By ADAM RITSCHER
For months, St. Louis County in northern Minnesota had been locked in bitter contract negotiations with Teamsters Local 320. The Teamsters represent the 168 snow-plow drivers and other maintenance workers in the county’s Public Works Department.
The dispute centered on a two-tier sick-leave accrual system that the county had forced on the Teamsters and other county workers several years back. Under this two-tier system, workers hired after 2013 couldn’t accumulate as many sick hours as more senior workers could.
This is particularly important, given that snow-plow drivers seldom call in sick, and often are able to accumulate a substantial number of sick hours that they then cash out when they retire. It ends up being a very useful retirement bonus, essentially.
In the aftermath of the introduction of the unpopular two-tier system, two other unions that represent county workers had successfully negotiated it away. So in this round of contract negotiations, the Teamsters were looking to follow suit. But the county refused to budge; instead, they practically dared the workers to strike over the issue. So they did!
On Wednesday, Jan. 15, the snow-plow drivers went out on strike. Despite the bitterly cold temperatures and wind, they set up pickets at every single one of the Public Works Department sites in the County. The union also put together roving pickets to follow vehicles that the county tried to deploy. This was no small feat, given that St. Louis County is bigger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, and county garages are spread out throughout the whole county.
For the county government’s part, they engaged in an ugly smear campaign in the media against the workers, and deployed supervisors and other non-contract workers to operate the plow trucks.
The first couple of days saw temperatures drop even further. Some days, the wind temperatures were -20 degrees. No matter how cold it got, though, the workers kept every picket going from sun up to sun down. It’s worth noting that several presidential candidates announced their support for the strike, trying to score cheap political points, but not one of them braved the bitter cold temperatures to walk the picket line.
The weather switched teams, though, when four days into the strike a big storm hit the region, dumping several inches of snow. The county’s scab crews were unable to even come close to getting all of the work done. They claimed they were able to plow 70% of the roads that the union snow-plow drivers usually plow, but counted in that number were many roads that were only plowed once during the storm, or only had one lane plowed.
Numerous roads simply became impassable. And the inexperienced supervisors ended up demolishing numerous mailboxes, signs, and other things while trying to plow.
By the end of the weekend, the county agreed to go back to the table, and at 3:45 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 20, the Teamsters announced they had reached an agreement. The agreement saw an end to the two-tier sick leave concession, and contained considerable gains in the health benefits for the workers. In other words, it was a victory, and it was subsequently unanimously ratified by the membership.
We salute the hard-working sisters, brothers, and siblings of Teamsters Local 320. They stood up for what was right and won, and in doing so they demonstrated that strikes are still one of the most powerful and effective tools in the workers’ toolbox.
Photo: Socialist Resurgence