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Mayor solicits support in face of labor snub

Duluth Mayor Don Ness turned to social media this week in response to the local AFL-CIO Central Labor body's vote to ban him for life from the Duluth Labor Temple's Paul Wellstone Hall. (2014 file photo / News Tribune)

Duluth Mayor Don Ness turned to social media Wednesday, as he wrestled with how to respond to a recent rebuke by the local labor community.

In an unprecedented move, the local AFL-CIO Central Labor body voted on Sept. 10 to ban Ness for life from the Duluth Labor Temple's Paul Wellstone Hall for crossing an informational picket line at the Radisson Hotel.

The action blindsided Ness, who said: "I didn't hear word one about their concerns until I read that I'd been banned for life in Labor World 10 days later."

In the same labor publication, Mike Sundin, a state representative from Esko and business development consultant for Painters & Allied Trades Local 106, was quoted saying: "He (Ness) looked at the pickets and walked right in."

When asked about the incident by the News Tribune Thursday, Sundin responded: "All I'm going to say is that I think the mayor made a poor decision. I'm going to leave it at that."

Initially, Ness said he was not inclined to react to the news of labor leaders' efforts to publicly shame him, but as the story spread, he felt compelled to tell his side of the story.

"They wanted to make it all about a simple headline, but there were a lot of important details associated with the incident that I felt the public should know about," Ness said.

Ness said he was meeting a friend for lunch at JJ Astor, the restaurant on the top floor of the Radisson, and stopped to talk with some of the people on an informational picket line. After learning of the hotel's use of non-union labor to remodel the hotel, Ness said he expressed concern and said he would look into the situation further. Then, he went into the restaurant, thinking nothing was amiss.

In a Facebook post, Ness wrote: "Let me stress this point — the union restaurant that I went to was staffed by union employees who all crossed the very same informational picket line. The picket is not directed at the restaurant and their management."

Ness went on to quote Labor World, saying that the restaurant's management "has been good, even offering 15 percent discounts to union members using the JJ Astor restaurant."

But Ness' efforts to explain away his actions didn't fly with Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council.

"An informational picket is still a primary picket," he said. "A picket is a picket."

Olson said the local trades couldn't establish a strike line because they weren't on the job, as the Radisson's new ownership, the Keading investment group, had instead chosen to hire out-of-state contractors. He explained that informational picketing was the strongest viable labor action in such a situation.

As for Ness' decision to cross the line, Olson said: "It was totally disrespectful and a slap in labor's face."

Ness said he meant no disrespect and suggested the whole misunderstanding could have been sorted out in a conversation.

"I'm hopeful that conversation will still occur," he said and added: "I remain open to rebuilding a working relationship."

If that's the mayor's intent, Olson suggested Ness should be reaching out to labor leaders directly instead of posting his beef on Facebook for all to see.

"If he wants to reconcile, why would he wage war on social media?" he asked.

Ness defended his decision to turn to Facebook, saying: "That's what social media allows us to do. It gives the general public an opportunity to see issues in a broader way."

On Facebook Wednesday, Ness sought validation, asking people to "like" a post in which he outlined the events that led up to his life-time ban. "I'm asking for your help and support," he wrote.

His request had garnered 4,810 "likes" by Thursday afternoon.

In a follow-up post Wednesday evening, Ness thanked respondents for the massive outpouring of support and said: "As I read your comments, tears of gratitude are welling in my eyes."

Ness said being banned from Paul Wellstone Hall hit close to home.

"Of course, it was intentional that they chose to highlight Paul Wellstone's name in an attempt to further embarrass me. I put in hundreds of hours on Wellstone's campaign, and my wife, Laura, moved to Duluth to work for Wellstone. That's how we met. So this has been an especially personally painful experience," he said.

Olson said he was not present at the Central Labor Body meeting where the decision to ban Ness from Wellstone Hall was made, but he supports it. He said the building trades had been strong supporters of the mayor in the past, making the recent dust-up even more perplexing.

"I still respect him, but I don't understand why he would cross a picket," Olson said.

Dan O'Neill, president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Body could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Ness is serving out the final days of his second and presumably last term as mayor. He chose not to seek re-election this November. He has expressed no further political aspirations and said he may well never seek elected office again.

Olson said recent events will weigh heavily on any political comeback Ness might consider in the future.

"His political career is over in this community," he predicted.

But Ness said he takes comfort in the court of broader public opinion and the support he has received from constituents, including many union members.

In his Wednesday evening Facebook post, he wrote: "I want you guys to know how much I appreciate your support. It feels overwhelming (in the best sense of the word). When you face this sort of attack, you find out who your friends are."