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State reaches tentative contract settlement with its workers
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Union leader James Monroe says despite the increased health care costs, union leaders accepted the offers as the best they could expect (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
State workers will have an opportunity this week to examine details of tentative two-year contract offers hammered out over the weekend between union officials and state negotiators. Union officials say they'll recommend that their members accept the offers, despite concerns that the proposals will increase the out-of-pocket health care costs of employees. Pawlenty administration officials, however, say the plans are fair and balanced -- and they say the agreements avoid the possibility of a state workers strike.

St. Paul, Minn. — The settlements offer no across-the-board wage increases, although they do provide for pay raises based on seniority or promotion. And they transfer a larger slice of health care costs to state workers.

But Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman says the plans reflect the realities of today's job market, including the sluggish economy and skyrocketing medical expenses. Ludeman says the contracts compare favorably with what most Minnesotans find in the private sector.

"It's something that keeps us in business, in full operation, the state able to do its job and treats employees just simply as fairly as we possibly could, because we're very interested in keeping quality employees working for the state," he said.

Late last month, state workers overwhelmingly rejected a previous offer largely because of the new employee-paid health care costs. Under that plan, families could have faced up to $5,000 per year in out-of-pocket medical expenses. The weekend settlement reduces those burdens somewhat, but union and state negotiators are withholding details until they can be communicated to state workers.

Still, union officials say they're disappointed they didn't get more. Jim Monroe is the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, which represents approximately 11,000 technicians, accountants, and other skilled workers. Monroe says despite the increased health care costs, union leaders accepted the offers as the best they could expect.

"I'm not going to call this a win-win," he said. "It's a resolution of a contract dispute. It's not where it should have been. It's wrong. It's simply wrong with the way this administration is shifting costs."

But administration officials say the lean budget picture left the state few options. Last spring, lawmakers and Gov. Pawlenty approved a multi-billion-dollar deficit reduction package that allocated no resources for employee wage or benefit increases. Ludeman says the state simply didn't have additional money to sweeten its offer. In the end, he says he was able to scale back the increased healthcare burden by revising the plan's cost estimates.

By assuming the plan can be supported more cheaply than originally projected, Ludeman says he was willing to drop some of the demands on employee contributions. But Ludeman says that approach is not without its hazards.

"We took some chances and some risk. We made the decision that we would sort of make maximum use of what we think the efficiencies in the new plan design would be. And, so, we're taking a little chance here. We're willing to do it, talked to the governor about it," he said.

MAPE was joined at the bargaining table by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 6. AFSCME represents some 17,000 clerical, custodial, and maintenance workers. The two unions represent roughly half the state work force and generally set the standard for contract talks with the state other, smaller unions.

AFSCME Council 6 Executive Director Peter Benner says union officials will recommend that their members accept the packages. But he says the debate over health care isn't over.

"I think there's a lesson here. And that is when we have elections which elect people who are determined to shift costs of health care onto average working people, this stuff happens. And part of what we're going to be doing is, you know, committing our union, engaging our members that is we go into '04 and the November, '04, elections to help turn this state, not just for our members but for all working families in this state," Benner said.

The boards of MAPE and AFSCME will review the tentative agreements later this week. Voting by the two unions full memberships will occur next month.

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