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Contract talks resume, but workers remain on picket lines
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
October 12, 2001

State negotiators and representatives from Minnesota's two largest public employees unions return to the bargaining table Friday. Talks officially resumed Thursday, but so far there's been no immediate sign of progress. Union leaders say any real breakthrough will require several days of intense negotiations. In public, however, Gov. Jesse Ventura and the unions are standing firm.

"If it takes a week, we'll do that," says Patrick Harrington, a state mediator. "As long as there's progress we'll continue to work."
(MPR Photo/Patty Marsicano)
Eleven days into the strike, mediators brought the two sides back to the table, calculating enough time had elapsed since talks broke down late last month. Although neither the state nor the unions nor the mediators arrived with specific proposals for breaking the deadlock, union leaders expressed cautious optimism.

"I believe anything is possible," said Deb Schadegg, the president of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. "If there's a deal to be done, then we're here; we're ready. And until the mediator chases us out of here, we're staying at the table."

MAPE and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 6, both say - at a minimum - the state must be willing to bring additional dollars to the bargaining table.

But Gov. Ventura is giving no sign he's ready to meet that demand. Speaking at Fond du Lac Community College, Ventura suggested to a student audience of roughly 300 that striking workers should take the state's last offer or look elsewhere for employment (Listen).

"I didn't come out of a labor background, but I got involved in organizing activities," says Jim Monroe of MAPE, whose father was a doctor and mother a nurse. "I enjoyed it and I've always sort of had that drive." Read more.
"I respect their right to strike. Certainly. I'm a vested member in two unions myself. Absolutely. But let me also give you a very harsh reality: if you feel you're - this is the United States - if you feel that your job is unfair to you, you can go get another one," Ventura said.

About 20 picketers greeted Ventura as he arrived on campus, but the governor's bus rolled past without stopping. After his remarks, Ventura left through a rear exit and avoided the picket line.

Sissy Otis, the strike captain for workers at Fond du Lac, says the governor's attitude undermines serious negotiations. "We never put that offer out - the first offer - and expected that we'd get everything we wanted. But we didn't expect to get shut down, either. I mean, that's just not the way it works. Don't just stand there and say that 'that's it, take it or leave it,' because we're not going to take it. Forget it," Otis said.

The state bargaining team declined to discuss the negotiations. But MAPE is asking for a 4.5-percent salary increases in each of the next two years. The state's most recent offer was for a one-time 4-percent hike. AFSCME is requesting 5-percent raises over the next two years, while the state has offered 3 percent. Both unions are also concerned that changes to health benefits will leave some workers with crippling out-of-pocket costs for medical services. The state says rising health care costs must be borne by both employer and employee.

AFSCME executive director Peter Benner says union members will continue to apply pressure to the governor.

"I think our members will be expressing what they feel. If progress is being made I think it's going to be folks saying, 'Let's put it together, let's put it together.' If stuff falls and crumbles, I think he's going to see a lot of angry state employees. As he should," Benner said.

Benner says sorting through the competing contract proposals could take days. Meanwhile, state officials say more and more workers are crossing the picket lines. Latest figures from the Strike Response Team indicate nearly 4,800 out of 28,000 workers are reporting for work. That's up by about 800 since the strike began.