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Strikers struggle to show patriotism when country at war
By Ashley Grant
The Associated Press
October 10, 2001

AFSCME national president Gerry McEntee addresses a rally of striking Minnesota state workers at the Capitol on Wednesday.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
ST. PAUL (AP) - Thousands of Minnesota state employees have struggled over the past week and a half to show that being on strike doesn't mean they're unpatriotic.

On Wednesday, union members from New York who had been at the World Trade Center arrived to reinforce the message.

"Jesse may be 'The Body,' but you're the heart, the soul, and the backbone of this state," James McHugh, a New York transportation department employee and a member of AFSCME Local 1000, shouted to a crowd of at least 1,000 gathered at the Minnesota Capitol, using Gov. Jesse Ventura's nickname from his wrestling days.

McHugh told union members they were not being disrespectful to victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Trade Center and Pentagon by striking.

"I believe we union members are a family," he said. "I want you to know that your brothers and sisters in New York support you."

Bob Pinnow was among those huddled together in the mist, shouting, "We love New York. We love New York." He waved a red, white and blue feather boa in the air.

About 23,000 workers from Minnesota's two largest state employees unions - American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 6 and Minnesota Association of Professional Employees - the went on strike Oct. 1, making it the largest strike in state history.

Some have questioned the decision in light of the deadly attacks and the push for solidarity in the nation's war against terrorism.

Gov. Jesse Ventura has not been directly involved in negotiations, but has said repeatedly the state's best offer is on the table and that if he were one of the state employees, he would be going to work.

Ventura, a member of two entertainment unions, also has said that in wartime, "everyone has to bite the bullet a little bit."

Lisa Maidl, a revenue collection officer for the state in the far northeastern Minnesota town of Ely, takes offense at Ventura's comments.

"He's trying to say we're unpatriotic because we do this?" she said. "Do you watch football games? Do you watch sitcoms? Do you go out to dinner with your friends? Believe me, we do feel bad about what's going on. We have flags attached to our picket signs."

Maidl, 38, called herself "very patriotic."

"Nobody wants to be out there in the rain, in the snow and without a paycheck," she said. "Unfortunately, the timing is bad."

The two unions go back into negotiations with the state Thursday for the first time since the strike began and all sides hope for a quick resolution.

Wage increases and changes to health benefits are the sticking points for both unions.

Helen Lang, a 47-year-old union worker at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault, said the union has to fight for better benefits now - not later.

"People assume that people in New York have it tougher than us," Lang said. "They say we shouldn't be selfish at a time like this. This is democracy."

AFSCME member Tom Gavitt has endured some scowls over the past week - not only because he is striking, but because the picket lines he and his colleagues walk are outside the 148th Air National Guard base in Duluth.

Some passers-by have mistaken the strikers for peace activists, he said.

Gavitt, a retired National Guard member and state firefighter, fully supports the war.

"We're flying a flag," he said. "We put out big signs."

One sign reads: "State employees on strike to keep our medical benefits. Please know we support the Air National Guard."

He said union members are just trying to do what President Bush urged - to get on with their lives. "I guess I must have missed the 'unless you're going on strike' part," said Gavitt, 40.

Several of his co-workers are active Guardsmen who have been called up to help fill in during the walkout. They cross the picket line daily, then join their colleagues back on the line when their shifts end.

"It's very difficult to cross the line," said Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Dan Lysher. "As I drive in, I'm still collecting a paycheck from the U.S. military."

Bill Lucy, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME International, urged strikers to stick together.

"We are free Americans - as patriotic as they come," he said. "This is a battle about fairness and respect and dignity. ... and we will never walk away from a fight like that."

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