The opening salvo in what is likely to be one of the key battles of the 2011 Legislature was fired when Eric Feaver, president of Montana’s largest union, said in a June newsletter the MEA-MFT would not accept another salary freeze for the next two years.
“If unable to make a salary gain when we next meet the governor’s representatives at the prebudget bargaining table, we will take our chances with the next Legislature,” Feaver wrote the approximately 18,000 Montana teachers and public employees comprising the MEA-MFT’s membership. “Damn the considerable risks.”
Feaver’s stance sets up an aggressive negotiating position heading into the fall, but considering Montana’s fiscal outlook, he is likely to face stiff resistance from both legislators and Gov. Brian Schweitzer. A June report from the Legislature’s chief revenue forecaster, Terry Johnson, estimated a potential budget deficit in excess of $400 million by mid-2013.
That means lawmakers are likely to spend the next session debating where, and how deeply, to cut state programs amid declining tax revenues. Feaver, however, is adamant that state employees cannot accept a deal like the one made prior to the 2009 session.
“I cannot justify it in my mind,” Feaver said in an interview. “Our state employees are grossly undervalued and underpaid.”
As the recession set in two years ago, the MEA-MFT and the Montana Public Employees Association (MPEA), which represents about 3,500 state employees and 1,500 university employees, cut a deal where its members accepted pay freezes in exchange for added contributions to their health insurance.
Since then, according to Feaver, the state has made gains through vacancy savings – not replacing employees who quit or retire – and imposed a larger workload on the remaining workers. Despite a budget outlook potentially worse than the one facing Montana two years ago, he believes a wage increase for state workers is necessitated.
“We cannot permit state employees to go four years with a pay freeze,” Feaver said. “I think there is a breaking point there and we may have already reached it in some places.”
MPEA Executive Director Quinton Nyman told the Associated Press his union had the same goal: “People have been doing more work for less money, with fewer coworkers, and there has to be some compensation for them.” In June, Schweitzer told MPEA members there would be no furloughs or layoffs of state workers.
As for where the money would come from to increase state employee salaries, Feaver said, “the Legislature has cut the capacity of the state to tax.”
“We need to talk about growing the revenue streams,” he added. “Some of our revenue problems are not a result of the collapse of the economy.”
Typically, unions negotiate a two-year contract with the governor’s administration, so the executive branch can then take a full budget proposal for the next biennium to the Legislature. Feaver anticipates meeting with members of Schweitzer’s staff following the November elections, when revenue forecast numbers grow clearer.
“That would give union representatives the opportunity to talk more reasonably about state employee salary increases,” Feaver said.
Reached last week, David Ewer, budget director for the Schweitzer administration, said it’s still too early to make any assessments regarding state employee salaries because his office has not yet determined a revenue projection on which to base the next budget proposal. But he pointed out that, compared to many state governments, Montana’s public employees were doing relatively well.
“I kind of want to be gentle about it because I’m not unsympathetic,” Ewer said. “People have kept their jobs in state government…I think that’s an accomplishment.” “This administration has successfully gotten through a very difficult recession without having to result in furloughs for state workers,” he added. “Most states have had significant layoffs.”
Legislators interviewed for this story, however, were not as gentle as Ewer, which raises a question as to Feaver’s chances of achieving a salary increase in the session, should negotiations this year with Schweitzer’s administration prove unsuccessful at reaching a deal.
Sen. Verdell Jackson, running for reelection in Senate District 5 and vice chairman of the Business, Labor and Economic Affairs committee during the 2009 session, said he has heard from many workers in the Flathead who have it tougher than state employees, having had to take cuts in pay or hours just to keep their jobs.
“I have a more difficult situation when I’m talking to people that have lost their jobs,” Jackson said. “I just can’t believe we’re going to have the money to satisfy what Eric Feaver is wanting.”
“I think the private sector is hurting,” Jackson added. “Nobody in the private sector is getting an increase that I know of.”
Rep. Mike Jopek, a Democrat who is not running for reelection in House District 4, touted the funding increases schools have received over the last several legislative sessions and echoed Jackson’s sentiments that workers who don’t face layoffs or pay cuts are faring quite well in the current economy.
“It’s very unrealistic to anticipate that there’s going to be any huge new source of revenue,” Jopek said. “As far as any tax increases, I just don’t see it.”
“I think they’re being silly on it, though they are just negotiating,” Jopek added. “I just don’t see the public sector getting raises, I just don’t.”
For his part, Feaver is not raising the threat of a strike, though he’s not categorically ruling it out either.
“We have not discussed for a millisecond a work stoppage during the 2011 Legislature,” Feaver said. “That does not mean that we will never discuss it.”
As for the negotiations ahead, Feaver believes MEA-MFT members have nowhere to go but up.
“I don’t see us getting less than zero,” Feaver said, “so I would rather fight that battle out when it comes than just surrender before it even gets there.”
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