Brainerd area state employee union leaders today said they're ready for negotiations to continue despite Monday's announcement that workers rejected contract offers from Gov. Tim Pawlenty's negotiators.
Neither Wayne Fleischhacker, president of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 1574, or Liz Wheeler, president of Minnesota Association of Professional Employees Local 1601, would speculate on the likelihood of a strike.
"I couldn't even guess," said Fleischhacker, who works at the Brainerd Regional Human Services Center. "All I know is we're ready and waiting for them to come back to the table."
Wheeler, a social worker at Timberland Adult Program at BRHSC, remembers the 2001 state employee strike as a hard time but said employees are prepared to strike if the state's not willing to budge on its proposed health insurance cutbacks.
"Mainly the difference right now is on insurance," she said. "The out-of-pocket expenses could more than triple. It's not on the wages. We've taken freezes before."
Wheeler said state employee health insurance packages might be better than some in private industry but much of the private sector receives higher wages.
"We really feel like everyone should have affordable health insurance," Wheeler said. "Some people don't have the luxury of being part of a union where they can take a stand."
Wheeler's Local 1601 represents MAPE members in a region that stretches from Aitkin to Wadena and from Pequot Lakes to Little Falls. There are about 300 members with about 70 of them working at the former state hospital. MAPE members include employees at the Pollution Control Agency, DNR, Department of Economic Security, the Minnesota State Colleges and University system (non-faculty) and the Department of Revenue.
AFSCME membership at BRHSC was estimated at about 430 in the Brainerd area but he noted that union participants in the health program at Brainerd Medical Center number about 2,900. AFSCME members work as cooks, general maintenance workers, laundry workers and direct care staff.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in a statement released Monday, said the state's offer is "not only competitive but better than many areas of the private sector and consistent with the times in which we live."
The governor has directed his negotiators to return to the bargaining table.
Fleischhacker said the state's health insurance offer would dramatically increase co-pays and hike premiums by 30 to 40 percent.
"We do better than some privates (employees) and some privates do better," he said. "I think the governor's office should be working so everyone has better health care."
Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, said he briefly spoke to the governor when he visited Brainerd on Friday and expressed concern about the proposed health insurance cutbacks. He said he discussed the situation in more detail on Saturday with a member of the governor's staff.
"I think everybody realizes we have to live with a zero percent (wage) increase for the next two years," Koering said. "What I can't agree with ... when you've negotiated benefits over the course of years and now you get to the point when you start going backwards. When you start losing benefits that's where I have a problem with it. I can understand workers not wanting to go backwards on what they've negotiated over the years.
"This notion that people who work for the state are just a drain on the system is just bull," he said. "They're doing work that needs to be done."
Rep. Dale Walz, R-Brainerd, and Koering both agreed that neither side wants a strike. Walz said he fears that the possibility of a strike is getting more likely with the passage of time. The health insurance cutbacks would make it difficult for many state employees, Walz said.
"As a union, I think that's a legitimate concern there but there's another side to it," Walz said. "There's some merit to both sides but both sides have got to give some."
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