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Duluth labor pushes back on Janus ruling

(News Tribune file photo)

Local labor leaders vowed to fight on despite Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision that could financially cripple public-sector unions.

“While it’s disappointing, we knew it was just a matter of time,” said Bernie Burnham, president of the Duluth Teachers Federation. “I think as far as our local is concerned, it’s something we’ve been preparing for. I feel very strongly we’re in a good place, and our members believe we do good work.”

The Janus decision says that government employees can’t be compelled to pay “fair-share” fees, since that money could be used for political purposes. If enough employees now decide to stop paying in, the bargaining power of unions could be weakened.

“We go back to the old days, right?” said Alan Netland, president of the Northeast Minnesota Area Labor Council. “We can still get things done, and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”

The ruling was welcomed by conservative groups and Republican candidates such as Senate seeker Karin Housley.

“Individuals should not be forced to fund political activity they may find objectionable, nor should they be forced to pay a fee to keep their jobs — and I’m glad the Supreme Court agrees,” Housley said in a statement.

In Minnesota, many union members can opt out of political contributions by having a portion of their dues reimbursed, Netland said. He noted that public unions have spent years preparing for Wednesday’s news and asked members to pledge their continued support.

“Hopefully we emboldened them to stick with us,” Netland said. “The opposition has more money than they know what to do with, and they’ll hire people to knock on doors and tell our members a bunch of lies.”

Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidates in the 8th District and around the state bashed the Janus ruling, with DFL party chair Ken Martin calling it “an orchestrated and well-funded attack on all working people.”

“While today’s decision makes it harder for unions to champion working people, it will never extinguish our goals of lifting up the working men and women of this country whose hard work has literally built our communities over the years,” Martin said in a statement.

Union membership in Minnesota grew slightly between 2016 and 2017, reversing years of decline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year nearly 16 percent of workers were represented by a union — that compares to the national average of about 12 percent —  with 15.2 percent of Minnesota workers paying dues.

“We probably live in one of the better places in the country (for labor),” Burnham said.

Nearly half of all union members in the United States work in the public sector, according to the BLS.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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