HIBBING — The Teamsters Local 320 went on strike in St. Louis County, sending 168 members to the Public Works garages in Duluth and across the Iron Range to picket lines Wednesday morning.
The union’s regional leaders in Minneapolis rejected the county’s final contract offer last Saturday. After talking for several hours with the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services earlier this week, they greenlighted the strike, initiating the union’s first ever walkout in the county.
For most, the strike began at about 7 a.m., with more than 20 union members from in-and-around the local county district sporting skull-caps, Carhartt jackets, insulated gloves, steel-toed boots and holding large white signs with black and red lettering, “ON STRIKE ST. LOUIS COUNTY STAY AWAY.” The temperature froze at 1 degree, as forecasters called for a 60 percent of snowfall. The men and women warmed their hands above a barrel of burning wood in several locations near the county garage, along Highway 169 on the east side of Hibbing.
“We’d rather be plowing the roads,” Todd Lopac, a 51-year-old heavy equipment operator told the Mesabi Daily News on Wednesday morning. “This is hard on us. We have families.”
At 6,680 square miles, St. Louis County is the largest county in Minnesota, and the largest in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Here, the union members are responsible for plowing 3,300 miles of road stretching from Lake Superior to the U.S.-Canadian border. Though there isn’t metro-type traffic with 200,000 residents, cities like Duluth receive about 86 inches of snow per winter season.
The strike unfolded as the National Weather Service announced a Hazardous Weather Outlook on Tuesday for northeast Minnesota, predicting snowfall of 1 to 3 inches and bitterly cold wind chills of 25 to 35 below zero into the night. On a typical snow day, the county would deploy 16 drivers in Hibbing to plow snow on county roads 5, 16 and 26, among others, union members said.
But on the first day of the strike, the county was left with putting about four Public Works supervisors and other licensed and qualified staff from other departments on the road. Union members questioned whether the reduced number of workers could handle the load, especially as the NWS reported that snow was expected to develop on Thursday and continue into the weekend to bring about 6 inches or more in the region.
“This is the only way to get the county back to the table with the union,” Roger Meunier, a business agent for Teamsters Local 320 from Thief River Falls told the MDN on the site in Hibbing, which is shared by city, county and state workers. “The guys here would rather avoid striking and we don’t want to cause the taxpers any harm because of it. We’d rather still be working.”
From Duluth, St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray voiced his concern about the strike. “It is disheartening that the situation came to this,” Gray said in an emailed statement on Wednesday afternoon. “The county was aggressive in making a solid offer that is responsible to many Teamster demands, so it’s heartbreaking to see our highway maintenance workers on the picket line, knowing the impact on them and their families; and it’s frustrating because of the impact on our citizens and our employees in other bargaining units.”
This is the first strike in the county in recent memory, with both sides having described a plow strike in 2011 that was called off after a last-minute deal was reached.
It follows more than 33 hours of mediation since November 2019. In mid-December, the Teamsters Local 320 voted 112-1 to authorize the first step toward a possible strike. The union waited until 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, before filing an intent to strike to the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services and St. Louis County.
Last Saturday, St. Louis County made its “Last Best Final Offer,” a three-year contract proposal including base wage increases of 2 percent, with an additional $0.55 per hour in 2020 and 2.25 in both 2021 and 2022. The county also proposed a higher starting wage rate — nearly 4 percent higher — for new snowplow operators, and other revisions to wage schedule. Employees would receive wage increases of 10.5 percent to 12.5 percent and scheduled paid step increases averaging 3.8 percent. Despite agreeing on several terms, the two sides could not agree on a sick leave accrual cap.
The union sought to increase the maximum sick leave accrual from 1,150 to 1,500 hours. The county rejected the proposal and offered to bump it to 1,350 hours. But the union didn’t bite and voted 117-8 to reject the county’s final contract offer.
“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,” county management said in a statement over the weekend.
The union’s 10-day cooling off period ended Monday and Tuesday marked the first day union members could have initiated a strike against the county.
Brian Aldes, the Teamsters Local 320 secretary treasurer and principal officer in Minneapolis, told the MDN that the union “is prepared to continue the strike until the demands of the members are met.”
The sun appeared 54 minutes into the strike in Hibbing on Wednesday, with union members receiving honks from passersby and the occasional drop-off of coffee, donuts and even pizza, which they ate in a small, heated trailer one of them brought from home. They stayed until 4:30 p.m. or so, about the time the sun set over town. They didn’t know how long they’d strike and live off pay from the union, but they planned to show up here everyday the county paid others to do their jobs, and until the union and county management could come to an agreement.