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North Dakota union leader opposes presentation from labor attorneys at state conference

North Dakota AFL-CIO President Waylon Hedegaard.

BISMARCK—A North Dakota union leader says it's inappropriate for two "anti-employee" attorneys to give a presentation at a conference involving the state Department of Commerce later this month in Fargo.

North Dakota AFL-CIO President Waylon Hedegaard said Friday, Sept. 1, he has been in contact with the governor's office and Commerce Department about the presentation from Dominic Cecere and Joel Abrahamson of the Stinson Leonard Street firm in Minneapolis. They're scheduled to talk about "hot-button labor issues in the current political climate" during the Governor's Workforce & HR Conference Sept. 20.

The state Department of Commerce and the North Dakota Society for Human Resource Management are collaborating to host the three-day event at the Holiday Inn in Fargo, according to the Commerce Department's website.

"We feel that in any employee-employer relationship, the state has to remain neutral," Hedegaard said. He said there are others who could give a presentation on labor law in a neutral manner.

Labor Commissioner Michelle Kommer, who is also speaking at the conference, said the attorneys have given numerous presentations "in their capacity as experts in the area of law, not in their capacity as having a view that's anti-union or pro-union."

The two attorneys did not return messages seeking comment by 5 p.m. Friday.

Cecere's biography on his firm's website says he has "represented national and international businesses in (National Labor Relations Board) trials, labor arbitrations and labor contract negotiations, and he has defended employers before state, local and federal agencies as well as state and federal courts."

"He devotes a significant amount of time counseling non-union employers on maintaining their non-union status through positive employee relations practices, and works closely with unionized clients to develop strategies for dealing efficiently and effectively with their workforce," Cecere's biography adds.

Abrahamson's bio says he represents businesses in employment law and "traditional labor law matters" and has "successfully defended clients ... in employment lawsuits and charges based on alleged discrimination, retaliation, disability accommodation failure, breach of contract, defamation, promissory estoppel, and other statutory and common law claims."

Their presentation will include "updates on current and potential labor law changes" and a discussion on the "anticipated labor agenda under the Trump administration," according to the event's agenda.

"The focus of this presentation will be practical advice regarding positive employee relations strategies employers can implement for success," the agenda states.

Gov. Doug Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said no speaking fees were requested for the law firm. Registration fees are paying for a bulk of the event, he said.

"The state's involvement is basically time in helping organize the event," Nowatzki said.

Hedegaard said he has asked Burgum's office for a "some kind of resolution" by noon Tuesday. He raised the possibility of a rally outside the conference.

"This is a core issue to us," Hedegaard said. "Almost everybody in labor believes that we have the right to form unions and we have the right to protect employees."

Later Friday, Kommer said she had a "very productive conversation" with Hedegaard, but she said they're "moving ahead with the agenda as planned." She asked Hedegaard to attend the session with her, but she was unsure he'd do so.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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