Talks resume Thursday to try to avert a state employee strike scheduled to begin Monday. Nearly 30,000 workers are ready to walk off the job over wages and health insurance, unless their two unions and state negotiators can reach an agreement in the next four days. The fallout from the terrorist attacks this month may put extra pressure on both sides to reach a deal.
AFSCME member Jennifer Nelson works for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. She says her family of five could not absorb the increased health care costs proposed in the state's contract proposal. (MPR Photo/Patty Marsicano)
THE PARTIES DELAYED THE START OF MEDIATION FOR TWO WEEKS -
right after the September 11 terrorist attacks. They also pushed back the strike date from September 17 to October 1. Peter Benner, executive director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 6, says there's no question the attacks affected the union's mood going into the talks.
"I think our members and our bargaining team will be approaching negotiations, making a greater effort to try to reach an agreement, given everything that's going on around us," says Benner. "Having said that, we are still hearing from our members that if this cannot be resolved in a fair and equitable manner, they are fully prepared and determined to go out on strike Monday."
Two unions may strike - AFSCME and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. Together they represent almost 30,000 people who work in virtually every state agency and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. They include secretaries, heavy equipment operators, nurses, parole officers, food quality inspectors, and chemical dependency counselors. The last time AFSCME went on strike was in 1981. This would be the first strike ever for MAPE.
While the desire for a pre-strike settlement may be more intense now than before the terrorist attacks, negotiators still have a difficult job ahead. They must try to agree on issues where they're far apart - mainly wages and health insurance. The state has offered a wage increase of between 2 percent and 2.5 percent each of the next two years. The unions want between 4 percent and 6.5 percent raises each year. The state wants employees to shoulder a bigger share of health insurance because of rising premiums - including co-pays and deductibles that workers don't currently pay.
AFSCME member Jennifer Nelson works for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. She says her family of five could not absorb the increased health care costs.
"We have three small children and we have anywhere from six to 10 medical appointments a month. And with the co-pays we just couldn't afford it."
Workers also say they've been getting raises below the inflation rate for years. Kris Warner works at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and is the president of her AFSCME local. She says employees must have more money.
Patrick Harrington is the man in the middle - the state mediator assigned to help the state and the two unions reach a contract agreement, to avoid a strike on October 1.
(MPR Photo/Patty Marsicano)
"We took a wage freeze in 1993, and since 1993 we've taken very small minimum increases not to put a burden on the government. Now it's our turn," says Warner.
Department of Employee Relations Commissioner Julien Carter says this contract will have permanent financial implications, because any increases will be part of every subsequent contract. He says his department has a duty to taxpayers to manage what he calls "finite resources."
"We're always constrained by the budget. We have to look at the complete cost of what we're working on and say, 'Is it something that's within our means to afford? Can we pay for this contract, and not jeopardize the mission of the various state agencies because we've overextended ourselves?'" says Carter.
Even before September 11, the slowing economy had some state officials talking about a likely budget shortfall next year. With more economic uncertainty following the attacks, the Ventura administration may be even more reluctant to give in on wage increases. The state Bureau of Mediation Services has called the parties together just four days before a potential strike. The bureau says the deadline pressure tends to persuade the two sides to make serious offers.
The unions and the state say if there's going to be a contract settlement without a strike - they can reach it in the next few days. And they say they'll be working around the clock trying to do it.