U workers support statewide strike

Jessica Thompson

State agencies struggled to keep up with their workload Monday as an estimated 21,000 state employees hit the picket lines – the largest state workers’ strike in Minnesota’s history.

After negotiations between state officials and two of the state’s largest unions failed to smooth away disputes over health care and wages, union officials voted Sunday to strike.

With signs calling for “Affordable Health Care and a Livable Wage Now!” University employees – who could strike at the end of October against the University’s administration – also picketed during lunch hours Monday to show support for state workers.

“They’re in the same hard place that we’re at. They’ve been organizing for this day for at least two years, so we’re here to support them,” said Jody Ebert, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3937 – University technical employees.

Although several government agencies closed their doors indefinitely Monday, state officials said they are prepared for the work force depletion.

“There’s not a panic … the executive branch has been planning for this for months,” said Julien Carter, commissioner of the Department of Employee Relations. “Contingency plans were kicked into effect last night, and people were ready for today.”

Members of AFSCME and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees gathered at government buildings statewide to rally support and deter people from crossing the picket lines.

“Governor Ventura doesn’t live up to his words. He says we are valued employees, but how important are we if it comes down to us having to strike to get our point across?” said Karen Bolander, a 21-year Department of Public Health employee, who protested in front of the Department of Public Health on the East Bank.

Bolander participated in the last major statewide strike, in 1981, when AFSCME held picket lines for 22 days.

AFSCME and MAPE officials requested annual wage increases of 5 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively, for their 2001-03 contracts. The state agreed to a 3 percent wage increase for AFSCME for each of the next two years and offered MAPE a one-time 4 percent increase.

One striker said there are “mixed feelings” among union members over whether the strike’s timing is appropriate in light of the Sept. 11 attacks and the weak economy.

But union leaders – who have pushed for more benefits for several years – decided employees have waited too long for the state to respond to their demands.

“I don’t see this as being unpatriotic,” said Barbara Ottis, Department of Public Health nurse. “Living in this country, we have a right to speak up and say we’re worth more than this.”

For others, the strike is not as personal. Kristy Hellman, a University senior who works at the Department of Transportation, said because she only works part time, “it really
doesn’t matter that much to me.”

Hellman did not go to work Monday morning, but it wasn’t because she was picketing.

“I was told that I shouldn’t cross the picket line because it would make people really upset,” Hellman said.

University AFSCME employees reached a tentative contract agreement last week, which members will approve or reject later this month. Although they are currently working, employees warn a strike is still possible.

“Some members are truly outraged by the agreement. We don’t make a living wage. Now the University is further insulting us by increasing health insurance by thousands of dollars a year,” said AFSCME Local 3800 President Phyllis Walker, who picketed outside the Law School.

Strikers received support Monday from Minnesota’s 50,000-member Teamsters union. A union official announced the union’s truck drivers will not cross picket lines.

Strikers said the University community showed support, but some opposition occurred at the picket lines. Erin Klein, a pre-veterinary sciences freshman, said she thinks the strikers’ demands are selfish.

“They went into these professions knowing what kind of money was involved,” Klein said. “You go into these fields because you love it. If you don’t, then get the hell out.”

 

Jessica Thompson covers state government and welcomes comments at [email protected] or (612) 627-4070 x3211