State employees ready for imminent strike

K.C. Howard

Picket signs and the National Guard are coming out as two of the state’s largest unions rejected contract offers and are expected to begin striking at 6 a.m. Monday.

Union officials from American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees unanimously voted to strike after contract negotiations with the administration broke down late Saturday night. AFSCME and MAPE employees comprise about two-thirds of the state’s government work force.

“Both sides were just really positional, and there was no more room to negotiate,” said Julian Carter, state commissioner of department and employee relations.

“The state is facing its first revenue shortfall in over a decade,” he said. “Yet the union leaders have chosen not to accept the state’s offer.”

Gov. Jesse Ventura issued an executive order Sunday deploying about 1,000 National Guard members to fill striker positions in some of the state’s most vulnerable agencies, such as veteran and nursing homes.

“We think it would be very unfortunate if a strike comes at a time when the country is in mourning, when the country is preparing for war and the state of Minnesota is in economic hard times,” said John Wodele, Ventura’s spokesman, Sunday evening.

Despite criticism about striking in the midst of nationwide economic struggles, union leaders said they are exercising their constitutional rights in an attempt to receive competitive pay and adequate health care benefits.

“To me, it comes down to how much the public wants to pay for our services,” said AFSCME member Jan Carlson, an information and technology specialist from the Department of Transportation.

The state offered AFSCME a 3 percent wage increase for the next two years and MAPE a one-time 4 percent wage increase. AFSCME officials demand an annual 5 percent increase and MAPE employees are asking for a 4.5 percent increase each year. Both unions argue their wages have not kept up with inflation and are generally not liveable.

“We believe our wages have been competitive overall,” Carter said.

State officials said they could not vouch for the quality and efficiency of government services Monday. Agencies will take attendance to ascertain how many of the possible 29,500 union members decided to strike and how many substitute employees will be required.

“We aren’t going to pretend we know what it’s going to look like,” said David Fischer, commissioner of administration.

University AFSCME employees will picket around campus at noon Monday in support of their state counterparts.

“It’s a hard time now, and it’s a difficult decision to make,” said Jody Ebert, president of AFSCME Local 3937 – University technical employees. “But they’re ready to go.”

The University’s AFSCME employees and administration reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday. But some University AFSCME representatives are not optimistic that union members will ratify the accord.

The state has not dealt with a strike of this proportion since 1981, when AFSCME went on strike for 22 days. Although officials from both sides don’t know when to expect a resolution, the state is prepared to employ the National Guard for 30 days.

For the people on the picket lines, the duration of the strike will affect everything from making rent to putting food on the table.

“I’m sure they want us to miss a paycheck,” Carlson said. “The mediators won’t call us back for at least two weeks. They want both sides to suffer first.”

 

K.C. Howard welcomes comments at [email protected]
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