DULUTH — Cory Garden, a senior operator with St. Louis County's Public Works Department, started picketing 10 minutes before 5 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, to kick off Teamsters Local 320's work stoppage. He’s hopeful that in the face of enough snow, the county will agree to another mediation.
"There's a big snowstorm this weekend and it depends on what we get,” Garden said from the Pike Lake Public Works Department. “When we get more than 6 inches it takes us two days to get caught up with a full crew."
Teamsters scheduled the strike in anticipation of a snowfall event, hoping to put pressure on the county to agree to additional contract mediation. Teamsters rejected the county’s “last best final offer” Saturday.
"They rejected that, so it's a stalemate and it's up to them to come back," county spokesperson Dana Kazel said. "We presented a generous offer."
The county is using Public Works supervisors and other staff licensed and qualified to plow in the absence of Teamsters. Thirty-five plows were out or headed out by midday Wednesday, Kazel said, as the snow fell.
“We’re as prepared as we can be,” Kazel said. “We’ve got the ability to add at least a few more if the storm is as bad this weekend as it’s forecast to be.”
The county has 108 plow routes across the 3,000 miles of roads and bridges within its jurisdiction. Under normal circumstances, if the entire county were blanketed in snow, all 108 routes could be staffed. That’s no longer the case.
During a snow event, most of the approximately 170 Teamster members striking would be out on roads removing snow, Teamsters Local 320 President Sami Gabriel said.
Teamsters were doubtful the county would be able to keep roads cleared using supervisors and other qualified staff, including heavy equipment mechanic Dan Wallgren.
“People’s roads will not be getting plowed,” Wallgren said. Still, he and others expressed that it’s not the their intent to inconvenience the public.
“We want to get out there and we want to keep the public safe,” Wallgren said. “We’re not out here to put anybody in peril by going on strike. We’re just fighting for our rights.”
Dan Foshay started working for the county as an equipment operator three months ago and said he hopes disagreement between the union and county resolves quickly so Teamsters can get back to keeping roads safe.
“We don't want to be striking, but there's a point where you get pushed over the edge and you got to stand up for what's right because they keep taking things away,” Foshay said.
Teamsters planned to continue picketing until 7 p.m. Wednesday and are stationed at most of the 15 Public Works locations around the county.
Nearly 40 people were picketing at the Pike Lake location Wednesday morning, and 12 of those people came up from the Twin Cities to show support for fellow Teamsters. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted in support of striking Teamsters Wednesday afternoon.
Snow plow drivers do important, difficult and dangerous work, leaving their families day and night in order to keep our roads safe. The members of @IBT_320 in Duluth are fighting for benefits they deserve, and I stand with them. https://t.co/922rkuFP9U— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 15, 2020
During the Dec. 1 storm that dumped nearly 2 feet of snow on the region, the county preached patience and asked people to stay off snowed-in roads to make it easier for plow operators to do their work.
It's now expected that rural side roads will take longer. The county is prioritizing emergency routes and main arteries.
Where mediation goes from here is anybody's guess, said Janet Johnson, commissioner of the Bureau of Mediation Services. It's up to the parties, she said, to move back to the table.
"If somebody wants to get back to the table, we will cancel everything and get back up there for them," Johnson said. "I don't want to see anybody on strike, or hurt, or stranded vehicles, or whatever."
When the sides split for good over the weekend, the chief negotiator for Teamsters 320, Erik Skoog, called the county's final offer "generous." It included higher starting wages for new plow operators and wage increases over three years through 2022 of 10.5% to 12.5% for all staff. The county offer also agreed to allow Teamsters 320 to find its own self-insured health plan in the event it doesn't accept the county's self-funded plan with Blue Cross Blue Shield. No other county bargaining unit would have that ability.
The sticking point it seems is the union’s insistence on 1,500 hours of sick leave payout upon retirement versus a county offer of 1,350. The current cap is 1,250. The county says it’s a costly measure and one that was already negotiated in 2012-13. It doesn’t want to go back on it and face the ire of its other unions that negotiated the same cap.
“It just makes you question,” Kazel said. “The Teamsters leadership seems to have brought their employees to the picket line over this issue of sick leave accrual. We have told them from the beginning this is not negotiable, that it was settled in a previous contract because of the high cost for our taxpayers. Yet here we are.”
According to the county, the estimated cost for Teamster members alone is $1.5 million, and to extend that increase to all employees, which would be a likely expectation, would create a potential $18.5 million taxpayer liability for future payout costs.
Cheryl Eidum, a senior equipment operator who's been with the county for almost 20 years, said she's striking to show support for newer Teamster members working in the Public Works Department.
"I want these younger people to get what they deserve — what we have," Eidum said. "We're in this together."
For delivery services, staying off any rural side roads filled with snow is a likely reality they'll confront.
In Fargo, Schwann's Company zone manager Marty Maxwell was considering what his Schwann's frozen food home delivery drivers might be facing.
"We'll definitely have to be on high alert and be very mindful of what the conditions are and react accordingly," said Maxwell, who oversees operations in Minnesota and both Dakotas for the nearly 70-year-old company.
Delivery drivers who encounter roads that are not plowed are able to make their own call, he said.
"We have a safety-above-all policy," Maxwell said. "If it's unsafe conditions, then the driver can make that decision not to travel."
The U.S.Postal Service also weighed in on the possibility of encountering snowed-in roads.
"Supervisors have advised carriers that if weather conditions are unsafe, they should curtail delivery and report back to the office," Kristy Anderson, regional spokesperson, said. "Our carriers make every attempt possible to safely deliver to every box/address that has mail every day. However, there are times when delivery is not possible."