Speaking With Shar Knutson

The Minnesota Legislature got back to work today, with the focal point being the erasure of an estimated $1.2 billion deficit.

At the same time, the Minnesota AFL-CIO is asking legislators to help get Minnesotans back to work. Shar Knutson, the organization’s president, visited the Daily Globe Tuesday, and pleaded with the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty to formulate policies that would increase employment rolls throughout the state.

“Part of that is up to the governor; we’re not sure what he’s going to do,” Knutson said. “We’re urging the governor, Republicans and Democrats to really be strong and bold because this is a tough time and people need to get back to work.”

Knutson and the Minnesota AFL-CIO are hopeful the Legislature will pass a bonding bill of at least $1 billion, and also support the construction coalition jobs bill that “leverages and stimulates private investment in commercial, industrial, energy-efficient retrofit and residential projects across the state,” she explained.

“When you look at 40 to 50 percent unemployment in the construction trade, you can see how much we need a bill like this,” Knutson added. “We’re hoping for the billion dollars and we’re thinking there will be a dance with the governor, but when you’re talking so many people with jobs lost … it’s tough out there. Most of those jobs are shovel-ready and the few that aren’t, they’ll put the architects to work, too, because they’re not seeing much work, either.”

Knutson she expects the House to having a bonding bill vote soon, perhaps as early as Feb 15. She didn’t expect an early vote being a problem in the Senate, either — the governor’s assent, however, is probably another matter entirely, as Pawlenty’s bonding bill proposal checks in at less than $700 million.

Another Minnesota AFL-CIO goal is the enacting of a wage subsidy in Minnesota of up to $12 an hour. The program would create jobs, she described, by paying a part of the wages of new hires.

“It’s a low-cost way to help employers and workers out,” Knutson said. “Part of the wages will be paid, and that makes for a little less strain on the employers. What happens oftentimes is that worker ends up staying on even after the subsidy goes away. … Right now, when you look at the jobs currently being created, 41 percent are part-time, less than half provide health care, one out of four is less than $8 an hour, and if you look at the median wage at all those jobs, it’s $10 per hour.”

Tax fairness would help make a wage subsidy possible. Knutson said “it isn’t right” that working families who earn anywhere between $35,000 and $94,000 pay 12.4 percent in state and local taxes, versus a 9 percent figure for people making more than $194,000 annually.

The Minnesota AFL-CIO is made up of more than 1,000 affiliates representing more than 300,000 working men and women throughout the state. Knutson toured Worthington’s JBS facility Monday and met with UFCW leaders. Less than a week earlier, she was able to attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in Washington.

She said her organization’s jobs proposals are in the best interests of its affiliates as well as their communities.

“There’s really not much left to cut,” Knutson noted. “I don’t think anyone really believes you can cut your way out of this. We know cuts will be on the table, but … everything has to be on it.

“What we want to make sure we’re very serious about is holding our representatives accountable. These are very difficult times for many people, and difficult times require difficult solutions. We have to be strong and bold and decisive and get people back to work.”