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Debate over possible state worker strike spills onto airwaves
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Employer Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman says sweetening the pot for some workers will mean lay-offs for others. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
The debate over state employee wages and benefits has moved from the bargaining table to the airwaves. State workers are in the midst of voting on contract offers tendered by Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration. Union leaders have urged members to reject the offers, arguing that they shift too many health care costs onto employees. A union-sponsored radio ad has been drawing the public's attention to the dispute. And now, a new spot has hit the air; this one questioning the patriotism of state workers.

St. Paul, Minn. — For almost two weeks now, radio audiences across the state have been brought into the contract disputes between the state's two largest public employees unions and the Pawlenty administration. The Coalition of Minnesota Working Families, which draws support from those unions, has sponsored a series of ads, including one that accuses the governor of shifting the state's fiscal woes onto its own workers.

"Now he wants to balance the state budget by cutting health care for 50,000 working families. Governor, you're taking the state in the wrong direction," the ad says.

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Image A shared burden?

As the ad makes clear, health benefits present the major sticking point. The state has said it's made its last, best offers. But the unions say those offers would increase out-of-pocket medical expenses, in some cases by many thousands of dollars. And there's now a third voice in the debate. The union ad is drawing a sharp rebuke from the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota. That group has begun its own ad campaign, one that reminds audiences of the burdens of war and recession.

"That's why it's so disappointing to hear that state government workers are talking about going on strike -- again. Remember when they went out on strike just three weeks after 9/11? It just doesn't seem right," the ad says.

State workers struck for two weeks in 2001, but only after moving their initial strike date back several weeks in response to the terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, Taxpayers League legislative director David Strom says private sector workers have been buffeted by difficult times. He says state employees should likewise share the burden.

"War, recession, everything else. Everyone has had to tighten their belts. State workers think that they should be immune from the same forces that the rest of us have had to deal with," according to Strom.

Union officials, however, are upset over the ad's suggestions that state employees aren't sufficiently patriotic. Peter Benner, the executive director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 6, which represents roughly 17,000 workers who are covered in the current negotiations, says union members were only exercising their rights under the collective bargaining process.

"Two years ago we had Vietnam veterans on the picket line and proud of it. Desert Storm veterans on the picket line, proud of it. Panama veterans on the line and proud of it. I think it is simply wrong for the Taxpayers League to question the patriotism of a single state employee," says Benner.

Patriotism aside, the negotiations will ultimately depend on cash -- or the lack thereof. Lawmakers did not budget any increases in compensation or benefits when they balanced a $4.3 billion projected deficit last spring. And Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman says that leaves a limited pool of resources to work with.

Ludeman says sweetening the pot for some workers will mean lay-offs for others.

"We've put as many dollars on the table as we possibly can. And someone has to take the responsibility to keep people at the job and to provide the services that Minnesota citizens are demanding. And I'm taking that responsibility," he says.

Already, nearly 1,000 employees have been let go since January. Ludeman says the state reserves the right to unilaterally cancel the contracts if necessary. And he notes that by Oct. 15, the state will begin to rack up new health care administrative costs if it hasn't settled on a benefits plan.

Jim Monroe, the executive director of the 11,000-member Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, says union members, too, would like to see progress, but he says they're prepared to walk off the job again, if necessary.

"Resignation. Not desire for a strike. Just resignation that unfortunately it may happen, but they would much rather have a negotiated settlement," says Monroe.

MAPE and AFSCME expect to announce the results of their balloting at the end of the month.

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