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Union leaders say Keith Ellison will stand up for workers as attorney general

October 11, 2018

Union leaders enlisted by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison said Thursday that they are under attack at the national level and need the state’s next attorney general to fight for Minnesota workers.

A group of union members reiterated their support for Ellison’s bid in a news conference at the AFL-CIO headquarters in St. Paul. They condemned his Republican opponent Doug Wardlow, saying he was a foe of working Minnesotans during his one term in the Minnesota House.

“We have got to make sure that in our state we have an attorney general who will stand up for workers,” Ellison said at the news conference.

Wardlow responded with a statement calling Ellison a “radical Washington politician” and saying Ellison wants to talk about anything other than his former girlfriend’s allegation that he domestically abused her in 2016. Ellison denies the allegation, and an investigation commissioned by the Minnesota DFL Party did not substantiate it.

“Here is the truth, as Attorney General, I will protect and defend all Minnesotans. I will be an independent voice, beholden to no political party,” Wardlow’s statement said.

Union members said they continue to stand by Ellison after the abuse allegation; in recent days, he has returned to an active campaign-trail schedule. With unions ranging from pipe fitters to letter carriers endorsing him, Ellison is pitching himself as the worker’s candidate and telling voters he would fight to make sure unions remain strong in Minnesota.

He noted Wardlow’s push for right-to-work legislation during his 2011-2012 term in the Minnesota House. Wardlow was chief author of a bill to add a ballot measure to change the state’s constitution so individuals were guaranteed an option not to join or pay dues to a labor union. Democrats and Republican leadership did not get behind the right-to-work attempt, and it failed to progress.

Wardlow said in an interview last month that if elected he would not use the attorney general’s office to address right-to-work.

“That is a policy question, that is for the Legislature,” he said. He declined to say more about his support for the issue when he was a lawmaker.

“I don’t think that’s really pertinent to the attorney general’s race,” Wardlow said.

John Westmoreland, executive director of Minnesota AFSCME Council 5 and an Ellison supporter, said Wardlow’s work in the Legislature is very pertinent to how he will interpret potential future legal changes.

More than half of states have right-to-work laws that allow workers to opt out of joining a union or paying dues. Public sector unions in states like Minnesota, that do not have right-to-work, were dealt a financial blow by the Supreme Court’s ruling in June on Janus vs. AFSCME. The court overturned a decades-old practice in Minnesota and elsewhere that required nonunion members to pay “fair-share” fees, in lieu of dues, to cover some union costs.

Attorney General Lori Swanson, a Democrat, was one of many state attorneys general who supported AFSCME’s effort to keep the fees in place.

That ruling essentially made Minnesota a right-to-work state when it comes to public sector unions, Westmoreland said. Now he said union members are watching for future legal changes that would impact the private sector, as well as efforts to undo prevailing wage requirements.

Minnesota’s prevailing wage law ensures people working on state-funded construction projects are paid a certain rate set by the state.

“How is a law change going to get interpreted by the state of Minnesota?” Westmoreland said. “Well, legislators write laws. The interpreter is the attorney general. Whose side are they on? That matters.”

Joe Fowler, a member of the Laborers’ union affiliate Local 563, noted Minnesota is economically outperforming Wisconsin. The neighboring state eliminated workers’ right to collectively bargaining, added right-to-work legislation and altered its prevailing wage law. Such changes could come swiftly in Minnesota, he said.

“We didn’t get higher wages because this is something the corporations or the employers just wanted to give us,” Fowler said. “We fought for those things and don’t forget that it is a fight to maintain them here in Minnesota.”

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044

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