JEFFERSON CITY — About 100 union members rallied for better working conditions outside the state Capitol on Tuesday, as negotiations got under way between union and government officials over contracts for about 7,000 state workers.
The union has proposed a 6 percent annual pay raise for the next three years and a "fair share" fee for nonunion members who are covered by union-negotiated contracts. The negations are over a contract for patient care support workers that expired in June and one for craft and maintenance employees that expired in December.
Curt Ostrander, the union's chief negotiator, told The Associated Press that the union's priority is protect state workers, address staff shortages and help people do their jobs better. He described discussions with the state thus far as "cooperative," and said the two sides are trying to find ways to be more efficient to save money and solve problems.
"Our top priorities are to provide a contract that gives workers the necessary protection in order for them to perform their jobs in a safe, effective manner and to provide state services," Ostrander said.
Negotiations are between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Missouri Office of Administration. It is the first contract negotiation with state workers since Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon took office in January, and workers attending the Capitol rally said the environment is better than under the previous Republican administration.
A spokeswoman for the Office of Administration declined to comment on the union's proposed pay raise but said that state officials are seeking "the best possible agreement for the state and for the employees."
Budget leaders in the legislature questioned whether it would be possible to afford raises when state revenue fell last year and so far is continuing to decline.
"That is impossible without making an offsetting cut somewhere," said House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood.
Ostrander said the state's budget situation must be considered, but that Missouri pays its employees less than most states.
"In any public sector negotiation, you have to negotiate and you have to appropriate. So you have to take into consideration the appropriation aspect," he said.
The discussions involve two contracts. One covers patient care support workers within the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Missouri Veterans Commission. That group involves about 4,500 workers and about one-quarter are union members.
The second group is made up of approximately 2,500 craft and maintenance workers in the Missouri Office of Administration and Agriculture, Corrections, Economic Development, Health and Senior Services, Labor and Industrial Relations, Mental Health, Natural Resources, Public Safety and Revenue departments. About 10 percent are union members.
Workers who are not in the union are covered by the contract negotiated by the union.
During the rally, union members wearing bright green T-shirts applauded and cheered when negotiators walked into the Capitol during a break in the talks. They presented a signed petition to Nixon's office and then walked with negotiators about a block to the state office building where the discussions were being held.
The petition said the union was "prepared to confront the challenges our members face that hinder Missouri's ability to provide the best level of service and care to its citizens. State services can be best provided when we can count on a workplace where workers are respected and safe."
Several speakers during the rally outlined staff shortages that they said made their work places more dangerous and required some to work double shifts with little notice.
Travis Case, who works at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green and is the president of a local, said Nixon has been more willing to work with unions and would restore gains made before the previous Republican governor.
"Nixon is receptive to us. He understands what working people need," Case said.