ST. PAUL (AP) -- Gov. Jesse Ventura is quick to point out that he is a card-carrying union member whenever the topic arises, but union leaders say they want him to act like it not just talk about it.
As Ventura tries to avoid the first major state government strike in 20 years, some players in the dispute are confused about exactly where his sympathies lie. The state's largest employees union on Saturday overwhelmingly authorized a strike, which could begin Sept. 17.
"He says he's for the little guy," said David Albien, a state worker who tends the heating and air-conditioning systems in the State Capitol building. "And he's got a union card, so we want to know whether he would cross the picket lines."
Ventura said in an interview last week that he thinks state workers do a "marvelous job," that he understands their problems because he's "worked on the union side," and that he is "definitely advocating for a settlement." But he emphasized that he also must protect the state's budget and its taxpayers.
Union officials say that Ventura has been especially disappointing recently. He has opposed minimum wage increases, and his administration rankled union leaders earlier this year by suggesting that teachers be prohibited from striking and by failing to appoint a labor-union representative to the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents. He irritated them further two weeks ago by calling up the National Guard to begin training for replacing workers.
Ventura has cut some state agency budgets and spending, and generally transformed himself into a more fiscally conservative executive focused on tax cuts above all else, said Peter Benner, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 6, which has about 19,000 members and is the larger of the two major unions considering a strike; the 10,000-member Minnesota Association of Professional Employees is the other.
Jim Monroe, MAPE's executive director, describes Ventura's actions as "sort of a dance. ... He will send a letter out to everyone saying thanks for the work you've done, then offered pay levels that were a slap in the face."
Last week, Ventura stressed that he plays a complex role: as both the boss of a work force he values, and as a chief executive who is obligated to get as good a deal as possible for the taxpayers.
"I am not spoiling for a fight at all. Are you kidding? After this last legislative session in which a shutdown was narrowly averted, I need this like I need another head. ... I am definitely advocating for a settlement," Ventura said. "I respect our workers, I think our workers do a marvelous job and I want them to be treated fairly, but again, fairness has to have a balance point."
Ventura notes that he holds two union cards -- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Screen Actors Guild -- and is a vested member of the latter. He said he was fired from a wrestling federation in the 1980s because of his advocacy for organizing wrestlers.
"A strike is a positive thing, when a statement has to be made and a line drawn in the sand," Ventura said. "But to me, before you ever draw that line, you should be able to show a 10-, 12-year history of not being treated fairly. And I have to say I don't see that here."
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