Brainerd area state employees walked out of work and onto the picket line as the state's two largest public employee unions went on strike today.
Several hundred members of Minnesota Association of Professional Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees began forming picket lines at 6 a.m. at the Brainerd Regional Human Services Center, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Central Lakes College and the DNR offices in the Brainerd lakes area.
"This is a good showing," said MAPE member Carol Rose of the approximately 200 people picketing at BRHSC. Several registered nurses at BRHSC, while not striking, wore pins in support of their picketing co-workers.
Sticking points in the negotiations were wages and health benefits, with the state offering AFSCME a 3 percent pay hike in each of the next two years and MAPE a one-time 4 percent increase and reduced insurance premiums.
"I thought it was just awful," Rose said of the state offer. "Especially when they didn't do a thing with insurance."
The last time state workers went on strike was for 22 days in 1981. Rose said she had no idea how long this strike may go, but added both unions are ready to go back to the negotiating table at any time.
MAPE and AFSCME had delayed a possible strike two weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Wayne Fleischhacker, president of the AFSCME Local 1574, said the unions are sympathetic of the terrorist attacks but negotiations have been ongoing for most of the year.
"We started this in February, and the time comes when you have to do what you have to do," Fleischhacker said.
John Magnuson, vice president of the AFSCME Local 1574, said the strike was one of the freedoms people are afforded as citizens of the U.S.
"What we're looking for, in as much as fair wages and insurance benefits, is a certain amount of dignity and respect," Magnuson said. "There really is no good time to strike, none of us wanted to (strike), but it's the only thing left for us to negotiate with."
Patriotism among the strikers was evident as many had American flags on their picket signs and on clothing.
Union officials also wanted to assure people that the strike would be non-violent.
"It's a positive picket," Fleischhacker said. "There will be no violence." The Brainerd Police Department reported no problems with the picketers this morning.
Fleischhacker said there have been a few people crossing the picket lines, most notably several temporary workers who he claimed were told by the BRHSC administration that they would lose their jobs if they joined the strike.
A rally is planned for 4 p.m. today at the state lottery offices on South Sixth Street.
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