County workers strike looming
Final talks set for Friday
Marshall Helmberger

REGIONAL - Nearly two-thirds of St. Louis County’s workforce could go on strike as early as Aug. 30 unless county officials and representatives of the AFSCME union can reach a settlement in state-mediated talks. A possible final mediation session is set for Friday, Aug. 16 in St. Paul.

So far, months of state-sponsored mediation has failed to bridge the gap between the two sides. AFSCME members recently overwhelming rejected the county’s “last and best offer,” setting the stage for a possible work stoppage. Union officials held a meeting to discuss strike details earlier this week, in Ely.

“We haven’t been able to reach agreement on a number of issues,” said union spokesperson Steve Kniefel, who declined to discuss sticking points in detail. “We’d rather not negotiate in the press,” he said. The workers’ union contract expired at the end of 2011, and Kniefel said members can’t agree to the concessions sought by county negotiators as part of a new contract.

Kniefel said a strike is possible, but he remains hopeful that an agreement can be achieved. “Our hope is that we can get this resolved. Nobody wants a strike,” he said.

St. Louis County spokesperson Dana Kazel echoed that sentiment. “We’re hopeful a settlement can be reached.”

Should Friday’s talks fail, the mediator could declare an impasse. The union would then have a ten-day cooling off period before a strike could begin. So far, the union has not filed an intent to strike notice with the county.

The impact of the strike, if it occurs, could affect a wide range of county activities and services. The AFSCME local represents roughly 1,000 county workers (out of a total workforce of 1,652), including support personnel in almost every county department. That includes county engineers, highway inspectors, environmental services workers, foresters, social workers and financial aid personnel, as well as public health workers. “We’re basically the largest bargaining unit in the county,” said Kniefel. “We have people in every department.”

A strike could shut down most, if not all, county construction projects, timber sales, health and mine inspections, payment processing, home health services, the courts, and most social services. County solid waste workers would also be affected, which could leave county landfills and canister sites closed.

Kazel said it’s premature to comment on the possible implications of a strike, but county officials did discuss the issue during meetings this week. Kazel said the county would continue priority services in the event of a strike.

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