by John Holler
SUN PRESS NEWSPAPERS
It’s been 20 years since a union representing employees of Wright County has gone out on strike, but on Feb. 20, AFSCME Local 2685 (which represents the employees in the Human Services Department) unanimously approved an intent to strike notice.
Grace Baltich, union president for Local 2685, said that the union membership hasn’t been allowed to be actively involved in the negotiating process on a new contract, which expired 14 months ago.
“We’ve been working without a contact since Jan. 1, 2012,” Baltich said. “We’ve been in negotiations for more than 16 months and no progress has been made. As human services workers, we provide a valuable service to the resident of Wright County who need assistance the most. These are the most vulnerable people in the county — from children to the elderly — and we want to make sure they can get the vital services they need. We don’t believe that, given the job that we do for residents of Wright County, that the offer that has been on the table for the last 16 months is fair.”
Wright County has seven union bargaining units in which they negotiate contracts with. Four of those units have agreed to contracts — each of them calling for zero wage increases for 2012 and 2013 and a 1 percent increase in 2014. The local Teamsters union is currently in the process of voting whether or not to approve its contract offer and the union representing deputies in the sheriff’s department is currently in the process of seeking binding arbitration because, as public safety employees, they are not allowed to strike.
The last time the county had a strike of employees was when the 49ers union, which represents employees in the highway, parks and surveyor’s departments, went out on strike for several weeks in 1993. At times contentious, there were incidents during the strike in which tires on vehicles were slashed and there were sporadic clashes, since the gas pumps that the county used for its vehicles were on site at highway department shops and required non-striking employees to cross the picket line to fill up their vehicles.
County Coordinator Dick Norman, who oversees union negotiations for the county, declined comment on the county’s negotiation process, other than to say, “We don’t discuss negotiation strategies the county is involved in. Over the last year we have brought forward union agreements to the county board and those have been consistent.”
The AFSCME position has been that increases in health insurances costs and an improving economy have made it difficult to accept a zero increase in wages. The union’s proposal has been to ask for a 1 percent increase in wages in 2013 and a 2 percent increase in 2014.
“We just don’t see a zero-increase as being fair,” Baltich said. “We’re getting priced out of our own insurance. We’re responsible for the health and well-being of those people in most need of help, yet we’re finding it almost impossible to afford family health insurance in our own jobs. All we are looking for is something that is fair to our employees. There hasn’t been any inclusivity in the negotiation process and we feel like we’ve just been told ‘this is the offer — take it or leave it.’ That doesn’t seem like a good way to negotiate.”
However, Commissioner Pat Sawatzke, who has served on the county’s negotiation committee for the last 10 years, said the AFSCME proposal is a hard sell given the precedent that has been set by other union agreements made over the last year with four of the county’s seven bargaining units.
“For those unions that have settled, the agreements have all included a zero increase in 2012 and 2013 and 1 percent in 2014,” Sawatzke said. “Once we’ve established a certain policy for union contracts, we don’t want to waver from that position. A pattern has been established with those contracts that we’ve reached agreements on and that’s where we’re coming from with this negotiation.”
The AFSCME employees have shown symbolic unity in their quest to get a better contract, including having employees attend county board meetings in groups during their morning break periods on Tuesdays, often dressing in the same color and starting a letter-writing campaign with local newspapers to get their position out to the public. A negotiation committee meeting was scheduled for Monday, Feb. 25 — at which point the union is expected to put the county on notice of its intent to strike. It is anticipated that, once the intent to strike notice is officially presented to the county, a final best offer will be proposed by the county and put to a vote. If voted down, the process to go on strike will gain momentum.
“A lot is going to be determined at that meeting,” Baltich said. “We don’t want to go on strike because we know the people that would be impacted the most by the strike are the people we deal with on a daily basis – the people who need our help the most. But, we don’t believe the county’s position is justified and we see this as a fairness issue. We’ve all struggled with the economic situation over the last few years, but believe it is time for employees to have a contract that is fair to both sides. The current proposal doesn’t meet that standard.”
Contact John Holler at email@example.com