Union members authorize strike at St. Paul Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Regional Water Services – Twin Cities

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Frontline workers from three St. Paul departments — Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and St. Paul Regional Water Services — have voted to authorize a strike, the latest salvo in city contract negotiations that have stalled over wage increases.

The vote, taken Wednedsay night, does not mean a strike is imminent. It triggers a notice to the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services, followed by a 10-day “cooling-off” period and a mandatory meeting between contract negotiators, which is scheduled Friday. The soonest workers could legally walk off the job is March 20.

The strike authorization vote, held at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 union hall in St. Anthony, drew more than 100 members of the St. Paul Tri-Council, which represents workers from IUOE Local 49, Teamsters 120 and Laborers International Union of North America 363.

“Over 50% of the bargaining unit showed up and 100% of them voted to authorize a strike,” said AJ Lange, business manager with LIUNA 363, shortly following the decision of membership.

Lange declined to discuss details of the stalled contract negotiations, other than to say the city has made a wage offer that fails to cover inflation, and that offer is contingent on “significant take-backs” from civil service rules. Negotiations over a one- to three-year contract opened in September and have dragged on through at least six bargaining sessions.

Staffing and public safety have also come up as sticking points, he said. The Tri-Council is seeking a new policy on workplace violence prevention.

The city of St. Paul publishes labor contracts online at tinyurl.com/STPContracts2023.

‘The lowest increases of any group we represent’

The unions represent street paving and plow drivers, sewer workers, parks and forestry staff, and water utility employees handling a major lead-pipe replacement effort, among other essential workers who continued to perform frontline, in-person labor as city office staff worked remotely throughout the pandemic, Lange said.

In a written statement, Local 49 Business Manager Jason George called frontline employees of St. Paul Public Works, Parks and Rec and Regional Water Services among the lowest paid in their fields in the metro area. He noted Local 49 represents workers in similar positions at hundreds of cities and counties around the state.

“The most recent St. Paul contract, which is now expired, provided the lowest increases of any group we represent, yet St. Paul workers had to threaten a strike last time to get that meager offer,” said George, who called upon St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter to do more for the city’s working class employees.

As of their last pay increase in July, a newly-hired St. Paul bridge maintenance worker or sewer services worker would earn $29.97 per hour to start, while a crew leader with 20 years experience would earn just over $33. An entry-level parks worker would earn $15.53 to start, while an experienced supervisor might earn $29.68. A gardener’s hourly wage could range from $27.56 to about $32.

A heavy equipment operator would earn between $34.35 and $36.12 depending upon the job classification and years of experience.

“The extreme weather we’ve experienced these past several weeks has strongly underscored the value our public workers provide to our community,” said Carter, in a written statement issued Thursday afternoon. “We will continue to negotiate with urgency, and good faith in our ability to reach a positive resolution together.”

Inflation woes

For St. Paul’s Tri-Council members, there’s no recent precedent of a strike, though contract talks reached an impasse toward the outset of the pandemic.

The Tri-Council, which represents roughly 280 city employees, authorized a strike in October 2021, during the last two-year contract negotiations, at a time when breakdowns in municipal labor talks over pandemic-era wage increases had become increasingly common in light of inflation and concerns over frontline hazards.

The Tri-Council then reached a settlement with the city in November 2021, following nearly 11 months of contract discussions and multiple marathon mediation sessions. The collective bargaining agreement, retroactive to the beginning of 2021, offered a 1% wage increase as of Jan. 1, 2021, followed by a 2% increase effective Jan. 1, 2022 and a .5% increase as of July 1, 2022.

The national inflation rate for the 12 months ending in January was 6.4%.

The unions have been working without a new contract since the end of December. If negotiations break down or a final contract offer is rejected, members could strike as early as March 20, said Jonathan Young, communications director with IUOE Local 49, in an email.

St. Paul officials are also scheduled to enter contract mediation with St. Paul Firefighters IAFF Local 21, which represents some 450 city firefighters. The firefighters are not legally allowed to walk off the job. “We would strike if we could,” said Local 21 President Michael Smith, on social media Thursday.

In late February, Teamsters drivers at Eureka Recycling voted to endorse a strike authorization. The drivers collect recyclables in St. Paul, Roseville, Lauderdale and Shoreview. As of Tuesday, food service workers in the Hastings Public Schools have been on strike for a month.

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