5/29/08

Minnesota's labor-backed, anti-union A.G.

Mike Hatch didn't leave the attorney general's office until May Day 2007, the last time cannons were fired at the Capitol. It may have been only coincidence, but cannon fire was echoing through the air as Hatch, the former attorney general who lost to Tim Pawlenty in the 2006 governor's race, finally quit as adviser and helpmate to his successor, Lori Swanson.

It is time to wheel those cannons back into position.

Attorney General Swanson -- a frequent Grand Avenue lunch companion of her old boss, Mad Mike -- has bollixed up her office, big time. Turmoil and terminations are the order of the day in a demoralized office that is supposed to serve the public, not brawl in public.

Ironically, the mess in the attorney general's office involves an attempt by Swanson's assistants to organize as a union. I say "ironically" because Swanson won office with union endorsement and the backing of the DFL, the "L" in which stands for Labor.

Or used to.

According to the union, 50 of 135 assistant attorneys general have been fired or forced out under Swanson. The latest -- hastily fired Tuesday -- was one of the leaders of the unionizing effort.

Swanson canned Amy Lawler after a report -- commissioned by Swanson -- exonerated Swanson of charges she had acted improperly in filing two lawsuits and found Lawler had been wrong to make her complaints public.

But the firing came before a more impartial report on the matter -- this one from the legislative auditor -- could be completed. The appearance that resulted was that Lawler's dismissal was intended by Swanson and her erstwhile mentor, Hatch, to muzzle the lawyers in the A.G.'s office.

That appearance was etched indelibly by Hatch, a former chair of the DFL, as well as its most recent standard bearer. He told the online news journal MinnPost.com that the unionizing effort was led by a "cabal" of "disgruntled" "mud throwers" and that a union would undermine the authority of the attorney general with "a jamboree of chickadees chirping."

That unfortunate phrase was insulting to the chickadees.

"Union busting is disgusting," said Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, the union that represents 19,000 state employees and is seeking to represent the assistant attorneys general.

AFSCME endorsed Swanson in the 2006 election, largely because of her support for unions and the opposition to unionizing by her Republican opponent. Today, Seide is wondering which candidate won.

"The DFL platform says all workers have a right to organize," he said. "The workers want dignity and respect and to be treated as professionals. But Swanson is using every anti-union tactic in the playbook.

"She is firing state attorneys the way Alberto Gonzales [former attorney general in the Bush administration] fired U.S. attorneys. That's why I sometimes call them Demicans and Republocrats."

The law could be changed

The 1973 Public Employees Labor Relations Act gave state employees a right to organize, and AFSCME already represents support staff in the A.G.'s office. But the law was amended in 1980 to exempt the assistant attorneys general, and Swanson and Hatch -- who seems to believe he is top dog -- point to that exemption in justifying efforts to thwart the union. But the law could be changed, if Swanson agreed.

The union says nothing stops Swanson, if she chooses, from recognizing the desire of her subordinates to join a union (twice, Seide says, a majority have signed cards saying they wish such representation).

Swanson is free to "meet and confer" with her workers about working conditions. More important, she could ask the Legislature to change the law to allow the attorneys to unionize. Just as they already do in Oregon, Illinois and many Minnesota counties.

It should be an easy commitment from an elected official who had "Labor Endorsed" on her lawn signs.

But Mad Mike says no.

For 150 years, Hatch says, Minnesota has not allowed assistant attorneys general to join unions. True, although it should be noted there were no unions or union employees in state government for much of the state's history.

It's also true that the state didn't allow women to vote for 62 years, let alone become lawyers or attorney general.

Hatch-Swanson say the unionizing efforts have created "a spectacle" in the attorney general's office. He/she is right that there is a spectacle. But she/he/they are wrong about who created it.

For the answer to that one, they should look in the mirror.

(startribune.com)

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