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Meat packer rights bill gutted

ST. PAUL - Senators gutted a meat packer employee bill of rights proposal in a Monday committee meeting faster than an experienced packer can gut a cow.

But another Senate committee could put many of the details back in.

Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, said at least he has "brought an awareness to the issue," even if the bill is much weaker than it when first debated a week ago.

"I started with a whole loaf of bread and ended with two slices," Metzen said.

Metzen gave up on issues such as hiring a state ombudsman to deal with meat packing industry worker problems and a requirement to provide adequate working facilities such as break rooms and restrooms.

Among the few items that remain in Metzen's bill is a requirement that employers provide a variety of job-related information to employees in the workers' native languages. It also requires employers to provide workers with safety equipment.

Metzen agreed to the compromise after meeting stiff resistance from Republicans such as Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, who with her husband owns eight packing plants.

Rosen was upset with Metzen's effort. "They are trying to give us a black eye."

Metzen said he had no specific examples of problems with meat packers, but he has heard stories that immigrants are not treated fairly. He said that is why he brought the bill, with the support of union members.

While not liking it, Rosen said the newly refined bill "doesn't mean anything." Packers already are heavily regulated from the federal government down to local governments, she said.

The bill will regain many of its dropped provisions when heard by a committee led by Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, Rosen predicted.

Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, urged Metzen to pull his bill and work with senators to refine it before next year's legislative session.

"It seems to have a lot of questions to it," Day said.

Metzen said he hopes the Pawlenty administration will do many of the things he originally had in his bill if it does not pass this session. While the bill is moving in the Senate, there has been no House committee action on it.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.