Rescuers rally with strikers

Jessica Thompson

Union members from Washington, D.C., and New York City – including two ground zero workers – spoke at the State Capitol on Wednesday in support of Minnesota’s more than 23,000 striking employees.

Posters called strikers to “Mourn for the Dead – Fight for the Living,” and strikers chanted “Union! Union!” and “New York! New York!”

“I believe we union members are a family, and family supports each other. I’m here to tell you that your brothers and sisters in New York support you,” said James McHugh, a New York highway maintenance supervisor and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

McHugh has worked amid the wreckage of the fallen World Trade Center towers for the past few weeks.

“(Gov.) Jesse (Ventura) may be the body, but you’re the heart, soul and backbone of this state,” he said.

Negotiations begin Thursday between members of Minnesota’s two largest unions – AFSCME Council 6 and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees – and the state.

Despite picketing for more than a week, strikers said they remain energetic and determined.

Still, chants of “One more day!” reflected hopes that differences could be resolved during Thursday’s negotiations.

State officials shared their sentiments.

“Whether you work in this building at the Capitol or if you’re a striker outside on the picket lines, we all want it settled,” said John Wodele, Ventura’s spokesman.

“I think the hope is that if they get to the table … that something will happen.” he said. “I guess it’s just hope.”

But union leaders remain
critical of Ventura and what they consider unlivable wages and an unfair health care plan. Relations were further strained last week when Ventura said the strike’s timing – on the heels of Sept. 11 – is unfortunate.

“Everybody going up the steps at the World Trade Center were trade unionists,” said Jim Monroe, MAPE executive director. “Let Jesse Ventura and other people talk about patriotism, but I didn’t see any limousines at ground zero.”

Israel Miranda, a member of AFSCME Local 2507 – the Uniformed Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics for the New York Fire Department – told his story of working 20-hour days at ground zero.

“I remember day one. I was by the rubble with pockets of smoke and fire, it was so hot that I flipped my helmet up. You know what I saw? I saw thousands of union workers working together for a common cause,” Miranda said as the crowd erupted in cheers.

“If you stick together, you will get what you want. It’s important for workers like you to get what you need to support yourselves and your family,” he said.

Stephen Madarasz, communications director for AFSCME Local 2507 in Albany, N.Y., said the battle for fair wages and health care is familiar to many New York state employees, who had a similar struggle in 1999.

“In the end we produced a very fine contract, but not without an awful lot of activism,” Madarasz said. “Our message to Gov. Ventura would be to get to the bargaining table – that’s how good managers work. You don’t alienate employees, you work with them.”

Local AFSCME Council 6 has received letters of support and donations from union groups across the country. Executive director Peter Benner said the donations will help cover strikers’ basic needs such as groceries and rent payments.

University union employees also attended the rally. They face a similar contract struggle with the University’s administration.

“There’s been a strong show of support. The public understands that gains made in wages and health care for state workers will spill over into the private sector,” said Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800 – the University’s clerical workers.

Wodele said the state administrators are hopeful Thursday’s negotiations will bring about an agreement. However, the instability of the economy is putting a strain on already limited state funds, he said.

“Every day we seem to be getting more and more information that the economy is going in the tank,” he said. “As the revenues go down, it makes it more and more difficult for the state to increase their offer.”

Negotiations begin Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Holiday Inn in Roseville and are expected to continue Friday.

 

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]