Public employees, unions under attack in Minnesota


Is Gov. Mark Dayton the only difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin when it comes to anti-union bills becoming the law of the land?

Coming weeks will tell the tale, but House and Senate Republicans are marching toward the passage of bills that would, if signed into law, make sweeping changes to the state’s balance of power between workers and employers and strip fundamental collective bargaining rights from state employees.

As in Wisconsin, many of the bills target the state’s public employees, putting into effect mandates on pay, pensions, health insurance, strikes and other contract areas typically handled through the collective bargaining process.

Republicans say they are necessary reforms to get state government refocused and living within its means in a time of massive budget shortfalls.

“The overwhelming priority is to make sure we’re funding our priorities and not the bureaucracy, and make sure we’re serving people and not state government programs,” said Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, an author of many bills affecting state government employees.

State employees and the unions that represent them strongly disagree, saying the moves are part of a concerted campaign against public workers.


Up close and personal

Single employee:

Mike Lindholdt has been a snow plow driver for the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the last eight years.

The Edina-based AFSCME Council 5 member makes between $40,00 and $45,000 a year and is single. He currently does not pay a health care premium, and he and the state currently contribute 5 percent each toward his pension plan.

Requiring single employees such as Lindholdt to enroll in the HSAs would cost them roughly $2,800 annually.

AFSCME estimates that Republican-sponsored bills at the Legislature affecting public employees’ pensions, health care and salary changes would amount to more than a $5,500 annual pay cut for Lindholdt and other single employees like him.

Worker with family:

The average AFSCME member with a family would see a pay cut of almost $9,500 every year, according to their estimates.

The average salary for a tenured member of the Inter Faculty Organization is nearly $70,000, said Russ Stanton, the faculty union’s director of government affairs. Starting salaries average $43,000 a year, he said.

Todd Frauenholtz, a professor of mathematics at Bemidji State University, has a son who was diagnosed in 2009 with leukemia. His son’s medical treatment cost in excess of $7,000 that year, of which Frauenholtz paid $1,900 in out-of-pocket costs, and the rest was paid through his insurance.

Between the increased out-of-pocket costs and premium costs, Frauenholtz would have paid roughly $6,500 more in health care costs, had he been under the Health Savings Account Republican lawmakers are attempting to require state workers to use instead of their current plans, Stanton said

Public employees value benefits such as health insurance and pensions more than salaries and have voluntarily agreed to go without salary increases in recent years to protect those benefits, Stanton said.

“This is, simply put, an attack on public workers to divert attention from the Republican plan to make sure that the richest Minnesotans don’t pay their fair share of taxes,” said Eliot Seide, AFSCME Council 5 executive director. “It’s outrageous, it’s unnecessary and it needs to stop immediately.”

Take a look at HF 577, the House of Representatives’ proposed state government finance bill from Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead.

The bill would mandate cutting the state’s workforce by 15 percent, eliminating 2,000 jobs within four years. It also puts in place a two-year hiring freeze and salary freeze for all remaining state employees.

“This bill has the potential, through changing things and reforming them, to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget, and that is very significant,” Lanning said. “This bill does not reduce salaries for employees, this bill does not increase employee contributions to pensions, this bill does not eliminate collective bargaining.”

But many other bills under consideration would do those things and more. A quick run-down of some ideas Republicans are considering this year includes proposals that would:

●      Close down the state’s defined-benefit pension plan to new enrolees (HF 542).

●      Prohibit public agencies from contributing to employee 401k plans (HF 594).

●      Impose a two-year wage freeze on all public school employees and outlaw economic strikes (SF 56, HF 381).

●      Forbid public employers from deducting union dues from members’ paychecks (SF 623).

●      Cut prevailing wage rates for public construction projects (HF 513).

●      Eliminate equal pay for women requirements for local government  (HF 7, SF 282).

●      Put a “right-to-work” constitutional amendment on the ballot (HF 65, HF 192).

●      Require state employees to contribute more to their pension plans (SF 813).

●      Cut state employees’ salaries by 6 percent across the board (SF 812).

●      Require state employees to switch their health insurance to Health Savings Accounts and remove the state’s premium contribution (SF 805).

“It kind of makes a mockery of our collective bargaining process,” testified Russ Stanton, director of government relations for the Inter Faculty Organization, a union representing higher education faculty. “What this does is prevent us from working collaboratively.”

Dayton’s budget plan would also cut the state’s workforce by six percent, or roughly 800 people, but he has said he opposes wage freezes for labor units that have already agreed to contracts.

“I’ve never seen an onslaught, and I’ve never seen an assault against good Minnesotans as I’ve seen in this legislative process so far,” Dayton told Education Minnesota members at their convention in early March. “The basic right of collective bargaining will not be taken away (while) I’m governor of Minnesota.”

Unlike Wisconsin, Minnesota public employees contribute to their pension plans, 5-6 percent annually with a similar match from public tax dollars. The rest comes from investment income.

“We’re going beyond reform and we’re demonizing state workers,” said Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. “I don’t like the attitude that these are superfluous people that we can cut willy-nilly.”

Wisconsin’s plan to double state workers’ health care contributions to 12 percent is still less than what Minnesota state employees pay into their accounts.

And a recent study of Minnesota workers’ compensation determined that public employees earn an average of 8 percent less in total compensation than similar workers in the private sector. State government employees were worse off, earning more than 13 percent less than the private sector.

The sweeping legislation has big support from free-market think tanks and corporate-backed institutes such as the Center for the American Experiment, the Minnesota Free Market Institute, the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership.

Minnesota workers tried again to send the message “We are One” to state lawmakers during a rally on April 4 at the Capitol in St. Paul and also in Duluth, joining faith communities, civil rights groups, students, immigrant organizations and others on the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Questions: What do you think? 

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