Minnesota’s largest public sector union comes out against vaccine mandates

In place of blanket vaccine mandates, the union supports an "option for workers to undergo periodic testing as an alternative to receiving the vaccine."

The Centennial Office Building, a state government office, leads up to the State Capitol in St. Paul. (Minnesota Department of Administration/Flickr)

Minnesota’s largest public-sector union does not support vaccine mandates in the workplace.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5 understands “the importance of achieving as high a vaccination rate as possible” but “does not support a vaccine mandate.” The union, which represents over 43,000 Minnesota workers, voiced this opinion in a letter it submitted for a hearing on coronavirus vaccines hosted by the Senate’s Human Services Reform Committee.

“We understand some people have personal, medical or religious reasons which factor into their individual decision [to not get vaccinated] and their decisions should be respected,” the letter continues. However, the union notes in a later paragraph that it feels employees should be able to avoid the shot “for whatever reason.”

In place of blanket vaccine mandates, AFSCME supports an “option for workers to undergo periodic testing as an alternative to receiving the vaccine,” adding that this testing should be “free and readily available.”

The letter also expresses a concern that mandates could reduce workplace safety, as firing unvaccinated employees could cause staffing levels to dip dangerously low:

“Safety has always been a central component to our union’s mission. Among other things, a safe workplace should always be appropriately staffed. Many workplaces are dangerously understaffed and/or rely heavily on overtime to maintain safe staffing levels. Jumping to employment termination [for unvaccinated workers], without providing a testing option for the unvaccinated, not only strips individual choice away from workers, but it also jeopardizes appropriate staffing levels as some workers simply will not get vaccinated.”

One place this issue may become especially pronounced is prisons. Forty-eight percent of federal prison workers, for example, have not yet received the shot and face termination.

“The national [prison] union is very concerned about the amount of people that have actually said ‘I’m going to retire early, I’m going to quit, I’m going to go somewhere else,'” a union leader said.

AFSCME and the national prison union are not the only major organizing groups to oppose mandatory vaccines in the workplace. Other labor organizations across the country, especially police and fire unions, came out against forced vaccination after President Joe Biden essentially mandated the vaccine for the majority of the U.S. workforce.

“Labor unions are a microcosm of the society we live in,” Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of Cornell University’s The Worker Institute, told the Associated Press. “The same political divide we have right now exists within the rank and file of unions.”