National Guard runs veterans homes

by K.C. Howard

Down the road from the Minneapolis Veterans Home on Wednesday, union members held red, white and blue picket signs reading “Stay Away” and “Strike!”

Cars honked in support of the state workers’ endeavor to receive wage increases and better health care benefits, and kids yelled “I hope you win” from the windows of a passing school bus.

Inside the veterans home, work continued as usual, but as Vietnam veteran and resident Richard Reimer said, “It just doesn’t seem to be the same kind of atmosphere.”

Reimer and other soldiers of the past didn’t seem to look twice at their camouflaged caretakers striding by in sturdy black combat boots.

But this is a not a standard mission for Minnesota’s National Guard.

“I’m very honored to be asked by the governor to come and serve here,” said Sr. Master Sgt. Mark Moss.

About 1,000 National Guard members currently occupy 115 state agencies, where members of American Federation of State Municipal Employees and Minnesota Association of Professional Employees are striking.

Statewide, 22,538 union employees hit the picket lines Monday when negotiations between the state and unions broke down during the weekend.

Moss, also a Gulf War veteran, serves as a nurses’ assistant at the home. He said the veterans he’s met during the last three days ask him about his rank and seem to feel at ease around the new, camouflaged staff.

“They are people who have served in the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal … in Korea – places I’ve read about in books,” Moss said. “Most of them on my floor are from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, and I think they feel pretty comfortable.”

He and other guard members have been on duty for the past three days.

Although Monday – the first day of union strikes – was hectic, guard members and temporary workers alike said operations inside the veterans home sail smoothly now.

“The care level is the same as what it was with the AFSCME workers,” Reimer said. “I think things are being taken care of pretty well.”

Temporary workers must park in distant lots, far from striking union members. And strikers have made some contentious remarks to temporary employees, said Dan Sullivan, a member of the Minnesota Government Engineers Council, who was brought in to help replace AFSCME and MAPE members.

“It’s hard to develop a routine to replicate what (AFSCME and MAPE workers) were doing before,” he said.

Union members picketing down the road said they would not deter RNs, who could not strike, or visitors, but they wished temporary employees would go elsewhere.

Temporary workers inside the home said that despite the state and union conflict, the veterans must be cared for.

“I’m sorry we had to cross the picket lines,” said Shirley Laymon, a temporary food-service worker. “People have to be fed.”

AFSCME and MAPE workers striking around the premises said they miss the patients and their families.

“We’re worried about them,” said Lois Jacobson, a recreational therapist who has worked at the home for 16 years. She stopped picketing for a couple of minutes to chat with a family member one of her patients.

“And we know the National Guard, who’s maybe been given eight hours of training, are not caring for them the way we can,” she said.

Guard members had several days of “intense training” to prepare for their work in some of Minnesota’s most vulnerable state agencies.

“It seems really awkward to do this in a time of a strike,” Moss said.

But union officials are grateful for the services of the National Guard. “The fact that the guard is there has given (strikers) the opportunity to focus on their own financial well-being and future,” said Don Dinndorf, AFSCME spokesman.

Even after Reimer’s year in Vietnam and his battle with muscular distrophy, the veteran still said the Sept. 11 attacks were the worst thing he’s ever seen.

“It makes everything like this seem insignificant,” he said. “I hope they can get it settled quick. That would be very nice.”

However, no one knows when the strikes will end.

“When the state of Minnesota puts more money on the table,” Jacobson said, “then I think it will be over.”

Dinndorf said negotiations will reconvene at the behest of state mediators who are in contact everyday with the officials from both sides. When the mediators feel a compromise is possible, they will call the state and union officials back to the negotiating table.

Moss and other guard members are slated to serve two weeks in state agencies, but they know they could be there longer.

“I may be here for the two weeks, it may be over tomorrow,” Moss said. “Everybody’s hoping.”


K.C. Howard welcomes comments at [email protected] or (612)627-4070 x3218