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Teamsters will vote on county's 'last offer' tonight in Virginia

St. Louis County and Teamsters officials spent 10 hours in mediated contract negotiations Monday and developed an offer that will be presented to union members to vote on tonight.

County plow
(File / News Tribune)

St. Louis County and Teamsters officials spent 10 hours in mediated contract negotiations Monday and developed an offer that will be presented to union members to vote on tonight.

About 170 members of Teamsters Local 320 who work in the county's public department have been without a current contract since Dec. 31, 2009. The workers maintain and drive county snowplows and graders during winter months.

"We spent 10 hours in mediation. After these lengthy and thorough discussions, the county has made our last best offer and asked the union to present it to members," Kevin Gray, county administrator, said. "We are hopeful and anticipate that they will be voting on the offer" today.

Sam Haddad of Duluth, an official with the local union, said all members have been called to Virginia to hear the details and vote tonight. He declined to offer details on what key sticking points were, although other officials say it appears to center around county proposals to change when some overtime can be taken.

Gray said that if Teamsters vote down the contract and strike "we have plans in place to address road maintenance activities, including snow removal, and remain committed to public safety as our top priority." About 30 supervisors are ready to fill in for the 110 plow drivers, he said.

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Talks with the county through 2010 produced little movement, and the state Bureau of Mediation Services was called in to help. When mediation failed to reach a resolution in late December, union members voted Jan. 6 in Virginia to authorize a strike, which could happen anytime starting Wednesday. By law, the union now has 20 days to decide to strike or not.

All plow operators reported for duty when called Monday morning, Gray said. That didn't happen Saturday, when roughly three quarters of the 18 drivers in the county's Virginia district did not show up when called, in what was apparently an unauthorized action by rank-and-file members.

Union officials say the county has asked for too much from the union and described county officials last week as "kicking us when we are down."

"We have the legal right to strike on Wednesday ... at 12:01 a.m.," Sue Mauren, principal officer of the union local, wrote in her blog on Monday. "Of course, our goal is to negotiate a contract that we can recommend to the members. But if the County insists on concessions, that will be hard to do."

Both sides had hoped to agree on a two-year contract covering 2010 and 2011. Currently, new plow drivers start at about $33,000 annually with pay up to $50,000, including overtime and premium pay.

St. Louis County is responsible for plowing hundreds of miles of county roads, some township roads, and private roads and driveways, although those get least priority. The strike would not affect Minnesota Department of Transportation or City of Duluth plow crews.

Four other county unions also are without a current contract.

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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