ST. PAUL (AP) -- Negotiators for the state and nearly 28,000 of its unionized workers go back to the table Thursday with both a strike deadline of Monday and a worldwide war against terrorism looming.
Leaders of Minnesota's two biggest public-employee unions -- Council 6 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees -- say they still plan to walk out Monday if no deal is reached in three days of talks.
"We clearly retain the right and capacity to strike," said Peter Benner, Council 6 executive director. "It is not unpatriotic. I'm not hearing anybody in the Ventura administration saying the right to strike should be abrogated."
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, state and union negotiators agreed to postpone talks, and an original Sept. 17 strike date, for two weeks. But union leaders say there is no need for further delay.
"There's no good time to strike," said MAPE executive director Jim Monroe.
Benner and Monroe, however, acknowledged that public opinion could play a heightened role in the dispute over wages and health benefits.
"I disagree that we're in a weaker position" because of the crisis, Benner said. "But if the governor decides this is an opportunity to beat us up, that's a problem."
So far, Gov. Jesse Ventura has kept silent on the labor impasse. But he has said Minnesotans will have to make long-term sacrifices to defend the nation from terrorism.
"The governor remains confident that the negotiators will get together and prevent a strike," Ventura spokesman John Wodele said Tuesday. "But he is monitoring the situation and we'll be ready to deal with the worst-case scenario."
Benner said that "no serious case can be made that a state employee strike has an impact on a war effort." National Guard troops are being trained to replace some health care workers if there is a walkout, he noted, but those troops are not facing imminent military callups.
During World War II, the number and duration of strikes dropped sharply in the United States. But Benner attributed that to wartime legal restrictions, including wage and price controls. During the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, he said, there was no decline in strike activity.
The state has offered AFSCME across-the-board pay raises of 2.5 percent this year and next; AFSCME, which says its members' average salary is $30,000 annually, is seeking 6.5 percent each year.
The state has offered MAPE 2 percent raises each year; MAPE, with average salaries of $49,300 per year, is seeking 6.3 percent this year and 4.2 percent next year. The unions also have major differences with the state over health care benefits.
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