State employees rally at Minn. Capitol

Public employee rally
Hundreds of unionized public employees filled the state Capitol on Tuesday, March 22, 2011.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Public employees packed the State Capitol rotunda Tuesday to defend themselves from what they see as an assault on collective bargaining.

The union rally followed a House committee hearing on a bill that would cut the state workforce and freeze salaries.

The crowd of public workers, chanting "Who are we? AFSCME!" looked a lot like recent protests in Madison, Wis., where Republicans pushed through a bill that eliminated many public workers' bargaining rights.

Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, said the similarities don't end there. Seide said he's now counted 50 Wisconsin-style bills here in Minnesota that take aim at public employees.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

"There are bills to take away your right to have a voice in the workplace, to take away our right to collectively bargain," said Seide. "The right to collectively bargain is an American right, a human right, and we will fight to defend it."

Some proposals that Seide and others view as anti-union have made it into the House State Government Finance bill, which was the focus of a hearing earlier in the day. The measure would make deep spending cuts, including a 15 percent reduction of the state workforce within four years. It also calls for a two-year freeze on state employees' salaries.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the committee chairman, said his bill includes some painful cuts, but he stressed collective bargaining remains intact. Still, Lanning said the state has no choice but to freeze wages.

"I think this is just clearly, up front, having the Legislature say to all of the bargaining units that we can't afford raises right now," said Lanning. "There are other things that can still be negotiated with regard to contracts. But just when it comes to compensation, we're not in a position to provide raises."

Union leaders and Democrats don't buy Lanning's assessment. They argue that any mandate on salaries represents an end run around collective bargaining. Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said Republicans are ignoring the traditional budget process regarding state workers.

"Normally the way it works is, the Legislature cuts a budget, then the workers and the state sit down together and negotiate how to implement that cut," said Winkler. "You don't have the state coming in and saying that this is how you have to do it -- you have to lay off 15 percent or you have to have a wage freeze. You sit down at the table and negotiate it, and that's what this bill undermines."

Republicans in the Minnesota Senate were poised to roll out a similar state government bill. At several times this session, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said that state workers must be part of a final budget solution.

"We are going to have to look at the public employees, and whether it's wage freezes, whether it's pensions, all of these things have to be looked at," said Koch.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said this week that he opposes arbitrary wage freezes on bargaining units that have already made recent contract concessions. But the budget plan Dayton released last month would also cut the state workforce.