Snowplow drivers will leverage a planned strike with help from the weather forecast, said Teamsters leadership on Thursday, one day after the union filed its intent to strike.
“It doesn’t make sense for plow operators to go on strike when it’s 50 degrees and sunny out,” Teamsters 320 chief negotiator Erik Skoog told the News Tribune, while reiterating that he held out hope calmer heads would prevail with at least one mediation session upcoming in advance of a possible walkout.
“Right now, (a strike) is absolutely not the plan,” Skoog said. “It’s to get the deal done — to find common ground and an agreement both parties can live with.”
Skoog said the first day of a potential strike could be any time after Jan. 13, based on the 10-day cooling-off language in state statute. He spoke at length about negotiations, describing the talks to date as "insulting."
He also derided the county’s contingency plan to use supervisors and other trained staff to plow in the potential absence of union operators.
Supervisors would be “rusty,” but could keep emergency routes open, he said. But he doubted there were enough remaining trained staff to cover the entirety of 3,000 miles of county-state aid highways, county roads, and unorganized township roads that fall under county plowing jurisdiction.
“There’s no way they can do that,” Skoog said. “There’s not enough people within the county that know how to plow.”
The county and Teamsters are in the midst of a 10-day cooling off period prior to a final mediation session to be arranged by the state Bureau of Mediation Services.
Reached Thursday, county spokesperson Dana Kazel said, "Our only response is that we are committed to continue negotiating through the bargaining process, not via the media."
Skoog confirmed the county’s earlier contention that the Teamsters failed to counteroffer at the end of a marathon session in December.
“It’s absolutely true, we walked out without giving a counter,” he said. “But you could literally counter and re-counter until the cows came home.”
Skoog talked about two sticking points — the accrual of benefits, such as vacation, sick days and how many days can be on the books, and health insurance.
The unit wants more uniform accrual rates. The county’s adoption in 2013 of new rates, negotiated by the unions, has left disparate rates for employees before and after the changes. Current leadership wasn’t part of those changes, Skoog said, and the union wants parity for what the county says are 168 employees affected by the negotiations.
As far as health coverage, the union members are requesting to be given the right to find plans outside of the county’s self-funded health care option with Blue Cross Blue Shield.
“If we can find pools out there that will save our members money and we felt the coverage was adequate, we want the option,” Skoog said, citing a low-bid opportunity that came and went in recent years while the county continued to re-up with Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Skoog said regardless of the pool the Teamsters chose, they would ask the county to make the same contribution it would to the county-run plan.
“Not a penny more,” Skoog said.
As Skoog and others prepare for the next round of negotiations, he said members are also working on strike contingencies. They’re scouting the different public works facilities for picket sites, making picket signs and getting in contact with appropriate law enforcement agencies.
Skoog said the union will also need to meet to decide on the particulars of the strike itself. It would more likely be a protracted walkout and not a one-day demonstration, but Skoog said he didn’t know yet.
Before filing to strike on New Year's Day, the Teamsters overwhelmingly approved a strike proposal, 112-1, at a meeting in Virginia in December. The Teamsters unit represents county snowplow drivers, mechanics, building maintenance crews, parts-room specialists, sign technicians, bridge maintenance crews and custodial staff.
Regarding the recent contract agreements with two other, larger unions within the county, Skoog cast the Teamsters as having unique concerns apart from those units, including wanting higher starting wages to better help recruit new snowplow operators.
“The county is polarized — they're focused on what they want to do and don’t care about what we’re asking for,” Skoog said.