Examining the end of the St. Louis County snowplow operators' strike
Sides thawed after a phone call from plow drivers, who conceded on their big ask in exchange for health care improvements of equal value.
By the fourth day of the snowplow operators strike on Saturday, residents were getting restless.
There were credible reports of mailboxes being mowed over by plowing done by supervisors and other licensed operators within the St. Louis County ranks who were being used in lieu of the striking workers from Teamsters Local 320.
A photo circulated of a plow truck parked by a county public works location with its blade dangling and in evident disrepair.
Facebook comments accumulated like the snow that seemed to go on throughout the six-day strike.
But even before peak angst, the sides had come together, sources told the News Tribune, which wanted to know further details about the contract, and also the answer to the biggest question of all: “How did Teamsters come off the issue of sick leave accrual after it had been the cause of the contractual logjam in the first place?”
It started with a phone call Friday night.
“We had asked for a conversation just to open up the door,” Erik Skoog, the Teamsters chief negotiator, said, “because up until that time, we hadn’t spoken for a week.”
As soon as the call was over, the Teamsters were left to consider the county’s resolve on sick leave accrual — an unwillingness to increase the cap from 1,150 to 1,500 hours per employee redeemable upon retirement.
"The county was steadfast," Skoog said. "They are not interested at all in increasing the sick leave payout because of the future liability of it."
The county held ground for a few reasons : two of the nine bargaining units in the county with the higher, 1,500-hour cap made concessions years ago to achieve it; the county settled on the lower figure during 2012-13 negotiations with the other unions, including the Teamsters; and, finally, to increase the cap would be both a $1.5 million financial hit and a blow to the county's credibility with the other unions.
“In the end, you look for reasonable, fair outcomes that serve employees and residents,” the county said in response to a list of questions. “We also look at decisions that impact other bargaining units for fairness and equity.”
Thanks to the thawing phone call, the parties were in mediation again Sunday inside the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. In the evening, 10 hours into mediation, came the breakthrough as sides agreed to leave separate rooms and meet at the same table.
“Getting in the same room,” Skoog said, “that’s what really got the water flowing again.”
The pivot from Teamsters saw them shift to health care and “capturing the money" another way, Skoog said. The county had already agreed to allow the union to find another self-funded health care plan if it could find one cheaper than the county’s self-funded plan with Blue Cross Blue Shield.
The county confirmed that the union proposed shifting to the less expensive Teamsters’ self-funded insurance plan and having the county split the difference into health savings accounts for employees.
Skoog described it as "cost neutral" for the county, which would go on making the same contribution as always for employees on single and family health insurance.
The current difference between the self-funded plans in question averaged $46.62 per month, or $559.44 per year, per employee, Skoog and the county confirmed — money transferable year over year that can grow in the health savings accounts.
Unlike sick-leave accrual, which only follows an employee into retirement, the health savings accounts would not only follow any employee into retirement, but also were they to quit, be terminated or pass away, family members on the plan would still have access to it.
Skoog called it the same value as an employee reaching 1,150 sick leave hours after 15 years of service — achievable provided there's no call-ins. Napkin math shows that $559.44 annually over 15 years across the balance of the 168 union employees would be $1.4 million.
"It accomplished exactly what we were looking for," Skoog said, while "making health care more affordable."
The health savings accounts only come into play if and when Teamsters 320 decides to move to the alternative Teamsters' insurance plan, the county affirmed.
Whatever happens, it’s not going to cost the county $18 million — the estimated cost to raise the sick leave accrual cap to 1,500 across seven more bargaining units. That's the liability the county wanted to avoid from the beginning.
Another detail about the contract, which was unanimously ratified by employees and is expected to be ratified by the St. Louis County Board at the end of February, is that in giving up an extra day off per year per employee over the life of the three-year contract (through 2022), the county earned the right to add seasonal workers sooner and for the complete window of the construction season.
The county said the new arrangement had the potential to make its projects ($50 million worth in 2020) up to 25% more efficient.
“This gives us more flexibility to start sooner on some projects, or finish projects that may extend longer than originally planned,” the county said.
Previously, the county could use seasonal highway labor only from May 15 to Nov. 15.
The seasonal positions do not require a commercial driver’s license, and duties include flagging, shoveling and cleaning along roadways.
As far as collateral outcomes of the strike go, county policy is to replace mailboxes damaged by plowing, provided the mailboxes start off as lawfully compliant.
“Some were hit," the county said, "but no more than typically happens following any large snow event."