When half of Minnesota's state work force went out on a two-week strike that ended October 15, the sticking points in negotiations were familiar ones. The workers worried that their salary increases wouldn't cover spikes in health insurance costs. The state, suffering sudden budget woes, said it didn't have any more to give.
This is the dynamic that is currently fueling an increase in public- sector union activity. Union members feel cheated because they didn't get big raises during the flush 1990s, and they aren't likely to do better in a deflating economy.
Strikes are still unusual, though. Only a half-dozen states other than Minnesota--California, Hawaii, Illinois, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania--have laws that allow state employees to strike. Nearly two dozen other states preclude their employees from even engaging in collective bargaining.
Despite this long-standing anti-union attitude, the trend is toward greater organizational rights for public-sector employees. This year, the governors of Kentucky and Missouri signed executive orders giving state employees rights to certain types of collective bargaining. Legislators, business groups, municipal leagues and even some rank- and-file state employees have joined in a lawsuit to block the Missouri action.
While they are unpopular among legislators and governors, public- sector unions have been building on their successes. Close to 40 percent of public employees now belong to unions, in contrast to fewer than 10 percent of workers in the private sector. Moreover, the executive orders in Kentucky and Missouri were modeled after a limited bargaining order signed by Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening in 1996. Glendening's executive order was challenged in court, too, but instead of being overturned, it was codified by the state legislature three years later. This year, a new state law extended bargaining rights to nonteaching employees at public colleges.
Most public-sector disputes are settled before the workers take up picket signs. Last year, Alaska state workers agreed to a settlement in a salary and benefits fight similar to the one in Minnesota.
But unions will call strikes if they feel they have to, even where they don't have the legal authority. Washington State statute grants the right neither to strike nor to engage in collective bargaining, so the Washington Federation of State Employees engaged in a series of rolling walkouts this spring. A couple of thousand unionized employees a day went out on strike, keeping their demands present in legislative minds during state budget negotiations. The tactic worked. The union won the salary increases and prescription drug cost limits it wanted.