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State, unions agree

ARDEN HILLS, Minn. -- The state and its two largest unions reached a tentative contract agreement on Saturday that includes a two-year wage freeze and shifts some health-care costs to workers. The deal, announced by bleary-eyed negotiators who ha...

ARDEN HILLS, Minn. -- The state and its two largest unions reached a tentative contract agreement on Saturday that includes a two-year wage freeze and shifts some health-care costs to workers. The deal, announced by bleary-eyed negotiators who had bargained all night long, will avert the unions' second strike in two years -- if workers approve.

Union leaders said the deal includes better health-care provisions than the state's previous offer, which workers overwhelmingly rejected. Council 6 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees represent some 27,000 employees -- more than half of the state's workforce.

"I'm not going to call this a win-win. It's not where it should have been. It's wrong," said Jim Monroe, executive director of MAPE.

State Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman said the deal "treats employees as fairly as we possibly could.

"It was the reality of the time," he said of the $4.2 billion budget deficit lawmakers struggled to balance earlier this year.

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Health-care benefits were at the heart of the dispute this year. To offset rising insurance costs, the state proposed increased premiums, co-payments and deductibles. Union officials argued that amounted to a net pay cut for many employees, since the state offered a freeze on cost-of-living wage increases.

Ludeman said the state -- which is self-insured -- was able to give a little on health-care expenses because it re-evaluated the cost.

The new calculations assume the higher costs will drive down demand for health care, thus costing the state less. Ludeman said the new offer would not cost taxpayers more.

AFSCME said it would recommend that its members approve the deal. MAPE sent the proposed contract to its directors, who will vote on whether to recommend it to members. Both unions said they expect member votes in November.

David Renecker, president of AFSCME Local 602, was hunting Saturday and hadn't heard about the tentative agreement.

Contacted at his home in Barnesville, Minn., Renecker said it must not be too bad a deal if the union was going to recommend that members approve it.

"Usually they don't recommend approval unless they figure it's the absolute best they can do," he said.

Renecker said when employees read the first contract offer, which they overwhelmingly voted against, they knew they could do better.

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"It was the big increase in premiums that, I think, most people didn't like," he said. "They can deal with a little extra co-pay when they go to the doctor. They can deal with a little extra co-pay when they pick up their meds."

JoDee Haugrud, treasurer of MAPE Local 1502, was also happy to hear this deal would be better. She didn't want to go on strike.

"But I would still like to see what the health benefits are that they have done and the other issues," the MSUM webmaster and mother of two said.

Minnesota State University Moorhead employs 189 AFSCME members and 24 MAPE members, including Renecker and Haugrud.

"I don't think anybody ever wants to go out on strike," Renecker said, "but here at Moorhead State we were united and we were prepared to go on strike."

Another 170 AFSCME and 12 MAPE members are employed by Minnesota Department of Transportation District 4 which covers 12 counties in west-central Minnesota.

District engineer Lee Berget, Detroit Lakes, said Saturday that he received a call from the central office that they had reached a tentative agreement and he would find out more about it on Monday.

AFSCME spokesman Peter Benner said he wasn't happy with the deal, but he felt it was the best they could get. He said he thinks the Pawlenty administration has made it clear they've given as much ground as they intend to.

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he's pleased.

"The settlement reflects the economic realities faced by most other Minnesotans," he said in a written statement. "We're grateful that our state employees recognize that reality."

AFSCME represents more than 18,000 employees -- secretaries, mechanics, snow plow drivers and many other blue-collar workers -- who make an average salary of $35,000. AFSCME-covered prison guards are prohibited by law from going on strike.

MAPE's 10,000-plus members, many of whom hold technical, accounting and program management jobs, have an average pay of roughly $50,000.

Negotiations resumed Thursday after an eight-week break. Union members last month overwhelmingly voted to reject the state's last offer and authorized a strike, though no strike date was set. Council 6 and MAPE struck the state for two weeks in 2001.

AFSCME Council 6 also represents 1,700 corrections officers, 98 percent of whom voted to reject the state's previous offer. The tentative agreement reached Saturday does not apply to them; AFCME said the dispute is headed for binding arbitration.

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