DFLers vie for union votes
DULUTH — Six DFL gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage Friday afternoon, Oct. 6, in front of a sea of people wearing union-themed green T-shirts at the annual convention of the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees Council 5, hosted this year by the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
Through moderator Barbara Reyelts, the audience peppered the candidates for Minnesota governor with questions about their commitment to some of the key concerns in the room, including health care, pensions, anti-labor legislation and efforts to privatize public institutions.
AFSCME Council 5 President Judy Wahlberg characterized the organization as "one of the most politically active unions in the state," and said: "One thing is certain. Students are smarter, families are healthier, and our communities are safer when working people have a voice in the halls of power."
She said the stakes are high for labor in next year's election, and thanked a panel of Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidates that included Chris Coleman, Tina Liebling, Erin Murphy, Rebecca Otto, Paul Thissen and Tim Walz.
"Working people must unite to elect a pro-worker governor in 2018. Our survival depends on it," Wahlberg said.
The entire field of candidates seemed to wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.
Otto, a three-term state auditor from rural Washington County, depicted a stark contrast between her views and those of her Republican rivals.
"The politics of greed say that all taxes are bad, and they must be slashed, that all the protections for us are bad and they must be repealed, and that all government workers are bad. That's nonsense. They want to privatize everything. But there's a better way, and it's called the politics of the common good," she said.
Coleman, St. Paul's mayor now in his third term, suggested workers need not fear "the rich and powerful."
"They may be rich, but you are powerful. When you stand together, when we as union members and union supporters stand together, we will not be defeated," he said.
Walz — a teacher from Mankato, six-term member of Congress and a former command sergeant major in the Army National Guard — said Minnesota stands as a Midwestern bastion for labor rights, and said the governor's race will be hard-fought with plenty of outside money likely pouring into the campaigns.
"You all know what's at stake... The way we ensure your collective right to bargain is by winning this race. It's as simple as that," he said.
"We've got neighbors who are using weekends to work against our right to collectively bargain — the days you gave them by collectively bargaining, they're using them against us," said Walz, urging AFSCME members to educate and better inform the public.
Thissen, a Minneapolis lawyer and eight-term state representative, talked about the need to support unions at a time when they are under attack.
He pledged to "organize, organize, organize... because not only is it good for you, it's good for everyone you serve."
"You are the advocates for the child who needs children's protective services. You are the advocates for prison workers. You are the advocates for the transportation workers who keep our roads clear. We, in Minnesota, need you to be there, and we shouldn't be undermining your ability to advocate for yourselves and the people you serve," Thissen said.
Liebling, a Rochester attorney and seven-term state representative, said she would work to fend off legislation designed to weaken unions, such as measures passed in Iowa and Wisconsin.
"We have to stand strong against the so-called 'right to work' in every way that we possibly can. I call that the freeloader bill, because obviously it's intended to allow people to get the benefit of a union without paying for it, which is very unfair, and it would corrode unions terribly," she said.
"I think that this is something that's incredibly important, because obviously working people, whether they're in a union or not, across the state and across the nation, they benefit from the fact that unions exist," Liebling said.
Erin Murphy, a St. Paul nurse and six-term state representative, also extolled labor, saying: "If we want to tackle the rich and powerful, we must expand unions by organizing."
"That is how we build the middle class. That is how we make sure that our hard work pays off," she said.