A potential strike by the Duluth's largest union is now on hold thanks to a tentative contract settlement between the city and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Negotiators say the economy makes contract talks even more difficult.
A tentative contract agreement was hammered out by negotiators in a marathon 19-hour session with mediators in St. Paul. They reached a deal around 4:30 a.m. Thursday.
Contract details won't be made public until rank and file members see them, probably next week. AFSCME's negotiating team is recommending approval by the 461 members of Duluth Local 66.
A strike could have crippled Duluth snowplowing, clerical work, natural gas and water operations. Libraries would have closed.
Union Spokeswoman Jennifer Munt describes the bargaining as "tough," even though AFSCME was willing to accept a wage freeze.
"For us it really wasn't an issue of money. It was an issue of dignity, and respect, and fair treatment in the City of Duluth," Munt said.
Munt had said going into this week's mediation that issues included furlough days forced on the union; as well as measures the union thought would erode job security. And while pay wasn't a direct factor, a tough economy was.
"It was difficult bargaining, and frankly it's difficult to bargain anywhere right now, given the kind budget cuts and the recession that Minnesota is in. But one thing we know, is that layoffs are bad for business. If workers in Duluth aren't earning money, they can't spend money in the businesses there," Munt said.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness says the tentative settlement is a relief, and it's nice to set aside strike planning and get back to work on the city's business. And while a wage freeze was not in dispute, he says it was still a difficult time to plan for a strike.
"Well, certainly the City of Duluth like so many other cities across the State of Minnesota is facing massive cuts in Local Government Aid, and seeing our own effects on locally generated revenues as well. And so we are struggling to maintain services at a time of drastically reduced revenues," Ness said.
Duluth is the most recent high profile labor conflict settled in recent days; including labor disputes involving more than 11-thousand Twin Cities grocery store workers; and 4-thousand members of a Minneapolis-St Paul janitors union. None resulted in a strike.
John Budd, with the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, says strikes are always rare, but even more so when the economy is in the dumps.
"Employees are obviously nervous about losing their jobs, and most people know somebody or know of somebody who has lost their job, so they don't want to push too hard and risk losing their job or risk losing their health insurance or other types of things like that," Budd said.
But he says a bad economy also works to the disadvantage of employers.
"The weak economy really puts pressure not only on employees but also on employers, and I think that's really helping both of them have the incentive to settle," Budd said.
Budd said strikes may become more likely as the economy improves.
"The job market will eventually recover, and business will eventually recover. Workers will look to try to win back some of the gains that they've been sacrificing or foregoing. And so it will be interesting to see how severely labor-management conflict picks up in the next couple of years," Budd said.
Duluth Local 66 members will vote on their pact after they see the details. If approved, four of Duluth's five bargaining units will have current contracts with the city, with the city's firefighters working under an expired contract.