Minnesota Public Employees Win the Largest Strike in State History
The strike of nearly 30,000 Minnesota state workers came to an end after two weeks of picketing, demonstrations, and rallies all over the state. For years the two unions involved had been accepting raises below the level of inflation.
AFSCME had been negotiating since February, rejecting the state's offer of a 2.5 percent raise in each of two years. The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) was offered 2 percent each year.
The state wanted to increase workers' health care costs to $1,900 a year for individuals and $3,800 for families. The out-of-pocket expenses for a single mother with the misfortune to have cancer could have reached 25 percent of her take-home pay. The union's proposal called for a maximum of $1,000 and $2,000.
The unions had chosen this time to demand fair wages because the state had a budget surplus this year and actually refunded money to taxpayers. State Commissioners and legislators had allowed themselves 6 percent raises earlier this year, but claimed to have no money for workers. Governor Jesse Ventura threatened to dismiss workers if the state had to spend more money on wages.
"After looking at their offer, my family budget would have been $3,000 less per year," said one of the strikers, in MAPE's strike bulletin. "Most of us put in unpaid extra time because there is not enough staff for the work. We have to do that secretly, because we aren't allowed overtime, and unpaid time is against the law. Yet our elected officials just gave themselves a raise and get paid for meals, driving time and who knows what else. I feel that asking for a 6 percent increase and a small insurance co-pay isn't outrageous."
The strike was criticized in the media and by the state as being unpatriotic. But the workers had shown their respect for the victims of the September 11 attack by postponing their strike for two weeks; they had been without a contract since July 1. "People say let's return to normal and continue with our life--strikes have long been a part of American life," said Jan Carlson, a MAPE regional director.
The media presented polls indicating that the Minnesota population was somewhat more against the strike than supportive, because of "bad timing." At the picket line, however, the rank and file mainly got support, with angry citizens the exception.
Firemen from New York City came to speak at one of the many strike rallies. "After all the working men and women of this country have been through helping New York City dig out from the rubble," said Israel Miranda, "it's important that when workers like you in [AFSCME] Council 6 act to keep what you have and you get what you need to support yourself and your families, we all stand behind you."
Miranda is an instructor at the New York Fire Department's academy for emergency medical service technicians, who had been working 20-hour days on the rescue and recovery efforts in Manhattan. The firemen were able to bring $10,500 of donations for the victims back to New York.
An AFSCME member from New York told the crowd, "Jesse Ventura may be the body, but state workers are the heart, soul, and backbone of Minnesota!"
This strike was the largest in the state's history, and got 91 percent of the membership out to the picket lines. The effects were considerable, as many services were not available during the strike. Two quite different unions were united. Social workers, psychologists, nurses' aides, food workers, drivers' exam instructors, fiscal auditors, animal trainers, and janitors among many more made clear they stood together. The state finally agreed to 3.5 percent raises in each of the next two years for AFSCME members and 3 percent per year for MAPE members. Family health insurance will cost $1,600 in 2002 and $2,200 in 2003.
The union said the settlement was $10 to $15 million higher than the pre-strike offer. "We see it as a success, we've got more than the state had offered us," said Mary Leier of AFSCME Local 2829. "We achieved unity that we hadn't had before."