Understanding the sticking point between St. Louis County, striking plow drivers
Sides say they're at loggerheads over what amounts to a few months' pay at the time of retirement, but it seems like more than that.
Day two of who knows how many to come in the St. Louis County snowplow operators strike came and went Thursday with continued picketing in Pike Lake and other Public Works locations throughout the county.
The fault line in the strike is a chasm related to sick-leave accrual.
The county says it is unyielding on the topic and was up-front about it from the beginning. The striking Teamsters see two other unions with a higher cap figure and want in on that number for their newest members.
Union members who came before a 2012-13 contract renegotiation can retire with up to 1,900 hours of accrued sick leave — 11 months of pay for which they can be reimbursed. Workers who came after are capped at 1,150, slightly more than six months' pay. The striking Teamsters 320 members are asking for a 1,500-hour cap for their newer employees, about nine months' pay.
“We want parity with some of the other contracts in the county,” Teamsters Local 320 President Sami Gabriel told the News Tribune.
Dan Foshay, an equipment operator with three months on the job, summarized the plight for the 168 members of Teamsters 320 while picketing Wednesday.
“I’m new, but starting as a new employee I immediately realized that I’m not equal to the workers that I’m working with side-by-side,” he said. “We’re divided because of our benefits."
From St. Louis County’s perspective, it’s a playing field that wasn’t intended to be level. The county negotiated out of the higher sick-leave accrual with nine of their 11 bargaining units for a reason, it said. The two bargaining units that held strong to a 1,500-hour cap did so by making concessions in other areas in 2012-13, the county said.
“They had existing employees make sacrifices to give everybody the right to 1,500 hours,” county spokesperson Dana Kazel said.
The estimated cost to return a 1,500-hour sick-leave cap to Teamsters would be $1.5 million, the county said. Doing so would disrupt relations with all bargaining units and potentially reopen what it thought had been a settled issue, the county argues.
To go back and raise the cap across the board for all bargaining units would cost $18.5 million — a figure the county believed it had mitigated years ago.
“We can’t afford that,” Kazel said. “We recognized this back when we negotiated in 2012-13. We made concessions in other areas back then to get this settled. We could not have that outstanding liability.”
Prior to the strike, the union dismissed the settled record as having taken place under old leadership. They looked at the two remaining bargaining units that have a 1,500-hour cap and adjusted their bargaining strategy accordingly.
“My whole takeaway is they’re lowering us 150 or 200 hours of sick leave and it just seems like they’re trying to knock it down and down every year,” said Tom Ostman, senior equipment operator. “They keep taking things away from us, and pretty soon it’s going to be gone.”
The more one hears striking Teamsters tell it, the issues at stake don't seem restricted to sick-leave accrual. They also talk about the entire package — and the weight of escalating costs compared to wages.
“(We’re) getting hammered on all the costs,” Dan Wallgren, heavy-equipment mechanic, said.
St. Louis County has over 300 different job classifications. The starting pay range for equipment operators is $21.08-$24.32, and for a heavy-equipment mechanic, a position also involved in the strike, it’s $21.86-$25.24. According to data from St. Louis County, a veteran senior operator with 24 years of experience can make as much as $61,000 annually as a base wage.
The county’s self-described “last best final offer” included a 4% starting wage increase for junior operators to $18.72. Junior operators work a one-year probationary period prior to joining the senior operators' wage scale, and the Teamsters had said during mediation they wanted better starting wages for recruitment purposes.
The county’s final offer also includes wage escalators for senior staffers between 10.5-12.5% across the three-year life of the offer.
Additionally, the county’s offer ceded ground on health care, allowing Teamsters 320 to find its own self-funded health care plan in the event it can find a cheaper avenue than the county’s self-funded plan with Blue Cross Blue Shield. No other union would have that ability.
“The wage increases are low, (and) what you're paying out of your check keeps going up and up and up,” Wallgren said. “In three years they've raised our out-of-pocket insurance cost by 38%. (So) this is not only for the younger people. This is also for the people who have been here way before 2013.”
Wallgren is correct that health insurance costs have escalated for all county workers. According to figures shared by the county, it’s been a five-year period, since 2016, that rates have gone up — rising 3.75% in 2016, 12.5% in 2017, 8% in 2018, 6.5% in 2019, and 6.5% in 2020.
Jim Johnson is a longtime heavy-equipment operator who started in the early 1990s. He said he’s seen concessions made on both sides across the years. For the Teamsters, maybe too many.
“(I)t's gotten to the point where it seems like with every contract we have,” he said, “(it) has been chop, chop, chop on benefits — and wages have nowhere near followed.”
News Tribune reporter Andee Erickson and photographer Clint Austin contributed to this story.