Lost amid an explosive St. Louis County Board meeting Tuesday in Duluth was that the commissioners addressed the threat of a strike by snowplow drivers and others in the county Public Works Department.

The board went into closed session at the St. Louis County Courthouse during committee-of-the-whole proceedings, but not before Commissioner Keith Musolf used the regular board meeting to make a pro-labor stand.

"(L)et’s not forget about the folks operating this equipment and invest in them, too," Musolf said during 2020 budget approval proceedings. "Let's not forget about the women and men running our equipment for Public Works."

Musolf was responding to praise for a budget that invested in replenishing the county with snowplow upgrades and other equipment. The board approved a $407 million budget for 2020, including a planned $50 million construction program in Public Works. The meeting included an intense debate about corrections center funding.

St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Musolf is shown at his swearing in ceremony in August. / News Tribune file photo
St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Musolf is shown at his swearing in ceremony in August. / News Tribune file photo

The Teamsters voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike Sunday after walking away from contract negotiations with the county. They said a strike would encompass approximately 180 county employees mostly comprised of snow plow operators and mechanics in addition to bridge workers, building maintenance, parts specialists, and sign technicians.

Heavy Equipment Operator Connie Westlund of Duluth was among those who voted to authorize the strike, 112-1, and will participate in a work stoppage should one be called by Teamsters Local 320, she said in a Teamsters news release on Monday.

“Every single day we are committed to maintaining and clearing roads, especially during inclement weather,” Westlund said. “Yet, we feel unappreciated by an employer who fails to address our concerns in a comprehensive and respectful manner.”

The county wouldn't discuss the County Board's closed session, other than to say it was closed for contract negotiations, including an update on plow driver negotiations.

The strike vote was the result of what the Teamsters called "healthcare inequality" for Public Works employees who they say are provided less coverage, and pay 31% more than management and non-union employees. The Teamsters are also demanding a restoration of seniority rights formerly rescinded through arbitration. An increase in the cost of living is also "a major concern for Teamsters," they said.

The News Tribune reviewed medical coverage and premium shares on the county’s web page which seemed to contradict the Teamsters' claim, showing Teamsters harboring costs similar to other groups and bargaining units. County spokesperson Dana Kazel confirmed that insurance costs across the board have risen over the past five years by a total of roughly 31% with rates increases of 3.75% in 2016, 12.5% in 2017, 8% in 2018, 6.5% in 2019, and 6.5% in 2020.

The Teamsters have not yet responded to a News Tribune attempt to further address the health care issue.

It had previously said this week through Kazel, “We respect the negotiations process and will continue to negotiate in good faith. We value these employees and the important work they do and are optimistic that a positive outcome will be reached.”

Teamsters Local 320 plans to file its intent to strike with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services after Jan. 1, it said Monday. A date and time for the work stoppage have not yet been determined.

County workers will be supported with a national strike protection fund, the Teamsters said.

The Public Works Department operates in Minnesota’s largest geographic county and is responsible for the maintenance and snow removal of more than 3,000 miles of county-related roads. Public Works also manages more than 40,000 traffic signs within St. Louis County.