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Public-sector unions spend more on politics in Minnesota than in nearly any other state

Minneapolis teachers picketed outside Justice Page Middle School during the first day of their strike March 8, 2022. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer

By Max Nesterak, Minnesota Reformer

Take a seat in the Break Room, our round-up of labor news in Minnesota and beyond. This week: public-sector unions spend big in blue states; hundreds of workers vote out unions at Mayo Clinic; Minneapolis mandates apprenticeships for window washers; teachers unions’ contract negotiations drag on; Brainerd-area grocery store workers to strike over Christmas; and migrant children are dying building America’s roofs. 

The political spending of public sector unions

Minnesota public sector unions rank third in the amount they spend on state and local elections — behind Illinois and California — according to a new report by the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The report highlights the political power of unions representing state and city employees, teachers, hourly school employees, and personal care attendants to shape national and local politics, especially in blue states.

The four largest unions representing public-sector workers — the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME and SEIU — spent $708.8 million on lobbying, contributions to political organizations, and contributions to candidates in federal, state, and local races for public office in the 2021-22 campaign cycle. Unsurprisingly, their contributions largely favored Democrats, who are both more receptive to union concerns and more powerful in the states where unions focus their resources.

In Minnesota, these unions and their affiliates spent $13.2 million on state and local politics, according to the report. The biggest donor was Education Minnesota. The top individual recipient was Gov. Tim Walz ($16,000) and the top political organization recipient was the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor State Central Committee ($3.9 million).

Directly funding candidates represents just a small slice of unions’ political spending. They also fund independent expenditure campaigns, lobbyists and organizers to get workers to show up at the polls, public demonstrations and key committee hearings at the Capitol.

This year, Minnesota unions leveraged their political power to advance the most significant worker agenda in a generation: paid family and medical leave, mandatory paid sick leave, more funding for enforcement of labor violations, greater protections against wage theft, the power for teachers to negotiate over class sizes, among other new laws.

Democrats, with the significant help of public sector unions, tend to outspend Republicans here, but the national picture is much different. Business interests outspent labor unions — both private and public sector — on federal races by a ratio of 14-1 in the 2022 cycle, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

More than 800 Mayo workers vote out unions in past two years

In the past two years, the anti-union nonprofit National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund has supported workers seeking to oust their unions at five Mayo Clinic facilities in Minnesota.

The campaign has successfully dissolved unions representing more than 800 Mayo employees, including support staff in Austin, nurses and support staff in Mankato, nurses in St. James and maintenance employees in Fairmont.

The group is now assisting licensed practical nurses and other medical assistants at Mayo Clinic’s Austin hospital. More than half of the 70 workers represented by the United Steelworkers signed onto the petition, according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund.

Patient care specialist Erin Krulish, who filed a petition, said in a statement that the union “for years they took money from our paychecks while we got very little in return.”

United Steelworkers District 11 Director Cathy Drummond criticized the nonprofit supporting Krulish in a statement: “This group has a clear agenda: to turn workers against each other and ultimately deprive them of their ability to bargain strong contracts.”

Minneapolis passes apprenticeship requirement for window washers

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey smiles after signing an ordinance requiring apprenticeships for window washers in the SEIU Local 26 union hall on Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

High-rise window washers in Minneapolis will be required to complete an apprenticeship program with safety training under an ordinance signed by Mayor Jacob Frey on Tuesday in the union hall of SEIU Local 26.

It’s a requirement the union, which represents about 40 window washers, has been pushing for for years. In 2021, window washers went on strike for 10 days and won significant pay increases and an agreement by their employers to fund an apprenticeship program to improve safety and skills.

Workers say the apprenticeship program will make the potentially deadly job safer. In 2007, window washer Fidel Sanchez died after falling through the glass ceiling of IDS Tower’s Crystal Court in downtown Minneapolis.

Starting in 2025, the ordinance requires all window washers — union and non-union — who work higher than 24 feet without a ladder to be licensed. SEIU Local 26 operates the only state-certified program that meets the city of Minneapolis’ licensing standards, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

Union negotiations drag on for Minnesota teachers

Many Minnesota school districts and teachers’ unions are behind schedule in negotiating new, two-year contracts. Fewer than 100 of the state’s 330 school districts have settled contracts as of Dec. 6, compared to more than 150 that had settled by this time in 2021, the Star Tribune’s Eder Campuzano reported.

Teachers’ unions expect to see large pay increases and smaller class sizes after the Legislature approved $2.2 billion in new spending this year and gave teachers’ unions the power to negotiate over staffing ratios. But districts say they need the additional funding to cover new state requirements like unemployment insurance for bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other hourly employees.

In St. Paul, there’s a $94 million gap between union and district proposals. In the Anoka-Hennepin district, the gap is $36 million and teachers have been staging weekly walkouts on Wednesdays, refusing to advise clubs and after-school programs, Campuzano reports.

Grocery store clerks to strike over Christmas

The union representing more than 650 workers at five Brainerd Lakes area grocery stores announced workers will hold a four-day unfair labor practices strike Dec. 22-25. Workers have experienced interrogation, surveillance and intimidation as they negotiate a new labor agreement, according to their union, UFCW Local 663.

The striking stores are the Quisberg’s Cub Foods in Brainerd and Baxter, Miner’s Super One in Baxter and Crosby, and Quisberg’s SuperValu in Pequot Lakes.

Migrant children are building America’s roofs

The New York Times identified children replacing the roofs of big box stores, government-owned buildings, campus housing and private homes, in Hannah Dreier’s latest investigation into the exploitation of migrant children in America’s most dangerous industries.

The Times spoke with over 100 child roofers — who call themselves “ruferitos” — in more than two dozen states, including some who started at 10 or 12 years old. Federal law bans minors from roofing, but the demand for labor and surge in young people crossing the border alone has created a perverse incentive for the abuse.

Federal labor regulators have not been able to keep up with investigating the deaths and injuries on the job. Dreier reports the U.S. Department of Labor has brought an average of seven cases a year over the past decade, imposing less than $6,000 in fines per case. None of the deaths in Dreier’s story have resulted in any child labor fines.

Minnesota Reformer is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Patrick Coolican for questions: Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.