ST. PAUL (AP) -- The state's largest employees union on Saturday overwhelmingly authorized a strike.
More than 90 percent of the ballots cast were in favor of a strike, which could begin Sept. 17, said Don Dinndorf, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 6.
The negotiating team earlier had rejected the latest contract offer from the state and recommended its 19,000 members strike later this month.
"Our members have given a resounding 'no' to the state's offer," said Peter Benner, AFSCME Council 6 executive director.
Rank-and-file members, who work at universities, state parks, prisons, veterans homes and virtually all state agencies, voted on the recommendation last week at polling places throughout the state.
Talks between the union and the state reached an impasse last month over benefits and pay. Union leaders said the 2.5 percent wage increase per year they were offered is insufficient.
The union's latest offer to the state included a 6.5 percent general wage increase per year and increased state spending on insurance.
"We hope that the state will look at this vote and recognize that a strike is a real possibility, and come back to negotiations and reach an agreement with us," Benner said.
AFSCME officials say the balloting was the heaviest in its history.
Of about 16,300 union members eligible to vote, 12,249 voted to reject the state's offer and authorize a strike; 1,153 voted to accept the state's proposal.
Correction officers are the only members prohibited by law from going on strike. For those workers, contract talks will proceed to binding arbitration, according to AFSCME.
Julien Carter, state employee relations commissioner, said the authorization was not a surprise.
"We knew the union has been working many months toward this," Carter said. "We're trying to keep the lines of communication open and hopefully we won't get to the point of a strike."
If state workers do picket, Carter said the state has been preparing contingency plans. He also noted that they plan to hold negotiations around-the-clock when, and if, the strike date nears.
"We respect these employees, and we want to keep the dialogue going," Carter said.
Gov. Jesse Ventura has stood behind the state's latest offer.
"In light of the economy, I think we've made them a very, very fair offer," Ventura said Tuesday on a radio program.
He said state employees should take the offer and be happy with it considering many big corporations are laying off workers right now.
A notice of AFSCME's intent to strike will be filed Tuesday morning with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediations Services. At that time, the union also will notify the state of its intent to terminate its current contract.
A strike would begin at 6 a.m. Monday, Sept. 17, according to AFSCME.
Benner said he remains committed to the collective bargaining process, and he will make every effort to reach an agreement and avoid a strike.
The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees also is taking a strike authorization vote and will count ballots on Tuesday. Union members also could walkout as early as Sept. 17.
MAPE has 10,500 members, including computer technicians, parole and probation officers and state hospital therapists.
A simultaneous walkout by the two unions could deprive the state of about 60 percent of its 50,000-member work force. The last major state employees strike was a 22-day walkout by AFSCME in 1981 that involved about 14,000 workers.
The union's opening offer to the state was for a 6 percent raise in 2002 and 4 percent in 2003. The union also wants to rework pay grades to match them better with job descriptions and make the wages more competitive with the private sector.
On the Net:
AFSCME Council 6: http://www.afscmecouncil6.org
State Department of Employee Relations: http://www.doer.state.mn.us
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