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Union vote on contract scrutinized by MSUM

Minnesota State University Moorhead is preparing for a possible strike as members of Minnesota's two largest state employee unions vote on the state's contract offer.

Minnesota State University Moorhead is preparing for a possible strike as members of Minnesota's two largest state employee unions vote on the state's contract offer.

About 190 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who work at MSUM will vote in person on the contract Monday, said Local 602 President David Reneker.

The university also employs 24 members of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE), mostly as computer technicians, accountants and lab staff.

Another 40 or so MAPE members work at Moorhead branch offices of state agencies, including the Department of Transportation and Department of Economic Security, said regional MAPE negotiator Bryan Kotta.

MAPE mailed out ballots Sept. 15 and will tally the votes Sept. 29 or 30, said Kotta, who represents the area from Moorhead to Bemidji and north to the Canadian border.

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AFSCME also expects to release the results of next week's voting by the end of the month.

Should members reject the state's offer, union leaders will decide whether to file strike notices with the state. At the earliest, the strike would begin 10 days after that decision, due to the state's mandatory cooling off period, Kotta said.

At MSUM, AFSCME members are mostly clerical workers and physical plant staff, including painters, welders and locksmiths.

"We're like the labor force over here at the university," Reneker said.

The 90 AFSCME members who work for the city of Moorhead, who already have contracts covering 2004 and 2005, would not be involved in the strike.

Kotta, a computer assistance manager at MSUM, said a strike would mean some duties his staff performs "simply wouldn't be there."

"The overall systems would stay up, but if another worm hits, that could be quite problematic," he said.

When members of both unions went on strike for two weeks in 2001, other university staff and some temporary employees picked up the slack.

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In the event of another strike, MSUM would again activate its strike plan as required by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, Human Resources Director Ben Blair said.

"Our plans are as usual -- to keep essential services available to our students," he said.

Those services include keeping dorms clean, maintaining heat and electricity and making sure emergency operations are intact.

Students attend MSUM to learn, and shouldn't be the victims of an employee strike, Blair said.

union jump

"We fully understand that the union membership has a right to strike, and we endorse that," he said. "But we also have a responsibility to the students, as well."

The unions aren't seeking an across-the-board pay increase. Their biggest beef with the state's proposal is over rising health insurance premiums.

Minnesota lawmakers didn't include any additional funds for employee pay raises or benefits in balancing the state's $4.2 billion budget deficit this spring.

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State negotiators have said that to boost employee contracts above the current offer, they'd have to lay off thousands of employees, rather than hundreds.

"All the employees here are also taxpayers to the state of Minnesota, and we know how hard up everybody is," Reneker said. "All we're saying is leave my salary alone and leave my benefits alone."

Both Reneker and Kotta said they hope a vote to reject the contract offers will bring state negotiators back to the bargaining table with more money for insurance premiums.

"The people I've talked to at this point are saying, 'We'll vote to reject the contract,'" Reneker said. "Whether that means we'll strike or not, I don't know."

Forum reporter Joy Anderson contributed to this story.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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