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State employee relations chief says substantially improving offer would be irresponsible

Updated:
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ Minnesota's employee relations commissioner says he doesn't expect the state to add much money to its offer to striking workers whose walkout raised concerns about the state's economic health.

``To go much higher could be characterized as irresponsible,'' Julien Carter said Monday after Minnesota's two largest employee unions went on strike in a dispute over pay and benefits. It was the first such walkout in 20 years.

With nearly 28,000 workers eligible to strike, more than half of the state's work force could be sidelined. If all workers went on strike, it would be the biggest state walkout ever in Minnesota.

Gov. Jesse Ventura said the state has offered workers all it can. In a written statement, he said a bigger offer would have led to service cuts and layoffs.

John Wodele, a spokesman for the governor, said there was no immediate indication of any major problems resulting from the first day of the strike.

Among the workers affected were Capitol security guards, highway maintenance workers, tax collectors, clerical workers and parole and probation officers. State troopers and prison guards were not part of the walkout.

National Guardsmen were called up to work in veterans homes, treatment centers and other institutions. Nonstriking managers from various agencies were reassigned to help with food service, housekeeping and other basic needs, and hundreds of temporary workers were being hired.

The strike closed at least one branch of the office that issues driver's licenses. The Minnesota Zoo was also closed to the public. In addition, the Teamsters said their truck drivers would not cross the picket lines and deliver goods to state buildings.

In attendance reports submitted by agencies that employ 20 percent of workers eligible to strike, state officials found that a quarter of the employees didn't honor the picket lines.

Union leaders authorized the action after a weekend of talks failed to bring new two-year contracts. It's the first walkout since 1981, when some 14,000 public employees struck for 22 days.

Members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 6 and Minnesota Association of Professional Employees delayed their action for two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but said they couldn't wait any longer.

Both sides said they were ready to resume negotiations, but their differences seemed broad.

The state offered AFSCME members a 3 percent pay hike in each of the next two years, and members of MAPE a one-time, 4 percent increase. AFSCME leaders wanted 5 percent increases, MAPE about 4.5 percent each year of a two-year deal.

Health benefits were another sticking point. The state hoped to reduce insurance premiums for most by asking people who use the services to take on higher co-payments and deductibles.

Deborah Schumann, a 47-year-old Minnesota Pollution Control Agency worker, said the state was actually wasting money by trying to keep wage increases low.

``Our not working is going to hurt the economy a lot more than them giving us a pay increase,'' she said.

A University of Minnesota professor said a prolonged strike would have a substantial impact on the state's economy.

Alfred Marcus, a professor of strategic management and organization at the Carlson School of Management, said he was most concerned about the sheer number of potential strikers.

``I think it will hurt if these people hold back on spending,'' he said. ``It's a lot of people.''

If the strike drags into the holiday shopping season, the negative results could be even more pronounced, Marcus said.

The strike comes on top of layoffs across the state, including roughly 10,000 positions at Northwest Airlines because of the falloff in air travel following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Bureau of Mediation Services Commissioner Lance Teachworth said channels of communication remain open between his office and all of the parties. He said he won't rush to reconvene talks there's signs of movement, and he wouldn't predict how long things will drag out.

``There is no cookbook approach and no prescribed amount of time that would have to elapse,'' Teachworth said.
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