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State reaches contract deal with its largest unions
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AFSCME lead negotiator Eliot Seide said the deal would not repay affected workers for lost pay or vacation during the government shutdown. That issue will be addressed in separate talks in the near future. (MPR File Photo)
The two largest unions representing state workers reached tentative contract agreements early Friday morning. All sides praise the deals. The came after two years of flat employee wages and a contentious partial state government shutdown earlier this month.

St. Paul, Minn. — State officials say the path to the deal was paved with lower health insurance costs for employees. The settlements do not resolve disagreements over pay and vacation employees lost during the shutdown.

The tentative agreements came after five days of intense negotiations. State and union officials began talks this week for the first time since the state government shutdown halted earlier discussions. The agreements need to be ratified by the memberships of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. Combined, the two unions represent nearly 30,000 state workers.

State Department of Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman says the agreements are promising.

"We feel very good about it," he said. "I think the state employee unions feel good about it. The governor's pleased, I'm pleased. Everyone should be happy today. We have a settlement."

Ludeman says the agreements' success is partly because health insurance costs are now rising at a slower rate than in past years. The state switched to a new health care program known as Advantage that Ludeman says kept the state's insurance hikes below the national average.

"The insurance premium rates for the state employee group were absolutely flat," he said. "There was no cost increase for the state employee insurance group. If that wouldn't have happened that would have been much more difficult."

The MAPE agreement includes a two percent wage increase in each of the two years. Health insurance costs remain at 2005 levels. Premiums for employees with dependents will go up by more than $10 a month during the second year of the contract.

In a written statement, Gov. Tim Pawlenty called the wage increase "deserved". He attributes the agreement's success to an improving economy and both sides coming to the table ready to work out a mutually beneficial deal.

MAPE Executive Director Jim Monroe calls it a hard-fought, difficult negotiation that produced the best contract in years.

"I believe this is the first contract since 1999 that's coming out with an acceptance recommendation from the negotiating team," he said. "I believe it's a good contract. It has some things as we're able to explain that I think are going to point out that it may be the best in some areas in the country in recent time."

The MAPE executive committee will vote on the package Monday. If approved, it will then go to the membership.

AFSCME's Executive Director Elliot Seide says his union's agreement also increases wages both years of the contract and holds the line on employee health insurance costs. Seide says his negotiating team will recommend the agreement be ratified, though state and union negotiators still need to reach agreement on compensation for workers who lost wages and vacation time during the partial state shutdown.

"We will take it to this dispute resolution process and our goal is to make state employees who were innocent bystanders in this situation, who faced harm's way, to make them whole for their losses during that time," he said.

The talks over the shutdown compensation begin in September.

Seide says any victory for the workers is only temporarily because rising health insurance costs are beyond the control of any one union or employer.

Each union's membership will vote on their respective agreements in August.

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