority leader that it would get a full Senate vote.
Ursula Tuttle, a registered nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, said she lived in Oklahoma in 2001 when voters there approved a right-to-work measure. She told the committee she voted in favor and later regretted it.
"I believed it would create jobs. It didn't," Tuttle said. "It didn't create jobs, and we stayed poor."
State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, questioned why the amendment is needed in Minnesota, where the unemployment rate has consistently been among the lowest in the country.
"Where is the problem we are trying to fix?" Latz said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.