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'Right to work' push has unions stewing and a fight brewing

A 'right to work' push in Minnesota leads to boycotts by Democratic lawmakers and protests in multiple states.

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Bob Hedrick, Max Hutka and Steve Adams, from left, wait outside of the Indianapolis Statehouse on Jan. 4, 2012. Several legislatures have seen pushes to enact labor legislation that would ban labor contracts requiring all workers to pay union fees.

Darron Cummings/AP/File

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Republicans pulled Minnesota into an explosive issue Thursday by introducing legislation to make union membership optional, setting the stage for a fight that has triggered boycotts by Democratic lawmakers and large protests in other states.

GOP senators introduced the plan as a proposed constitutional amendment, meaning it would need only a simple majority in the House and Senate — and bypass Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton — to get on the ballot. If voters ultimately approved it, the amendment would bar labor contracts from requiring both public and private workers to pay union fees or compelling membership.

Democrats have vowed not to support the proposal, but Republicans have narrow majorities in both legislative chambers. Still, some GOP lawmakers have been skittish about the issue, leaving its fate in question.

Sen. Dave Thompson, a Lakeville Republican, said proponents are heading into the campaign knowing it's a volatile issue. But he stressed that the measure doesn't change the ability to collectively bargain in places where unions exist.

Thompson and other advocates said such laws help create better business environments and spur job growth because employers are more hesitant to expand in places where unions are more prevalent.

Union leaders argue that such measures give employers cover to pay lower wages and benefits.

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