DULUTH – St. Louis County plow drivers and other public works employees are poised to go on strike starting Wednesday and will continue “until the demands of the members are met,” the Teamsters Local 320 union announced Tuesday.
The strike follows an impasse in mediated contract talks and will start at 7 a.m., barring any last-second deal. Members rejected the county’s final offer this weekend.
Several inches of snow are expected overnight across the region, and more is expected Friday and Saturday. The county plans to have supervisors and other licensed operators from other departments plow as needed.
High-traffic roads and highways will be prioritized, while the county has told townships to expect delays and that private driveways and road association road plowing would be suspended during a strike.
The rural St. Louis County School District will be keeping an eye on snowfall and is planning for now on business as usual, Superintendent Reggie Engebritson said late Tuesday afternoon.
“This could potentially affect a number of students,” she said. “If our drivers are not able to safely go down a county road, we’ll assess and see what other resources we have.”
In addition to pickets at each of the county’s Public Works Department locations, “mobile pickets are to follow public works vehicles should they be deployed absent Teamster drivers,” the union said.
Members voted to authorize a strike in December as contract talks broke down over wages, health care and paid time off accrual and payout. Following negotiations with a state mediator Friday, members voted down St. Louis County’s final offer on Saturday.
The local represents more than 160 public works employees, who are responsible for 3,000 miles of roads in Minnesota’s geographically largest county.
State mediators have reached out “to see if we were open to exploring further settlement offers,” Local 320 secretary treasurer Brian Aldes said Monday, but the paid time off issue remains unsolved. Tuesday’s announcement said the union will “keep the lines of communication open” with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services.
The county this weekend said it rejected the union’s request to increase from 1,150 to 1,500 hours the maximum amount of sick leave that can be paid out to newer employees upon retirement and converted to a health savings account. Up to 1,900 hours can be paid out to those hired before 2013, according to the current contract.
“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,” according to a statement from the county. “The union is trying to oversimplify and describe the situation as an example of ‘inequality’ and lack of fairness between bargaining units. This is not the case.”
The union’s chief negotiator, Erik Skoog, said members “spend nights, holidays and weekends clearing roads in dangerous conditions and will not continue to be second class employees.”
While a plow strike was threatened in previous negotiations in 2011, a deal was reached before a walkout, according to the county.
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496