Wright County: Human services workers closer to potential strike

by John Holler

SUN PRESS NEWSPAPERS

A week after rejecting the Wright County’s current union contract proposal by more than a 2-to-1 vote, county Human Services employees are one step closer to going on strike in an ongoing labor disagreement.

The human services union, AFSCME Local 2685, conducted a vote of its membership March 19-20 as to whether or not to accept the county’s proposal, which calls for no wage increases in 2012 and 2013 and a 1 percent increase in 2014. The vote resulted in 98 votes to reject the proposal and 43 to accept. Union President Grace Baltich said the county hasn’t changed its offer during the 15 months that the 185 human services have been without a contract, which the union believes has employees losing financial ground with increasing healthcare costs.

“We asked if the county would be willing to come back to the table,” Baltich said. “We haven’t seen any change in their offer. We are currently meeting as a negotiating team for our union membership. At this point, it looks like if there isn’t a change to the offer, we will file an intent to strike notice in the next few weeks.”

The county board has maintained its position that, during the difficult economic times over the past few years, the only way to prevent potential employee layoffs was to impose a hiring freeze, not filling non-essential position openings when vacancies opened up and to offer three-year union contracts that called for minimal pay raises.

Of the seven union bargaining units the represent county employees, five of them have accepted the county’s three-year contract offer. The only other union that has yet to sign off on a new contract represents the sheriff’s deputies. By statute, law enforcement officers can’t go on strike. The union and the county met in a binding arbitration hearing March 27 with a decision expected to be rendered over the next month or two.

Given the number of employees that have accepted the current contract offers, Commissioner Mark Daleiden said that the county would have a difficult time increasing its offer to the AFSCME union when other bargaining units have settled for the same contracts.

“It could potentially open up a can of worms of we give one union a better contract that everyone else has,” Daleiden said. “Five of them have approved the contract offer that was made. There are 185 employees in this union. If we increase the offer to those 185 employees, we will four or five times that many upset of the contract they signed. It’s a difficult position to be in.”

Part of the issue facing the human services union is that there is a contention that a job classification study, which resulted in some employees being moved to a higher step on the wage scale, was inclusive by the county and the job descriptions of the human services employees were flawed and didn’t always accurately reflect the scope of their job duties.

Baltich said that the initial vote to strike was hoped to get the county back to the bargaining table and the vote March 19-20 was the next step in that problem. The next step, barring an unforeseen change of heart on the part of the county is to file a notice with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services of an intent to strike, which would automatically trigger a 10-day “cooling off” period. If no progress is made, a strike date can be set, but Baltich said the union hopes to avoid that eventuality.

“There’s no reason why, as a union and the county board, we can’t sit down and meet,” Baltich said. “But, during this process, the county hasn’t moved off of its position and things have remained essentially the same since the last contract expired at the end of 2011.”

Baltich said that there are more than 10,000 union members who live in Wright County and they are being encouraged to send messages of support to the county board. As the union members believe, each employee has a unique responsibility in the functioning of county government and the employees in their union deal with those who need the services the county provides the most — children, the elderly and the financially disadvantaged. With their own health care costs continuing to climb each year, a zero wage increase results in being paid less now than they were two or three years ago.

“We just want a fair contract,” Baltich said. “We want to provide for the health and safety of our families just as we help provide for the health and safety of Wright County residents in need. As things currently stand, we’re being priced out of our own health coverage, which we think is unfair.”

Whether the impasse can be settled before a strike is called remains very much up in the air. Both sides are digging in their heels and both believe they are right. The union believes it deserves a better contract and the county is convinced that they need to get a contract done that is in line with the others that have been approved.

“I don’t think anyone disputes the value of the work they perform for the county,” Board Chairman Pat Sawatzke said. “But, the one thing we’re focused on is consistency. We’ve been able to get five of the unions to agree to similar contracts and we’re looking to maintain that level of consistency throughout. That has been the way we’ve approached union negotiations in the process and being consistent is important.”

With two sides convinced they’re both right, the chances of reaching an agreement aren’t looking promising as a potential strike seems more inevitable with each passing day.

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