ST. PAUL -- Two years removed from their biggest strike, workers in Minnesota's two main state government unions are on the verge of contract votes that could put them back on the picket lines.
Leaders of the unions -- representing more than 29,000 employees -- want members to reject deals that state officials say are the best offers they'll make. Voting them down would leave the sides under pressure to reopen talks amid a threat of another work stoppage.
The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees start mailing its ballots to members on Monday. The larger American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 6 holds its in-person voting Sept. 22-26. The unions hope to have results tallied by month's end.
The unions in the past week aired statewide radio ads that accuse Gov. Tim Pawlenty of trying to "balance the budget by cutting health care for 50,000 working families." Neither union would say how much their coalition paid for the unprecedented pre-vote media campaign, but MAPE executive director Jim Monroe said the cost is in six figures.
Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman, whose agency negotiates with the unions, said there's not much room for revision. He said the current offers would add hundreds more layoffs to the 940 already this year. Additional layoffs could rise into the thousands if the state puts much more money into the contracts, Ludeman said.
"To pretend that there's millions of dollars hiding in state agencies or in the state budget available for one more go-around, no there's not," Ludeman said. "We've stretched. I've done everything I can to put together this best offer. We mean it."
Facing a projected $4.2 billion budget gap, legislators didn't set aside any additional money for pay and benefits for its roughly 48,000 employees. State negotiators say they were further pinched by rising health-care costs they figured would add $138.3 million to the personnel tab for 2004-05 if insurance plans stayed unchanged.
The resulting offers contain no across-the-board pay raises for two years, although workers would be eligible for merit raises. But union members seem more troubled by a suggested benefits structure that would require some of them to pay more for family coverage, doctor visits, dental work, prescription drugs and other care.
Linda McCabe, an AFSCME member who works as a secretary in the Department of Natural Resources' Brainerd office, would see her monthly premium for herself and two dependents climb from $64.92 to $93.22 because the state would reduce its family coverage contribution from 90 percent to 85 percent. She also would pay $5 more per doctor visit except for preventive services and $3 more on each of the 40 or so prescriptions her family fills a year.
"The increased insurance costs -- plus no salary increases for two years -- will mean a lot fewer dollars in our pockets," McCabe said.
David Haugen, who handles health policy for the Department of Employee Relations, said even with the changes the state's insurance plans would compare favorably to many in the private sector. A new Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 2,800 companies found that the percentage of premiums paid by employees averages 16 percent for single coverage and 27 percent for family coverage.
Increasing co-pays and raising the maximum out-of-pocket exposure for services allowed the state to keep premiums from going even higher, he said.
If the insurance revisions are adopted, the state's share of health costs for AFSCME and MAPE members and dependents would run $44.2 million more for the next two years than it was in 2002-03. Without any changes, the additional state cost for their coverage would be $73.3 million, Haugen said.
But the unions argue that the state is trying to ease its health burden by passing a bigger one onto employees.
MAPE member John Gilbertson, a compliance officer at the Department of Human Rights, is divorced with grown kids, making the insurance proposals slightly less painful. Full-time employees like him, who have insurance only for themselves, would continue to pay no health premiums. He would have to pay a new $2.12-a-month premium for dental care and be required to pick up 50 percent of the bill for dental services, instead of the current 20 percent.
Gilbertson, who's also turned off by the thought of having his wages frozen for two years, plans to vote against the contract offer.
"This doesn't really mean we have to strike," he said. "We're just saying this isn't acceptable."
MAPE's 10,000-plus members, many of whom hold technical, accounting and program management jobs, make anywhere from $30,882 to $112,668 a year, according to figures supplied by Ludeman's agency. The average pay is $50,509.
AFSCME represents some 19,000 employees -- secretaries, mechanics, snow plow drivers and many other positions. Their pay ranges from $14,846 to $51,782, with the average salary at $35,162.
While there would be no automatic raises, employees who get satisfactory performance reviews and who are below top-scale for their position would be eligible for so-called step increases. The state said about half of AFSCME's members and 70 percent of MAPE's would qualify.
If rank-and-file members reject the packages, they would be authorizing their leaders to call a strike. As Gilbertson suggested, it doesn't mean one would occur.
Union leaders say they hope a strong "no" vote gives them leverage to get Pawlenty's team back to the bargaining table or potentially lead to arbitration. At the same time, though, Ludeman said he's begun making strike preparations, calling one "very real in the world of possibilities."
Monroe said MAPE is doing likewise. The union will start its strike training this weekend by going through roles and responsibilities and analyzing the two-week strike of October 2001 to assess strengths and weaknesses.
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