Unions need U support

Members of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, a union representing 10,300 state employees, will count votes today on the state’s latest contract offer. If they follow the lead of their colleagues in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, who overwhelmingly rejected the state’s proposal Friday, MAPE members could join AFSCME on Sept. 17 in the largest state employee strike in Minnesota history. The unions deserve support from the University community, not only because many of them perform essential duties that keep the University operating but also because they join the University on the list of victims of Gov. Jesse Ventura’s misguided budget cuts.

The governor is preparing to call out the National Guard to replace striking state employees, a hardline stance that not only ignores the inability of the Guard to replace skilled workers in mental health clinics, treatment centers and veterans’ homes but also conjures up unpleasant memories of the Guard’s crackdown on striking Hormel meatpackers in the mid-1980s. Ventura surely knows the state’s history well enough to realize the symbolic significance of his decision.

Meanwhile, the unions continue negotiating for 6.5 percent salary increases, while the state has offered only 2.5 percent raises to AFSCME and a mere 2 percent to MAPE – not even enough to keep up with inflation. Ventura has said workers should be happy with the offer in light of the economic downturn and corporate layoffs, but private-sector blue-collar workers are still negotiating wage hikes in the 4 percent to 6 percent range. The governor’s $120,000 salary might free him from inflation worries, but the average MAPE member’s $49,300 per year, or an AFSCME worker’s $30,000 average salary, suffers when paychecks are outpaced by inflation – and private-sector jobs quickly become attractive for the state’s best employees.

The state’s health insurance proposal then proceeds to kick state employees while they and their salaries are down. State negotiators oppose union proposals to limit copays to one per employee or family each year. The state also seeks to increase insurance deductibles and raise the maximum amount employees would be required to pay out of pocket for medication. These increased costs will be devastating to employees requiring ongoing treatment for chronic illnesses or serious injuries. The state employees who care for the state’s most vulnerable citizens and guard the most dangerous deserve better.

The governor insists he is bound by a state budget that allows only 3 percent salary increases – an amount Ventura himself proposed. But House Speaker Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon) correctly points out past settlements have often exceeded budgeted increases; the extra money was taken from agency budgets. This option seems especially attractive in light of the state’s budget surplus.

Posturing and saber rattling do not resolve labor disputes. The governor needs to practice the advice he preached to the University earlier this year and make tough budget choices to allocate money to a high-priority expense.