Negotiations on a new two-year contract began last week between the state and the two major unions representing state employees. Neither side has been talking to reporters. But a letter from the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, or MAPE, alerted members this week to the furlough proposal.
Jim Monroe, MAPE's executive director, still isn't talking about details of the negotiations, but he confirmed the proposal.
"The governor's team did propose up to 24 days furlough for everybody in our bargaining unit in each contract year," he said. "So it's a total of 48 days over the next two years."
Monroe added that union members don't like the proposal.
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AFSCME Council 5 reports the same furlough proposal on its Web site. Union leaders explain the proposal would give management the right to arbitrarily decide who gets furloughed, when they get furloughed, and for how long. They describe the plan as an attempt to balance the budget on workers' backs and to undermine union protections.
At the Capitol, state lawmakers offered a range of reactions to the proposal.
"It's never a good place to start bargaining with your foot on somebody's throat. And that's what apparently Tim Pawlenty is doing," said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul.
"It's never a good place to start bargaining with your foot on somebody's throat."
Mahoney is a union pipefitter with strong opinions about organized labor as well as the Republican governor. Mahoney claims Gov. Pawlenty has consistently tried to shortchange state workers throughout his political career.
Based on that record, Mahoney said he's not surprised by the furlough proposal.
"I'm going to force you to take time off. I'm not even going to talk to you. I'm not going to ask you to come back with other ideas. I'm just going to tell you I'm going to lock the door and not let you in. Dumb idea," Mahoney said.
In the letter to MAPE members, union leaders wrote that the governor's lead negotiator insisted the administration already has the right to furlough state workers. Monroe warned that forced furloughs would undermine existing contract protections, and he urged MAPE members to pull together and fight the governor's proposal.
Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, a former union leader, offered a more cautious assessment of the furlough proposal. With the state facing a $4.6 billion budget deficit, Bakk said there's simply not enough money for business as usual. He said he is optimistic that state employees will agree to some kind of salary reduction that avoids layoffs.
"I've met with some of the leadership of the public employee unions, and I think they get it," he said. "But, you know the negotiation process, you know it's difficult. And people sometimes stake out positions that might look a long ways apart at the beginning. But I've been working on labor contracts for a long, long time, and they'll come to an agreement."
Gov. Pawlenty has repeatedly called on employees at all levels of government to accept a salary freeze this year as a way to save money and minimize layoffs.
"We're not going to discuss details of the negotiations in the media," said the governor's spokesman Brian McClung. "However, this proposal is in line with what many states and private businesses are doing. It is one piece of a larger discussion about how we can keep government within its means."
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano said adding mandatory furloughs into the mix seems fair as part of the bargaining process. But Emmer said he also wants to see more attention on resetting spending priorities in state government.
"Which departments are absolutely necessary and essential? How would you go about starting to thin out, you know, are there early retirements that we could start to look at? Are there people who are ready to leave their positions? You know, different options need to be on the table so both sides can have a good faith discussion of how you solve this problem," he said. "And not just as a Band Aid solution but as a structural fix."
The furlough issue is surfacing throughout the country as state lawmakers deal with massive budget shortfalls. State employees in California and Georgia are already facing unpaid days off, and more states are are expected to follow.