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Minnesota State Workers Strike

by Steff Yorek |
October 31, 2001
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Picket line.
State workers on the picket line demanding better health benefits and a wage increase. (Fight Back! News/Kim DeFranco)
Picketing the Minnesota State Zoo.
Picketing the Minnesota State Zoo. Nearly 28,000 state workers are on strike.

St Paul, MN - On Oct.1, 28,000 members of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) started striking for better health benefits and wage increases. This is the largest public employee strike in MN state history, and one of the most prolonged strikes of public workers in U.S. history.

Melinda McGowan, AFSCME revenue examiner worker for 4 years, states, "The workers are tired of not being respected by the state. AFSCME wanted a 5% wage increase while the state offered 3%. Even if they gave a 10% raise, the health benefit package that the workers would have to pay into would just eat the raise away. MN used to be the employer of choice, but not anymore. We took a wage freeze in the early 90's; knowing when the economy rebounds, we would be compensated. Now it's our turn. As for the state claiming they have no money, I watched as the state surplus checks were being mailed out, yet now they can't even give us a raise that equals inflation."

A statement from AFSCME Council 6 and MAPE reads, "State government is in the best financial situation in a generation. The Governor proudly talks about making state government an 'employer of choice'. The Department of Economic Security proudly reports that Minnesotans in general have had a wage and salary gain of over 50% in the last 10 years."

The story was different in the early 1990's. Governor Carlson came into office in the midst of a recession. Negotiations in both 1991 and 1993 were difficult. In the 1991 contract, state employees took pay increases that trailed inflation. In the 1993 contract, state employees took a one-year wage freeze. At the same time, agencies saw their staffing levels reduced because of systematic underfunding. In those tough times, state employees took their fair share and more of the pain. Deborah Bloom a 13-year claims examiner, said, "In 1993, we took a wage freeze, because Minnesota's economy wasn't doing well. Now that our economy is fine, we need to be compensated for our sacrifice."

Now, in agency after agency, the state cannot fill positions because it is no longer a competitive employer. MN Department of Transportation (MNDOT) snowplows sat in their truck stations because the state could not hire drivers to take them on the road. Veterans' homes and Department of Human Services group homes are seeing a constant turnover of direct care workers because the state cannot recruit or retain workers to care for the state's most needy citizens.

This strike will be hard fought. The state is hiring 'temporary workers' and bringing out the National Guard to try to keep the work of the state government going. Christine Lanphear, a Minnesota Zoo naturalist for 15 years, said, "At the zoo, they are hiring some replacement workers and we aren't happy about it."

Minnesota state government got on top of health insurance costs in the 1990's. AFSCME was a partner in driving down health care increases, some years actually reducing premiums. In the last two years, all those gains have evaporated, as we see runaway health care inflation. The unions see no proposals from the state to address underlying cost problems - only proposals to shift costs onto people.

Jan Carlson, director of Region 8 of MAPE, explains the health proposal, "The State is trying to control costs of health care. The new proposal has three levels of care, and the State wants employees to pick the cheapest plan. However, if you want better clinics and care, then they have to pay more of the cost. The principal reason for insurance is sharing the risk and the cost for all, especially when some people get really sick. The unions are willing to accept some co-pays, but they are uncomfortable with the doubling of prescriptions drugs."

Victoria Sharoyer, worker for 7 years in the Department of Transportation, states, "Jesse [Ventura]'s idea of being a big man is hitting sick people. With the proposed health care plan that the state is offering, people will pay up to $4,000 more per year for their benefits."

Privatization remains a constant threat. The legislature agreed to place limits on the ability of state agencies to contract out, but the administration is ignoring them. The MN Department of Transportation proposes major expansions in 'design and build' - a fancy word for contracting out the work done by AFSCME members in Design, Surveys, and Inspection. MN State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) colleges continue efforts to contract out childcare and food service operations - even though the AFSCME workers already barely have a living wage.

State and university employees have lost over 4% in real wages since 1987. The Governor's budget contains less than 3% each year to cover all the costs of negotiated agreements. The Governor's budget estimates that half of the new money will be eaten away by health insurance increases. According to Christine Lanphear, "The issues are benefits and needing cost of living adjustments. These issues have been a long-term problem. For ten years, we had just the minimal increases in wages."

Deborah Bloom, who works as a claims examiner, says that those who process social security, disability, and medical claims have seen their caseloads go up without the hiring of adequate numbers of staff. "We just had a training class of 6 new people. Knowing about all the work that is involved with claims and with a starting salary about $20,000 a year, it's hard to keep people."

State workers are upset and dismayed in the way Governor Jesse Ventura is handling the strike - especially the people who voted for him. They describe Ventura's new and 'final offer' of a proposed contract, which has the possibility of layoffs in the future, as a "scare tactic."

"Even though Jesse wasn't the governor with the last strike in 1987, he now can't come in here and say 'That was in the past-I have nothing to do with that.' Well, he inherited the history of our struggle and it's his job now to negotiate with us," said Chris Kline, a zoologist 15 years. "We don't have a vendetta against the zoo but we need to take care of our families. We are here to support our co-workers who don't make as much as I do. My issue is about the health benefits."

A striker at the Department of Revenue echoed this sentiment, "Tell me when was the last time Jesse ever made a sacrifice or had to bite the bullet?"

Gene Fish, Department of Revenue worker, stated "Insurance. People need insurance. This issue has been around forever. Ten years ago, we fought for this issue. People need to be paid a living wage and able to get insurance. I'll be here striking for as long as it takes."

The timing of the strike
The strikers say that this administration is using the tragedy at the World Trade Center to their advantage, by not paying the workers what they are worth. Michael Jackson, an 11-year electrician at the zoo, said, "The airplane industry is capitalizing on the tragedy in New York and Washington by getting money from the federal government to save their business. Now the state of Minnesota is doing the same thing in not giving us what we deserve. If the state wants to retain good and loyal workers, they need to compensate us." The unions already delayed their strike date once, from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1.