One minute into the new year, St. Louis County got a memo from its snowplow drivers. Their contract was officially up, and unless a few things changed in 2020, they would go on strike.
The drivers are represented by the Teamsters 320 union, as are many of the county’s mechanics, maintenance crews, sign technicians, and other workers. They’re about 180 members strong, and last month, they agreed to go on strike by a staggering 112-1 vote.
Duluth, St. Louis County's largest city, has already been inundated with snow several times at the top of the winter season, and there’s likely plenty more where that came from. In a statement issued Wednesday, the county promised it has contingency plans in place to make sure the roads get cleared, “using supervisors and other staff who are licensed and qualified to plow.”
The union's vote came after many hours of negotiation attempts. Teamsters 320 recording secretary Erik Skoog says their last mediation session with the county was 19 hours long and ended in an unsatisfactory offer.
“We feel it was a shell game how they were proposing it to us,” he says. “Like they were trying to put something past us because we were tired.”
After the vote, they bided their time until the holidays were over and their contract was up.
Their demands include getting the ability to shop for their own health insurance (Skoog says premiums have gone up 31 percent since 2017) and factor in seniority when bidding for different routes and job assignments. Another key element is parity. They want sick leave, vacation time, and wages on par with some of the other public sector jobs in the county.
“We’re not second-class citizens just because we’re blue-collar workers,” Skoog says.
The county statement says it’s “aware” of workers’ intent to strike, and that it “remains committed to the bargaining process.”
“The Teamsters left the mediation process more than two weeks ago without providing a counter offer for consideration and further discussion,” it says. “Our intent has been and will continue to be to negotiate in good faith with the Teamsters and all our bargaining units, some of which have already agreed to contract terms for 2020-22.”
Skoog says the union had already made concessions over the course of the bargaining process, and that they could only meet with the county so many times without getting anywhere. Skoog has been repping for the union for seven years, and says the Teamsters' relationship with the county this year has been a decided shift, one they don’t take “lightly.”
“This does truly impact the workers I represent,” he says. “It impacts their families, and it impacts the community.”
By law, the announcement comes with a 10-day “cooling-off period” before the strike can actually take place. That gives the workers and the county a chance to to come to a resolution before January 11.
So far, the union and the county have not been communicating, and Skoog says their threats are far from hollow. On Thursday morning, his office was busy making picket signs.
“Our hope and our intent is to reach an agreement,” he says. “But that’s up to the county.”