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Half of Minnesota’s State Workers Go Out on Strike

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 22,000 Minnesota state employees went on strike Monday, with mental health counselors, tax auditors, hazardous-waste response teams and workers in hundreds of other fields walking off the job in a bid for better wages.

The state’s two biggest unions said at least 80% of their members honored the strike--and were prepared to dig in for a long work stoppage. That means parole and probation officers will not be monitoring their charges. Health inspectors will not be checking up on restaurants. There will be few forensic analysts to run DNA samples.

Even the keepers at the Minnesota Zoo are walking picket lines. (Nonunion supervisors will feed and care for the animals.)

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“Public service workers tend to be invisible until they aren’t there,” said Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Assn. of Professional Employees, which represents 10,500 workers. Monroe hopes the strike will make Minnesotans appreciate their state employees--and support them in their quest for raises. But public support seems far from certain.

Gov. Jesse Ventura has told his constituents repeatedly during eight months of contentious negotiations that the state cannot afford to give the unions all they want. A year ago, Minnesota’s finance commissioner was gloating that the state treasury was “bursting at the seams” with a surplus she described as “buckets of billions.” Now, Ventura says the state is squeezed tight.

“The money is just not there,” spokeswoman Samantha Massaglia said.

Ventura has offered the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees two consecutive annual raises of 3% each. They want two 5% pay hikes. The Minnesota Assn. of Professional Employees seeks two annual raises of 4.6% each. Ventura has drawn the line at a single pay hike worth 4.5%. And the governor deems his offers more than generous: To make good on them, he says, the state will have to trim elsewhere, forcing service cuts and even layoffs.

Ventura is worried that the state’s budget may get bleaker yet.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks already have pinched Minnesota’s economy, with tourism and sales tax revenues suffering as visitors canceled flights and residents put off big purchases. Other states have responded to similar blows with urgent measures: Indiana canceled raises for state employees, Illinois and Iowa slashed spending, and Florida, Hawaii and Nebraska have convened emergency legislative sessions to tackle the crisis. Minnesota has not gone that far. But Ventura argues that financial prudence is more critical than ever.

“The country is on the brink of recession. We’re a country in mourning. We’re preparing for war. It just doesn’t seem like the time to raise taxes to satisfy the [unions’] wage demands,” said John Wodele, the governor’s communications director.

Some callers to Minnesota radio shows voiced similar sentiments.

“Some were saying, ‘We support the strike, go for it,’ ” said Erica Erickson, a producer at Twin Cities radio station KNOW-FM. But with a national recession looming, others were outraged that the unions would turn down a raise of any sort. “They were saying: ‘What’s the matter with you? [The governor’s offer] sounds good enough to me when I’m worried about keeping my job.’ ”

The unions know they have an uphill battle for public opinion--especially since state jobs long have been perceived as cushy. “The cliche of fat government jobs,” said Gary Johnson, a tax auditor out on strike.

He and others point out that state employees have not been getting rich off Minnesota’s recent string of good years. While the governor has reveled in handing out tax rebates--nearly $800 million was returned to citizens this year--union members say their salaries have not even kept pace with inflation.

“Giving back tax rebates has become more important in the minds of some people than adequately funding state government,” said Pat Litchy, 50, a commerce analyst walking the picket lines.

The walkout is the largest strike by state employees in Minnesota history, encompassing more than half the state work force. It’s also the first in two decades. (A 1981 strike lasted 22 days.)

State police officers, prison guards, college teachers and firefighters are not on strike. But the stoppage affects just about every other state service, from the custodians who clean state buildings to the gardeners who maintain state parks to the career counselors who advise students at community colleges.

To fill some of the most crucial positions, Ventura has turned to the National Guard. About 1,000 reservists will report to state-run health care facilities, such as nursing homes for veterans, to feed and care for patients. Others will perform routine maintenance work to make sure, for instance, that boilers are working at all state facilities, Wodele said.

The National Guard also has been on security duty at Minnesota’s airports since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But state officials said that with 12,000 members, the guard has enough personnel to handle both jobs.


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