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Voting begins on state workers' contract
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
November 12, 2001

Members of Minnesota's two largest state employee unions are voting on a contract deal reached last month. The state and the unions reached the tentative deal after union members had been on strike for two weeks. Many workers are upset about the proposed package of wages and benefits, and say they'll vote against it. The leader of one union says the vote is too close to call, while the head of the other is predicting members will ratify the contract.

State employees rallied at the Capitol during their strike last month, criticizing Gov. Ventura's role in the negotiations. Now that they begin voting on the contract, some are still angry with the governor over the deal. "I think we got screwed," one AFSCME member said.
(MPR file photo)

Pat Kennedy has worked for the state for 12 years. She helps people with disabilities through the Department of Economic Security, and is a member of MAPE, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. Under the proposed contract, Kennedy and other MAPE members will get a 3 percent raise in each of the next two years. But what angers her - and the reason she'll vote to reject the contract - is the fact that it eliminates "step increases." Those are annual performance-based pay bumps for employees who aren't at the top of their pay scales.

"That's the reason I took the job," says Kennedy. "I took the job based on the fact that there were step increases, and for my particular job, I was eligible for a promotion after a year. Without those two - I wouldn't have taken it. It was either a lateral transfer or a pay loss when I started."

Kennedy is now at the top of her pay range, so the loss of a step increase doesn't affect her. But it affects nearly three-quarters of MAPE's 10,000 members. Dozens of them crammed into an informational meeting on the contract in downtown St. Paul last week. Many were angry about losing step increases. Others grumbled about the health insurance proposal. It asks workers to pay more for doctor visits and prescription drugs than they have in the past.

One woman who didn't want to give her name says the Ventura administration gave MAPE a bad offer. But she says since MAPE is the weaker of the two unions, the administration figured MAPE would take it.

"There was a sense that the administration wasn't really negotiating in good faith, and that they used some divide- and-conquer strategies to offer AFSCME a better offer, and offer us something that leaves most of us pretty dissatisfied," said the woman.

AFSCME is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The 19,000 members of AFSCME Council 6 include janitors and clerical workers. Unlike MAPE, AFSCME workers will get their step increases. But some members who left an informational meeting at the Department of Human Services aren't any happier than the MAPE workers.

"I think we got screwed," says Dawn Lindgren, who works in the state's child support payment center. "I think that Jesse has made it very difficult for us to get a fair contract. And I don't particularly like it, but I don't think we can do better right now."

Jim Monroe, executive director of MAPE. He says the contract offer from the state has only about a 50-50 chance of approval from his union's members.
(MPR file photo)

Gov. Ventura and his commissioners have consistently said the state offered the unions a fair contract that taxpayers can afford. Ventura spokesman John Wodele says the state expects union leaders to sell the package to the rank-and-file.

The contract will give AFSCME members 3.5 percent raises in each of the next two years. But for many of them, the raise is less important than the changes in the state's health insurance package. Mary Lou Diederich processes medical claims for the state.

"I was out last summer with a back injury. I was going to physical therapy three times a week. If you're not working, and you're going to physical therapy three times a week and you're having to pay $30 to $50 co-pays for your physical therapy, it's not very feasible to go," Diederich says.

State officials have said after years of double-digit health insurance increases, the state had to pass some of those costs onto employees.

Diederich and some workers are also upset about a provision in the contract that extends benefits to the same-sex partners of union members. Diederich doesn't support the provision. Others are angry that its inclusion has put the contract in jeopardy. Some Republican legislators have threatened to vote against the contract over the domestic partner benefits.

Union leaders say they hope that doesn't happen, and they hope members ratify the contract. But MAPE executive director Jim Monroe says given the level of frustration among union members, there's no guarantee they'll approve the deal.

"It's a hard read," Monroe says. "Based on the meetings I've had the opportunity to attend, and that's about nine of them so far, I'd say it's about 50-50."

Monroe says the vote will be close, not like the overwhelming vote to strike back in August. AFSCME leaders say they think members will vote to accept the contract. At a meeting of union leadership a week ago, the vote to ratify was 3-1.

If either union rejects the contract, the union involved would enter a 10-day cooling-off period. The union leaders would then need to decide whether to go back to the bargaining table, or go back on strike.

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