DULUTH – St. Louis County snowplow drivers held their ground on the picket line as snow fell steadily Wednesday afternoon, punctuating the timing of the first day of their strike.
Several dozen Teamsters Local 320 members and supporters picketed all day outside the county’s Public Works compound north of Duluth, as well as at facilities in Ely, Cook, Hibbing and Virginia.
Meanwhile, county administrators dispatched supervisors and licensed operators from other departments onto the roads to plow.
Local 320 President Sami Gabriel said they would continue the work stoppage until the county met their demands.
Between 2 and 3 inches of snow fell around Duluth on Wednesday, and more than 6 inches more is expected to hit the southern part of the county Friday and Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.
“We hoped this action could have been avoided,” St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray said in a statement. “Nevertheless, snow is falling and public safety remains our top priority, so we have implemented our contingency plans to plow the roads.”
Highways were prioritized and delays were expected on less busy roads. Thirty-five drivers were deployed at staggered times on Wednesday, based on when and where the snow hit, according to county spokeswoman Dana Kazel. The county owns 150 plows and 43 graders.
“Residents are going to get tired of this and put pressure on the county administrator and hopefully push these guys back to the table,” said Edward Reynoso, political director for Teamsters Joint Council 32 based in Minneapolis. “There’s a strong union community here.”
Members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike in December as contract talks fell apart. The county gave its final offer after a daylong mediated bargaining session on Friday; on Saturday members rejected the offer.
One of the largest remaining issues is how much sick leave can be accrued and paid out.
The county 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.
Gray called the final contract offer 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.”
Reynoso said there won’t be a contract deal “without them conceding on some of these issues.”
The local represents more than 160 Public Works employees who are responsible for about 3,300 miles of roads in Minnesota’s geographically largest county.
City and state plows were continuing to work as normal during the Wednesday snowfall.
While some county residents have signaled support for the strike, others have criticized the union for putting public safety at risk. St. Louis County commissioners avoided the issue at Tuesday’s meeting.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, tweeted his support for the strike Wednesday, saying members “are fighting for benefits they deserve, and I stand with them.”
Some striking members had been on the picket line since 5 a.m. in frigid weather and continued their presence as big, picturesque snowflakes started falling Wednesday afternoon.
“This is normal for us. I work in this weather all the time,” said 25-year department veteran Scott Mercier.
He said the contract demands will help recruit and retain a workforce and provide a better quality of life.
“We’re in this for life,” he said.
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496