State Worker Strikes: Rare but Momentous


The first time his union went on strike, Peter Benner was surprised. But the three-week work stoppage by Minnesota state employees in 1981 taught him a lot about the relationship between public workers and their employers. So two decades later, Benner could tell early on that another strike was likely. "It was only a question of when it was going to happen," he says.

In 2001, Governor Jesse Ventura's administration wanted employees who had endured 10 years of tight-budget contracts to pay more for their health insurance, even as Ventura and lawmakers were giving away tax rebates. The workers objected, and more than half of Minnesota's state workforce walked off the job in October. The two-week strike of some 30,000 employees was the biggest work stoppage by state employees that Minnesota has ever experienced.

The strike raised the ante for both sides at the bargaining table. As chief negotiator for the unions, Benner worried whether his members would remain committed enough to stay off the job if it meant missing a paycheck. On the other side, state management negotiators wondered how long they could keep vital services going with a depleted workforce. After the initial excitement, the two sides sat down and struck a deal.  

State employee labor strikes are rare. The 2001 Minnesota walkout was the biggest in recent memory. But labor tensions are running so high right now in Wisconsin that the idea is not far from anyone's mind.

The state has seen calls for a general strike, although they have died down in recent days. Labor is focusing its efforts on recalling state senators who voted for a new law to significantly weaken the power of public employee unions. Still, the situation remains volatile. More than 100,000 people attended a Capitol protest Saturday, including farmers who ringed the square with dozens of tractors.

Source: Historical news accounts

Alex Colvin, a professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says a general strike-one involving people other than the workers affected directly-would be a marked departure for public sector unions. "It's not like a New York or Philadelphia transit strike where it's about money," he says. "This is really about collective bargaining rights. It's about political power. And if there's a strike, it's going to be a different kind of strike."

"What is happening in Wisconsin and other states right now is fraught with huge implications," adds Joseph McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. "Republicans are undertaking a general assault on public sector union power. Given the fact that public sector workers now comprise more than one-half of the membership of the union movement, the stakes are large."

Benner, who has since retired from his position with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), sees the same build-up of worker anger in Wisconsin now that he did a decade ago in Minnesota. Even if the unions avoid going on strike, he says, the pent-up labor frustration could hurt Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker down the road as he seeks to carry out his program. "Workers are your resource," he warns. "That's whether you're a multibillion dollar CEO or a governor or a mayor or a school board member."

The right to strike

The law signed-and championed-by Walker includes many new rules making life more difficult for public employee unions. Every year, a majority of workers who belong to a union will have to vote to keep it in operaton. State workers will now be able to opt out of paying union dues. Unions will be allowed to bargain only on wages, not benefits or working conditions, and wage increases must be at or below the rate of inflation, unless voters direct otherwise in a referendum.

Another provision allows managers to fire workers who strike for three days. The measure addresses a frequent criticism that public employees have undue influence when they go on strike.

"The government generally has no competition," writes James Sherk of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The public cannot purchase alternative police; alternatives to public education and mass transit are not accessible to everyone. A monopoly on essential services gives government unions tremendous leverage to force concessions from the public. Unless the voters' elected representatives give in, they can grind large parts of the economy to a halt."

Many states forbid their employees from striking. But some offer alternative ways for unions and managers to resolve disputes. New York turns to an arbitrator to dictate a settlement. "If you have a strong union and you're just trying to eliminate strikes, and you don't provide any alternatives," Colvin says, "then there's a danger you're actually going to provoke strikes, because you're just pushing the workers' backs to the wall."

Strikes have taken place under all sorts of arrangements. In Pennsylvania, public employee unions were given the right to strike in 1970. The law granting them that right was passed after years of illegal disruptions by government workers. A commission that proposed the law said public employees had been going on strike because they were not allowed to bargain collectively.

Just five years later, Pennsylvania suffered a major work stoppage. Some 46,000 workers walked off the job. Most returned after three days, but workers who processed unemployment checks did not strike a deal until three weeks later.

Lessons learned

Benner, the Minnesota union negotiator, says going through one strike 20 years before the 2001 negotiations helped both sides understand better how the process would unfold. For the unions, that meant realizing that their walkout would not immediately cripple state government. For management, it meant realizing they could only stretch their resources for so long.

The success for either side, Benner says, rests with public opinion. "A public sector strike in that sense is a political event," he says. "The general public clearly influences whether there is a strike in the first place and then the ability of the workers and their union or the elected officials and their supporters to sustain their position."

In Minnesota in 2001, union support was especially high in small towns and rural areas. People in those areas tended to identify with state employees who worked at the highway district headquarters, the nearby state college or the state-run hospital. "We were winning that battle of public opinion because (they were) all neighbors," Benner says. "And the governor is that guy down in St. Paul."

Pew Charitable Trusts librarian Sage Hulsebus contributed to this story.


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