In the Spotlight

News & Features

Size, breadth of strike makes it stand out
By Patrick Howe
The Associated Press
October 8, 2001

Minnesota is one of only about 10 states in which state employees can legally go on strike. Labor experts say it's difficult to say the exact number because in some states strikes are technically legal, but in practice never allowed.

Michael Cimini, an economist with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, said that based on the 22,000 workers who stayed off the job Monday, Minnesota's strike is the second-largest public walkout since 1990. About 47,000 workers in Los Angeles joined a job action in 2000, he said. But they were county workers, not state employees.

Minnesota's strike is also unusual in the number of affected services.

The strikers include driver's exam instructors, social workers, psychologists, nurses' aides, food workers, fiscal auditors, animal trainers and janitors, among others.

"I have not heard of a strike this broad, certainly not in the last 10 or 15 years," said Michael Handel, a sociology professor who specializes in labor issues at the University of Wisconsin.

Daniel Kaufman, a national spokesman for AFSCME, said he knows of no other state strikes of this magnitude in recent history.

In Washington state last May, nearly as many union members protested a contract offer with a series of rolling work stoppages. But that never resulted in a full-scale strike.

Minnesota's strike is also distinguished by the use of National Guard troops, who are taking over some of the duties of striking workers.

About 700 National Guard members, mostly in civilian clothes, spent the week at work at psychiatric treatment centers, nursing homes and group homes. They earn about $120 per day and perform basic duties such as janitorial work, but don't do health care work that requires professional licenses.

Dennis Nolan, a professor of labor law at the University of South Carolina, said it is unusual for states to call out the Guard in strikes. When they do, they are generally used in policing roles.

But he says that's because few strikes present the sort of public safety concerns that Minnesota's current one does.

"In a case like yours, when you start getting into, say, nursing homes, the pressure I'm sure on the politicians must be enormous," he said. "If you didn't use the National Guard to provide those services and you had some patient in the nursing homes die, you'd be blamed."

The unions - Council 6 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees - have a combined membership of more than 29,000. However, more than 1,700 unionized prison guards are barred from striking and 1,182 other workers were on leaves authorized before the strike.

About 13 percent of workers crossed picket lines Monday, while some 22,000 went on strike. That makes the job action the largest in state history, and it is the first state employee strike in 20 years.

Nolan said he's not surprised that so many workers are staying off the job. The Midwest is known as friendly territory for the labor movement.

"The bedrock attitude is supportive of unions," he said. "You know if you cross that picket line, there are going to be co-workers who are going to hate your guts, maybe for years."

Minnesota's strike has been largely peaceful so far, although by the end of the week reports of altercations had risen. A man in Rochester was struck by a car Thursday after trying to take a picture of a woman who crossed the picket line.

A striker in Bemidji was wanted by police for allegedly pursuing a man into a record store and punching him.

The experts say such conflicts are likely to rise if the strike drags on for weeks.

Unlike strikes against private businesses, the purpose of the pickets isn't necessarily to discourage people from patronizing the services being struck. Workers outside a Minneapolis Veterans Home, for example, said they understand that people still need to get care and visit relatives.

Instead, the picket lines serve to keep pressure on fellow workers to not cross the lines.

And more important, the lines help unions communicate with the public.

Said Nolan: "I don't think it is too much to say the strike will be won and lost in the arena of public opinion."

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)