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Our view: 'It' is close enough for city and union to strike a deal

To hear Mayor Herb Bergson say it, the discussions with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on economic issues in the proposed contract are very close.

To hear Mayor Herb Bergson say it, the discussions with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on economic issues in the proposed contract are very close.

To hear Jennifer Lovaasen of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees say it, the discussions with the city of Duluth on economic issues in the proposed contract are very close.

In fact, she said, "We've agreed on the economics" -- the part of the contract dealing with wages and annual increases.

So what's the hangup?

Neither side is saying exactly, citing confidentiality in the mediation sessions that Bergson, reversing a previous position, says he wishes were open to the public. But in conference-room crowding meetings with the News Tribune editorial board and more personal discussions, each side pointed to the intransigence of the other.

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"We've offered the same wages they asked for but the holdup is they're asking for something else that the taxpayers can't afford," Bergson said. "I wish I could go into detail on what it is."

Lovaasen was slightly more specific about it -- assuming both sides were talking about the same "it."

"It's layoff protections, seniority, overtime, health and safety provisions. It's the core of what a union is," she said. "The mayor is continuing to gut our contract of union protections. It doesn't cost taxpayers a cent."

If that isn't the "it" that's causing the logjam, the other likely culprit is the negotiations over retiree health-care benefits. It's the root of Duluth's biggest financial problem and the reason that the contract with AFSCME, the city's largest union, is so significant.

Complicating matters is the upcoming mayoral election in which, along with Bergson, City Councilors Greg Gilbert and Don Ness are on the ballot. City Council approval is needed for the AFSCME contract, which gives ample opportunity for any number of parties to throw a monkey wrench into the process. Let's hope none of them will.

Surprisingly, though neither the city nor the union seemed to want to acknowledge it, both sides appear close on health care, too.

"We agreed to move everyone onto one health-care plan," Lovaasen said. "We've also agreed to defined health-care benefits for new hires. They will not have retiree health care."

The defined benefits, she said, would consist of a one- or two-time payment to employees in lieu of the city paying for their health-care costs between retirement and eligibility for Medicare. "We haven't agreed on an amount, but we would agree to what the firefighters got. They do a $6,000 lump sum for new hires after three years of service and $6,000 that goes to current employees as they go out the door."

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Bergson seemed to be using the same math, writing in an e-mail to the editorial page staff: "The defined contribution for other unions amounts to about $12,000 in a health-care savings plan... and they can add to it over the years. The other four unions believe it's fair, but AFSCME wants us to 'buy it from them.'" That would result in a "whole package" of benefits that would cost "taxpayers in other ways," he wrote.

And that brings us back to the mysterious "it" and, to paraphrase a former president, what the definition of "it" is. If it means the union protections Lovaasen cited, a seemingly obvious solution would be to borrow language from the city's approved contracts with firefighters or the supervisors union, just as negotiators did with the details for the defined benefits plan.

But if it means something else...

Well, it had better be good. Otherwise, please -- just solve it.

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