Strike talk louder as St. Louis County, AFSCME at oddsThe sticking point is a two-tiered sick-leave bank for current and new employees.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Union workers for St. Louis County quietly rallied in an informational walk today as a public display of their frustration over stalled contract talks with county officials.
About 50 county employees — members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 66 — held signs as they walked on sidewalks outside of the county courthouse during their morning break. Other union members rallied at the local’s office for an afternoon news conference.
At the same time today the state Bureau of Mediation Services was expected to certify the union’s strike notification, and union officials say 1,005 of the county’s 1,620 employees will go on strike at 12:01 a.m. Aug. 29 if the contract isn’t at or near a settlement.
Both sides agree that the sticking point is over accumulated, or banked, sick leave.
Current employees under the merit basic and civil service basic units can bank up to 1,900 hours of sick time they don’t use and have the value deposited into a health-care savings account at retirement. That’s more than 50 weeks of sick leave with the worker’s 37.5 hour work week.
County officials say that’s too rich, leaving taxpayers with millions of dollars in expenses, now sitting at $28 million and going up with every retirement. They are insisting that all new employees covered by the contract be limited to 1,150 hours of banked sick leave.
The union countered with a 1,500-hour limit for old and new employees, but the county said no. Contract talks broke off after a 14-hour marathon session Friday in St. Paul failed to break the stalemate. No new talks are scheduled.
Union members said that accepting a two-tier system would destroy their bargaining unit.
“We will not let our employer break our union with a sick leave (limit) that pits new hires against existing employees,” Steve Kniefel, a member of the union’s negotiating team and a county public works employees in Virginia, said.
County officials say the union counter doesn’t offer enough savings.
“We had certainly hoped for a different outcome and must now continue to prepare for a strike event,” Kevin Gray, county administrator, said. “We have and will continue to be engaged in negotiations. Our offer demonstrates that we value and appreciate our employees but also reflects our need to be fiscally prudent with taxpayer dollars.”
Gray added that other union locals, including an AFSCME-represented local that represents jailers and 911 operators, already has agreed to the county’s demand on sick-leave bank.
The county’s most-recent offer is for a three-year contract with wage increases totaling 4.5 percent total over three years — 1 percent retroactive for 2012, 1.5 percent retroactive to the start of 2013 and 2 percent for 2014. Health insurance and pension benefits remain unchanged. Additionally, each employee would receive $480 lump sum cash compensation upon settlement.
The two unions represent employees in nearly all of the county’s departments. County officials say they have developed a contingency plan should a strike occur. This plan prioritizes services focusing on providing critical services. Some offices and departments will operate with reduced hours and/or locations. The county said it will announce any changes in public services if a strike occurs.