ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Tuesday marks the first day 168 public works employees from the Teamsters Local 320 can strike against St. Louis County as no new contract was reached by Jan. 1.
As of Monday afternoon, the union provided no clear answer on whether employees would follow through with their talk of striking and leaving the largest county in Minnesota to figure out how to plow 3,000 miles of road with snow expected this week.
“It’s so unfortunate that those self-titled ‘Pro Worker/Pro County Employee’ Commissioners are not standing up for their employees and making it well known in the media, no fence sitting. When the strike goes down, you have no one else to blame but your administration and yourselves.”
Those words belong to Eric Skoog, recording-secretary and business agent for the Teamsters Local 320 union, who posted the message beside a photo of the seven commissioners on his personal Facebook page on Monday at about noon.
His post came less than 24 hours after Skoog informed all 168 public works employees on social media to “please remove all personal belongings and tool boxes from the county garages no later than business close” on Monday and check the strike hotline. It had been less than 48 hours since the union voted 117-8 on Saturday afternoon to reject the county’s final contract offer following 12 hours of meditation the previous day. The stalemate follows nearly 33 hours of mediation since November 2019.
Skoog was unavailable for comment as of press time Monday.
Rejecting the ‘Last Best Final Offer’
“St. Louis County failed to address issues concerning equity of sick and vacation accumulation between other county employees and the employees of the Public Works Department. Other county employees have a higher accrual limit to the benefits,” the Teamsters Local 320 wrote in a statement on its website on Saturday. “St. Louis County failed to allow its Public Works Department employees to shop for better, more affordable health insurance.”
Brian Aldes, the union’s business agent a chief negotiator, added, “The county attempted to horse trade with its employees’ benefits. We cannot allow county employees to go backward.”
Also on Saturday, St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray said in an emailed statement that “we are disappointed in the outcome of today’s vote rejecting this Last Best Final Officer.” He continued, “It was a solid proposal that was fair to our employees, is consistent with what other bargaining units have overwhelmingly approved, and respectful of the financial impact on our taxpayers.”
County management says their proposed three-year contract offer included base wage increases of 2 percent, with an additional $0.55 per hour in 2020 and 2.25 in both 2021 and 2022, according to the press release. The county also proposed a higher starting wage rate — nearly 4 percent higher — for new snowplow operators, and other revisions to wage schedules that allow employees to accelerate through the salary ranges faster. Employees would receive wage increases of 10.5 percent to 12.5 percent and scheduled paid step increases averaging 3.8 percent.
Also, county management says they agreed to the union’s request regarding health insurance “to allow the bargaining unit to elect to leave the county’s self-insured health plan in the future with an employer contribution equal to that provided to employees covered by its own self-insured health plan,” the press release read. “If the unit ends up deciding to stay in the county’s plan, the county has offered new premium contribution levels that were consistent with the settlement reached with other unions.”
Despite agreeing on several terms, the “sticking point,” as phrased by county’s communications manager Dana Kazel, remains the sick leave accrual cap.
County management said OK to increase the maximum sick leave accrual from 1,250 hours to 1,350 hours, but rejected the union’s request for 1,500 hour payout.
“The estimated cost of this demand for Teamster members alone is $1.5 million, and to extend that increase to all employees, which would be a likely expectation, would create a potential $18.5 million taxpayer liability for future payout costs,” the release read.
The current 10-day cooling off periods ended Monday, which means that the union could strike as early as 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. For now, county management anticipates using supervisors and other licensed employees to drive plows during any strike.
“We know that road conditions in a snow event are a major concern for our citizens, and this is something we take very seriously,” Gray said in the statement. “We will continue to put public safety as a first priority. It is disheartening to see Teamster leadership making references on social media as if this is some sort of a game. More significantly, it is disappointing that they would place county employees and union members on the picket line to bear the brunt of financial impact in lost time and wages.”
Filing intent to strike in the New Year
It was 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1 when Aldes and Skoog filed the intent to strike to the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services and St. Louis County. The move followed the union’s voting 112-1 in mid-December to authorize the first step toward a possible labor stoppage.
“We’re not asking for more than anyone else has,” Skoog told the Mesabi Daily News at the time. “We’re not money grubbing. We just want equality with what is already being done.”
Skoog had laid out the four main grievances: 1) “We feel like there’s a benefits inequality for the employees and management”; 2) “Health insurance increased 31 percent since 2017. We’re seeking to have cost-control for that. We want the opportunity to shop our own health insurance and go out to the market and see if we can find a better plan to save our members money”; 3) “We want the county to honor our seniority with respect to work assignments and bidding”; 4) “Lastly, we’re looking to increase the starting wage for people and enhance our wage package. The county states that they don’t have a problem bringing in minimally qualified applicants, and our ‘in the shop’ perception is that’s not the case. The county struggles to find quality and qualified employees.”
When asked whether he thought the Teamsters and county management could come up with a solution, Skoog told the MDN that “we have a great relationship with the county and usually we can overcome shortfalls.” He added, “That’s why it’s disconcerting that we’ve had to take this step. It’s troublesome. It’s like they’re taking our kindness for weakness. And we asked them, don’t call our bluff on this because we’re very steadfast on this now. Other St. Louis County employees already enjoy these benefits. So what’s the difference?”
Will there be compromise?
The muscle-flexing by the union reflects previously voiced grievances with county management.
To the best of anyone’s memory, the Teamsters have never gone on strike, Dana Kazel, the St. Louis County communications manager, told the MDN in an email November. In 2011, the union authorized a strike, but it reached a contract settlement.
The union approached the St. Louis County Commission in 2017, Skoog explained, in regards to “the rising cost of health insurance and how concerned we were with it.”
Late last year, the county received notice that the union “rejected a contract proposal as part of labor negotiations for contracts effective January 2020,” Kazel wrote. She added, “We respect the negotiations process and will continue to negotiate in good faith. We value these employees and the important work they do and are optimistic that a positive outcome will be reached.”
Based in Hibbing, Mike Jugovich, the new chair of the County Board who had headed the Public Works Department Committee, told the MDN that the commissioners “are hands off as management handles the negotiations.” He continued, “We have respect for all of the county employees. They are the backbone of our departments. We fully intend to bargain in good faith. I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll come to a solution that is amicable for both sides.”
The Teamsters refrained from initiating a strike in late-December. “We have Christmas and the holidays,” Skoog had said. “There’s enough stress, and we understand the severity of us not being out on the roads plowing and we still have cleanup out there. We’re not looking to disrupt any travel for the holidays.”
Skoog expressed his desire to find common ground, but did not change his tune on the possibility of a strike. “I think we can get the deal done,” he said. “I think the county needs to realize we’re not asking for anymore than other employees in the county don’t already have. We just want equality. We’re not looking to disrupt. If we have to walk out and go on strike, then that’s what we do. We’re not taking this lightly at all.”