Republicans accuse state workers of dragging their feet as they renegotiate their union contract, hoping for a friendlier Legislature next year.
Tens of thousands of state employees – law enforcement, janitors, college professors, bureaucrats, engineers, prison guards and nurses – have been working without a contract for about 10 months now.
While the Dayton administration negotiates with the nine different bargaining units that represent more than 30,000 state workers, Republicans complain that they’ve been left out of the process.
Moreover, they say, it’s time to light a fire under the unions. They might negotiate faster if, say, they can’t get any raises until a new contract is in place.
“All the unions seem to be on the same level of moving forward. It would lead one to believe that they’re dragging their feet,” said Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, who sits on the Subcommittee on Employee Relations, which will review the contracts one they’re negotiated. “It appears to be that way, when you take a look at how each one of them is progressing.”
Richard Kolodziejski, communications director for the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, said there is "absolutely not" an organized effort to delay the contract negotiations. The delay, he said, is the result of the chaos that came with last year's government shutdown, throwing half the negotiating team out of work and disrupting the process for months afterward.
Any salary increases employees are getting now, Kolodziejski said, were negotiated under the old contract during the Pawlenty administration "and voted on by most of the legislators who are here today."
"I think the overall message that they are trying to send, both to labor and to the governor's office is that they want to dictate how negotiation ends, wraps up and what the state of Minnesota actually end with on a deal," he said.
Asked about the GOP complaints, Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters Tuesday that negotiations are “ongoing.”
“We’re moving apace,” Dayton said. “We’re still apart on significant issues so I mean we haven’t been able to reach an agreement. We had two mediation sessions last week and there’s another one for the first week in May. So we are doing all we can to get it resolved. We want to do it responsibly, we want to do it in a way that gives the taxpayer the best value.”
Last year’s state shutdown disrupted contract negotiations. The state hasn’t gone this long without a new contract for its workers in two decades.
“While the administration and the unions have been talking freely and sharing information freely at each step in the way, we have not even been able to find out what some of the elements of the proposal from the administration are,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. “We had a lot of frustration.”
While negotiations continue, state workers will continue to get pay increases if they get promoted. On Tuesday, the House signed off on a proposal from Drazkowski that would put an end to that practice.
The bill would freeze salaries and benefits at the old contract level. That would mean no pay increase for those promoted between contracts, no offsets from the state for rising healthcare costs.
It passed the House by a vote of 68-63 Tuesday, over the objections of members who said it put too much power in the state’s hands during contract negotiations.
“This is punitive, this is unnecessary, it disrupts labor-management cooperation and creates disharmony. It’s a bad bill,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township.
Rep. King Banaian, R-St. Cloud, is a member of one of the unions that have been working without a contract since last year. An economist in the Minnesota State College and University system, Banaian pointed out that employees of the smaller unions have no choice in the matter – they have to wait until the larger unions hammer out their contracts.
“We don’t necessarily have a whole lot of control about when we get to settle,” Banaian said, noting that smaller unions have to wait until the larger unions work out the health insurance agreement that will apply to all state workers. “We have to kind of wait our turn.”