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Negotiations resume in state workers' strike
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
October 11, 2001

Minnesota officials and union leaders representing state workers return to the bargaining table Thursday. More than 20,000 state workers have been on strike since the first of the month, holding out for a heftier wage and benefits package. But the public stances of union members and Gov. Jesse Ventura have not moved since talks broke off last month, an indication the walkout, which has led to reduced government services, could spill into a third week.

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Roughly half of all state employees, including food inspectors, parole officers, and custodians, are honoring the picket line, making this the largest walkout in Minnesota history. Throughout the strike, Gov. Jesse Ventura has kept a relatively low-profile, often refusing to comment.

But earlier this week, he told Minnesota Public Radio that he's holding firm to the state's most recent contract offer. The governor says the state simply doesn't have resources beyond what's already on the table, and he says meeting union demands would leave him with only unattractive options.

"I've already said I won't raise taxes so I will cut government. And so, if indeed it gets to that level, then I will look at things that government won't provide anymore, and I will make the cuts," Ventura said.

Ventura says to satisfy union wage and benefit requests, he'd likely have to lay off some of the striking workers. But union leaders dispute that claim.

Peter Benner, executive director of the state's largest public employees union - the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees - says state agencies already have surpluses due to savings from unfilled staff positions. Benner says if Ventura continues his tough talk, there's little reason to expect progress when bargaining resumes Thursday.

"I'm hoping that what they're saying is the typical public posturing that goes on in this stuff and is not where they're really at," Benner says. "But if that's where they're really at, then, yeah, it's going to be a miserable, it's going to be a difficult two days."

Meanwhile, administration officials say the state continues to operate, but at reduced levels. One-thousand National Guard troops have been called up to serve some of the state's most vulnerable citizens, including those in state-run nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

Prior to the strike, Maggie Hodge cared for four disabled adults at a group home in Rochester, Minnesota. She says she's concerned with the care they're receiving from hastily-trained Guard members. "It's their home. It's like if someone came into my home, the National Guard came into my home, and someone that didn't know my kids. It's the same thing. It's very hard," Hodge says.

"As the strike continues, backlogs are accumulating at the unemployment office and in the laboratories of the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. And transportation officials are already warning that snow-plowing operations will be significantly reduced. Rather than fully-plowed roads, motorists are told to expect only "passable lanes" if the strike is unresolved when the first snow falls, which could be soon. The National Weather Service forecasts "possible" snow showers in parts of the state over the weekend.