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Wisconsin ’right-to-work’ critic will expand company in Minnesota

The owner of a Wisconsin company invited to move to Minnesota in protest of its new "right-to-work" law says he plans to at least expand in the Gopher State -- provided enough contracts come his way to support the business.

James Hoffman, owner of Black River Falls-based Hoffman Construction Co., which works mostly on highway construction projects, said his current plans are to more than double the size of his Lakeville office by the end of the year.

Hoffman said Monday night that the reason is twofold: he believes the right-to-work law will ultimately cost his company money, and he sees Minnesota’s proposal to increase transportation funding as offering greater business opportunities.

By the end of 2015, the Lakeville office would add at least another two salaried positions to the current two and add another 15 to 20 hourly positions to the current 10 to 12.

But the expansion would depend on being successful on competitive bids, Hoffman added.

Over the past year, the company has expanded more than 50 percent and added 200 workers. It now has 50 salaried and 300 hourly positions across Wisconsin and Minnesota, Hoffman said. Currently, 45 percent of Hoffman’s business comes from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and 15 percent comes from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The Republican-led Wisconsin Legislature approved the fast-tracked right-to-work measure Friday, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Monday signed it into law. It prohibits organized labor from forcing all workers to pay union dues or fees.

In late February, Hoffman testified before the Wisconsin Legislature against the business-backed bill, saying it would create tension among his employees and would be an "unproductive distraction for our company."

On Monday, Hoffman said the law will make it more difficult to gain skilled workers, which he depends on when calculating productivity in his bids.

"If I don’t get as productive a worker, it will ultimately cost me more. ... In my opinion, there will be no savings to the owner, and no savings to the DOT in the long run," Hoffman said.

According to its website, Hoffman works with the International Union of Operating Engineers Locals 139 and 49, along with some Minnesota unions.

Last week, Minnesota state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, called Wisconsin’s right-to-work measure "heavy-handed and wrong" and said it would hurt business owners who want to work with unions.

He invited two Wisconsin companies that had spoken out against the bill to come to Minnesota, and he offered to help them make the move. One of them was Hoffman.

Garofalo declined to comment on the news late Monday evening.

Many Minnesota Republicans support right-to-work legislation, and some GOP lawmakers pushed for a right-to-work amendment to Minnesota’s constitution in 2012. It died in committee.