Deal reached in state strike

Jessica Thompson

After two weeks of striking, more than 23,000 state employees returned to work Monday after state and union officials reached a contract agreement Sunday.

The agreement – made at 2 a.m. Sunday – will give members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 6 and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees higher wages and a less costly health insurance package.

“We met our wage goals and we met our key insurance goals. It’s time to start healing … and to start delivering services to Minnesota,” said AFSCME Council 6 executive director Peter Benner after the union’s executive board voted Sunday afternoon to ratify the 2002-03 contract agreement.

State mediators and union leaders spent three days at an Arden Hills Holiday Inn discussing possible contracts.

The final contract agreements reflect limited state funds and an inability to fully meet strikers’ demands.

In a release, Gov. Jesse Ventura warned Sunday of the growing troubles facing Minnesota and national economies. He said he will meet with advisers this week to discuss the impact of the almost $200 million contracts with MAPE and AFSCME.

“Because our country is at war and our economy is in recession, it was especially important to get this strike settled,” Ventura said. “However, be assured I will live up to my promise that the cost of this settlement will not be passed on to the taxpayers.”

Ventura said the cost will most likely be absorbed through budget cutting and “if necessary, trimming our work force.”

AFSCME’s contract includes a 3.5 percent general wage adjustment increase for the union’s employees each year – a half-percent increase from the state’s initial offer. AFSCME originally requested a 5 percent increase each year.

The contract caps prescription drug co-pays at $300 per year for individuals and $600 per year for families – a measure that will help the chronically ill.

MAPE’s contract includes a 3 percent raise both years. The union originally requested a 4.5 percent annual increase, and the state offered a one-time 4 percent increase.

Workers went on strike Oct. 1, three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Because of the timing, strikers have been called unpatriotic by some opponents.

MAPE executive director Jim Monroe said union members are tired but pleased to be back to work.

Strikers expressed concern, however, about working alongside the roughly 5,000 who chose to cross picket lines.

“We’re doing something that all the workers are going to benefit from,” said Georgia Harris, a Minnesota Department of Health employee. “Some people just didn’t have the backbone or courage to do it … I guess some of it’s just plain greed and selfishness.”

AFSCME spokesman Don Dinndorf said some union members are still sensitive about the last major statewide strike, when AFSCME picketed for 22 days in 1981.

“There are still people who won’t speak to others that crossed the picket line in 1981 … It takes a lot of courage to go on strike, and for people to simply turn their back on their brothers and sisters in the union – it’s a very sensitive thing,” he said.

Union employees who continued to work at state agencies during the strike said they were not allowed to comment.

Dinndorf said the final agreement is “significantly better than the state’s initial offer,” but he said out-of-pocket maximum payments remain higher than union leaders had hoped.

“The team decided that rather than subject the workers to two more weeks of pain, they would accept what the state had offered,” Dinndorf said.

Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800 – University clerical workers – and member of the AFSCME Council 6 Executive Board, said there weren’t any points of contention during the three-hour discussion over whether to ratify the contract agreement.

Walker said University workers could face a strike if union members do not ratify a tentative contract agreement with the University later this month.

At AFSCME headquarters, Benner called the strike a victory.

“It’s been a long two weeks, and the membership has performed heroically,” he said. “This is a strike we can be proud of.”

 

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]