Mayor, union to talk or tangle?

When Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson's administration and the city's largest union finally sit down at the negotiating table next week after six months without a meeting, the resulting conversations are shaping up to be either heated or icy.

When Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson's administration and the city's largest union finally sit down at the negotiating table next week after six months without a meeting, the resulting conversations are shaping up to be either heated or icy.

The latest dustup started Wednesday during a fiery news conference by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. There, union representatives accused Bergson of hiring unskilled laborers who will care for the city's golf courses in the summer and city gas lines in the winter.

"This dangerous plan of Bergson's could result in explosions in homes, and burns," utility worker Mary Guist said at the Public Works and Utilities Office, while flanked by 30 other union members.

"That kind of comment should be beneath AFSCME; it's not the truth," Bergson said a half-hour later at his own news conference in City Hall, referring to the union's comment about explosions. "Facts get in the way with these people, and I'm getting tired of it."

Bergson said he was not optimistic that the two sides are on the same page, especially in regard to retiree health care and pay. He also said Wednesday's exchanges made him even more discouraged about negotiations.


He angrily denied an AFSCME news release that said: "If you smell gas in your home, who do you want to fix the leak -- a trained utility service worker or a golf course helper?"

Bergson called the claim "fear-mongering" and handed out task descriptions of the new maintenance worker helper position.

"It's unfortunate that the mayor chooses to respond this way," said AFSCME Local 66 Representative Ken Loeffler-Kemp. "We are presenting what we believe to be legitimate public and employee health and safety concerns. ... This type of response instills no confidence within our membership that administration is going to properly address these issues and concerns.''

Bergson pointed out that nowhere in the list of 19 job descriptions does it say the helpers will work directly on active gas lines. Instead, they will fill potholes, clean gutters, shovel sidewalks, paint and cut grass. According to the description, the closest a helper would get to gas utilities is to "assist others in semi-skilled water and gas customer-service tasks."

Bob Troolin, city safety officer and director of park and street maintenance, said no untrained worker would ever be allowed to handle a gas leak. Those jobs take years of state or federally mandated training requirements, he said.

However, Loeffler-Kemp said the list of tasks includes installing gas, water and sewer pipes and participating in water main repairs.

The job will be advertised beginning Sunday, interim city Human Resources Director John Grandson said. He said the numbers haven't been run to determine how many of the positions will be filled.

Loeffler-Kemp said he believes the city intends to hire more than 20 people. The position will pay about $12 an hour, or up to $19 an hour with health care and other benefits.


Bergson's staff members have argued that they need this position to maintain the city's appearance. They also have repeatedly heard from the community that an entry-level position --- with room for advancement and training -- is needed to get the disadvantaged and minorities into good city jobs.

Bergson said the job descriptions were actually created by the Civil Service Board and approved by the City Council, not his office. However, he did say that his office came up with the recommendations that were ultimately approved.

Loeffler-Kemp said the union initially agreed to the position and believes in its merits. But they fought to keep the utility work out of the job description. At one point, he said, the union had an agreement with Grandson, the city's interim human resources director, to remove those provisions.

But Bergson said he was well within his rights not to sign off on those changes.

Loeffler-Kemp said he is looking forward to the state-mediated negotiations. The union has made some significant concessions to help address the city's $309 million retiree health-care liability, he said. About 120 of 500 city AFSCME members work in the city public works and utilities department.

"We are prepared to reach an agreement," Loeffler-Kemp said. He denied rumors that the union is waiting for a new mayor to take office in January.

He also said he wants to sit down with Bergson's administration and have mature discussions about what exactly the helper job will entail and how health and safety concerns can be addressed.

Loeffler-Kemp said he then hopes to bring the resolution approving the job back to the City Council.


But it appears unlikely that the Duluth City Council would revisit the issue for a third time. The measure first failed to pass on a split vote a month ago. Then it passed, 6-3, when it was reintroduced about two weeks ago.

CHRIS HAMILTON covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5502 or by e-mail at .

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