St. Louis County snowplow drivers voted 117-8 Saturday in Eveleth to reject the county's "Last Best Final Offer," moving workers one step closer to a strike.
Teamsters 320 chief negotiator Erik Skoog told the News Tribune the union has a date and time in mind as to when a strike will likely occur, but wouldn't reveal the details.
"We will properly communicate that with our members before they show up to work," Skoog said. "We have a notification system in place to notify the members."
Teamsters have the legal right to begin striking between Jan. 14 and Feb. 3.
The county's "Last Best Final Offer" came after nearly 12 hours of contract negotiations during a mediation session Friday. Teamsters met Saturday for a ratification vote after Skoog urged union members to reject the contract.
"The county’s offer is very generous but it does not address the disparity with benefit accruals and the inequality of their employees," Skoog said Saturday night.
The county agreed to increase accrual from 1,250 to 1,350 hours of sick leave at Friday's meeting, but rejected the union's request of a 1,500-hour payout upon retirement.
More-senior Teamster members can accrue 1,900 hours of sick leave hours upon retirement, Skoog said, whereas other employees hired after a certain time can only accrue 1,150 hours upon retirement.
"That's been a benefit for them to help them once they retire, that'll offset their insurance upon retirement," Skoog said of the more senior members, later adding: "We just want equality."
Dana Kazel, spokesperson for the St. Louis County, told the News Tribune Saturday night that the decrease in accrual hours is the result of union negotiations that took place in 2012-13. Teamsters agreed to a phased-in approach that reduced accrual caps for only new hires in exchange for other benefits.
"Now they are trying to re-open that and get those amounts back without giving up the things they got in exchange," Kazel said. "Just to do that for the Teamster members is $1.5 million and all those other unions that made similar agreements back then would very rightfully come to us and say, "Wait a minute. We want to go back too.'"
That would swell taxpayer liability to over $18 million, Kazel said.
Skoog said senior employees who have nothing to gain from an increased sick accrual cap upon retirement are unified with the newer Teamsters who would benefit.
"The more senior employees dare the ones speaking loudly to say, 'This is not fair,'" Skoog said. "I am very proud to represent these members because of that."
In a news release from the county, County Administrator Kevin Gray said he's disappointed in the outcome of the vote, as the offer was a "solid proposal that was fair to our employees, is consistent with what other bargaining units have overwhelmingly approved, and respectful of the financial impact on our taxpayers."
Teamsters have cited "healthcare inequality" as the cause for the vote to strike and requested the right to seek health-care plans outside of the county.
They say workers within the county's Public Works Department are provided less coverage and pay more than management and non-union employees. 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.
The county agreed to the request to allow the union to leave the county's health plan while providing a contribution equal to that of those covered by the county's health plan, Kazel said. The union either had to decide as a group to leave the county's health-care plan our stick with it.
In the case that the union decided to stick with the county's plan, the county offered new premium contributions "consistent with the settlement reached with other unions," the news release states.
The three-year contract the county proposed included base wage increases of 2% in 2020 plus an additional 55 cents per hour, Kazel said. The contract also included 2.25% increases in 2021 and 2022 as well as nearly a 4% increase in starting wage rates for new snow plow operators.
Revisions were made to wage schedules to allow employees to accelerate quicker through salary ranges.
The county has been preparing for a strike for several weeks in the case that Teamsters decide to do so. Supervisors as well as other licensed staff would plow roads under that plan.
"We know that road conditions in a snow event are a major concern for our citizens, and this is something we take very seriously," Gray said in the news release. "We will continue to put public safety as a first priority. It is disheartening to see Teamster leadership making references on social media as if this is some sort of a game. More significantly, it is disappointing that they would place county employees and union members on the picket line to bear the brunt of financial impact in lost time and wages."
Teamsters walked away from contract negations with the county in December and later voted 112-1 to authorize a strike at meeting in Virginia. Friday's mediation meeting was arranged by the state Bureau of Mediation Services on the heels of a 10-day cooling-off period required under state statute after the union filed its intent to strike on Jan. 1.
The National Weather Service in Duluth said there are a few chances for snow in the upcoming week across St. Louis County, including light snow on Tuesday as well as Wednesday into Thursday. There's a possibility for a larger system to take place during the weekend.