Rice County courthouse

Assistant Rice County attorneys have less than two weeks to decide whether to unionize. (Daily News file photo)

Employees within the Rice County Attorney’s office have less than two weeks to decide whether or not to unionize.

Unionization would allow the impacted assistant county attorneys to negotiate wages and benefits, and utilize an independent mediation process if conflicts arise within the office.

On July 17, the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services received a petition for union representation. Three weeks later, the Bureau of Mediation Services approved a unionization vote. AFSCME Local 65, of St. Cloud, would represent the assistant Rice County attorneys if those employees approve unionization.

This week, the six eligible assistant county attorneys received their ballots in the mail. A seventh attorney was hired days after the cut off date. The attorneys must return the ballots by 4:30 p.m. Sept. 3 to the Bureau of Mediation Services’ headquarters in St. Paul. Ballots will be tabulated at 10 a.m. Sept. 4.

Rice County Attorney John Fossum noted that the strong tradition of public employee unions in Minnesota extends to county attorney’s offices. County attorney’s office unions are most common in the Twin Cities metro area, but some smaller and more rural counties have unionized as well.

“I was a public defender when the public defenders unionized,” Fossum recalled.

AFSCME Local 65 Organizing Director Jo Parr has been helping the Rice County Attorney’s employees through the unionization process. Parr said that 11 county attorney’s offices have union representation through Local 65, which represents 13,500 public employees throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. AFSCME Local 5 represents additional attorney’s offices in Minnesota.

Parr said that county attorney employee unions play an important role in raising wages and improving standards. Without unions pushing to increase compensation, more experienced and well-versed attorneys are likely to depart for private practice.

“We want to make sure we’re partnering with counties to raise the standards, so they can keep experienced, well-versed folks in county attorney’s staff,” she said.

Even more important for many county attorney’s office employees is that union members are entitled to an independent mediation process, supervised by a third party, if they file a grievance against their supervisors. With county attorneys being elected officials, regularly voted in and out of office, the extra protection is important to many county attorneys office employees.

Rice County considers its county attorney an elected official and not an employee, making it impossible for the assistant county attorneys to lodge a complaint against the department head.

“There’s some uncertainty with having an elected official as department head,” Parr noted.

Rice County administrative officials declined to comment for this report.

Minnesota, a strong union state

Minnesota has a strong tradition of unionization, especially in the public sector. Overall 15% of Minnesota employees are union, including 54% of public sector workers and 9% of private sector workers. 90% of Minnesota’s state workforce is unionized. Minnesota has the seventh-highest rate of union membership of any state, and the highest percentage of any non-coastal state.

Last year, in Janus vs. AFSCME, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 that public employees could not be compelled to pay union dues, arguing that such a requirement would violate non-union workers’ right to free speech. The decision effectively applied a form of “Right-to-Work” nationwide to public employees.

Right-to-Work laws, first passed in the 1940s, require unions to represent non-union members while prohibiting unions from requiring them to pay fees. Twenty-seven states currently have formal Right-to-Work laws on the books. Minnesota is not among them, even though every state that borders Minnesota is. Of the 25 states with the lowest rate of unionization, only New Mexico has no Right-to-Work law.

Janus vs AFSCME was expected to weaken public employee unions across the country, and many unions have reported declining revenues. However, other unions, including several in Minnesota, have reported increased membership.

“What we’ve found in Minnesota and across the country is that workers realize the value of their union,” Parr said. “While some people have not maintained the membership, we are outpacing our drop in membership with new people signing up and new groups organizing.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew.

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