Will Teamsters Local 320 union go on strike?

A St. Louis County snowplow clears a road north of Duluth in March 2013.

IRON RANGE — For Todd Lopac, a 51-year-old heavy equipment operator for St. Louis County Public Works Department, it’s not uncommon during the winter months to plow snow from 4:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. But today marks the first time in his seven years with either the county or Teamsters Local 320 that he will join about 20 of his co-workers on the picket line outside of the county garage in Hibbing.

“Still, nobody is upset that we’re going to strike,” Lopac, of Mountain Iron, told the Mesabi Daily News on Tuesday afternoon following the union’s announcement that 168 members would strike for the first time in recent memory throughout the county at 7 a.m. on Wednesday. “They believe in what they’re standing up for and everybody’s behind everybody.”

Several hours earlier, the snow fell across the Iron Range as the Teamsters Local 320 posted a Facebook message, saying the union would “engage in a county-wide work stoppage” and hold “ongoing pickets at each Public Works Department location and mobile pickets are to follow Public Works vehicles should they be deployed absent Teamster drivers.” How long will the strike last? “Teamsters Local 320 is prepared to continue the strike until the demands of the members are met.”

“This was a tough decision for the membership to make,” Brian Aldes, the Teamsters Local 320 secretary treasurer and principal officer, said in the statement. “However, the Teamsters employed by St. Louis County deserve parity of benefits with the civil service and merit employees.”

At 6,860 square miles, St. Louis County is the largest county in Minnesota. The union members are responsible for plowing 3,300 miles of roads. By striking, the county — which is broken up into several districts with shops in Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia, among other cities — is being immediately tasked to figure out how the roads will be plowed in a week when forecasters are predicting a hazardous weather outlook of 2 to 6 inches or more in the northeastern part of the state, according to the National Weather Service.

When asked for comment Tuesday, St. Louis County Communications Manager Dana Kazel told the MDN in email that “at this point we are not planning to release a statement today” but she did direct reporters to a county website detailing information on its contingency plans.

“The county would remain operational during a work stoppage,” the website reads. “We would continue to plow roads. We have contingency plans that include calling on supervisors and other staff who are licensed and qualified for plowing.” The site added, “Should there be a significant weather event across the entire county, the response time would be delayed for us to clear all the roads.”

This is the first strike here in recent memory, with both sides having described a plow strike in 2011 that was called off after a last-minute deal was reached. The strike follows more than 33 hours of mediation since November 2019. Now the union plans to “keep the lines of communication open” with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services in case St. Louis County requests additional mediation following its final contract offer.

“These hardworking employees make a daily commitment to drive into blizzard conditions when most folks avoid inclement weather,” Erik Skoog, Teamsters Local 320 recording secretary and chief negotiator, said in the statement. “These employees spend nights, holidays, and weekends clearing roads in dangerous conditions and will not continue to be second class employees.”

The decision to strike

During a phone interview, Aldes told the MDN that “it’s unfortunate that it’s come to this.

It was in mid-December when 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 jumping on the opportunity to file 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, according to a 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.

Despite agreeing on several terms, the “sticking point,” as phrased by Kazel, remained the sick leave accrual cap.

County management greenlighted an 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.

Ultimately, the Teamsters Local 320 voted 117-8 to reject the county’s final contract offer.

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.”

The union’s 10-day cooling off period ended Monday and Tuesday marked the first day its members could have initiated a strike against the county.

As Aldes told the story to the MDN on Tuesday, he and Skoog sat on the phone for “several hours” on Tuesday with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services “to try and facilitate conversation with the employer, which doesn’t seem interested in compromise with regard to the issues of the membership.”

Soon afterward, Skoog made the announcement on his personal Facebook page on Tuesday morning, “ATTENTION ST LOUIS COUNTY TEAMSTERS….The strike will begin tomorrow morning at 7:00 a.m., call the Strike Hotline immediately for strike details.”

Lopac, who was on the union’s negotiating team this past year and works as a steward in the Hibbing office, which includes 15 plow operators, considered the morning to come. “We want a few things here and there that they’re not willing to talk anymore about and we have to make a decision on how we’re going to strike.”

S COUNTY — The Teamsters Local 320 are preparing to strike Wednesday morning, union officials said.

Brian Aldes, the union’s business agent and chief negotiator, confirmed to the Hibbing Daily Tribune at noon on Tuesday the strike would involve 168 union members, some of whom are responsible for snow plowing 3,000 miles of roads in St. Louis County, the largest county in Minnesota.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” Aldes said in a phone interview. “We continue to keep the lines of communication open with St. Louis County.”

Aldes and Eric Skoog, the recording secretary and business agent for the union, sat on the phone for “several hours” the previous day with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services “to try and facilitate conversation with the employer, which doesn’t seem interested in compromise with regard to the issues of the membership.” Aldes added, “The Teamsters are committed and dedicated to public service and it’s going to be difficult to withdraw those services from the public.”

When asked whether Aldes remained open to dialogue with county officials, he replied, “The ball is in their court.”

The comments from Aldes came about half an hour after Skoog made the announcement on his personal Facebook page, “ATTENTION ST LOUIS COUNTY TEAMSTERS….The strike will begin tomorrow morning at 7:00 a.m., call the Strike Hotline immediately for strike details.”

Tuesday morning marked the first day the Teamsters Local 320 could have initiated a strike against the 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 county to figure out how to plow the roads 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 Skoog, who posted the message beside a photo of the seven commissioners on his personal Facebook page at about noon on Monday.

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 followed nearly 33 hours of mediation since November 2019.

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 last Saturday. “St. Louis County failed to allow its Public Works Department employees to shop for better, more affordable health insurance.”

Aldes 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 Hibbing Daily Tribune 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 HDT 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 HDT 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 HDT 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 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.”

This is a developing story.

0
0
0
0
1

Recommended for you

Load comments