For more than two decades, officers at the Owatonna Police Department have worked through contract negotiations, internal disputes and civil issues with the help of the Teamsters Union.
But in September, the department's nine sergeants and corporals voted to leave the Teamsters and join the burgeoning Minnesota Public Employee Association.
"We thought, 'Let's try something different, something new,' " said Sgt. Deanne von Wald, a 25-year veteran of the department. "And it sounds like a better deal for our money."
The Minnesota Public Employees Association, founded this summer, has steadily been wrestling away the right to represent Minnesota police officers. In the last few months, the new union has won the right to represent hundreds of police and sheriff officers in cities and counties around the state. Those gains come at the expense of the Teamsters, which has been organizing workers in Minnesota since the early 1900s.
Already, the new union has won the right to represent hundreds of civilian law enforcement employees in Hennepin, Washington, Rice, Blue Earth, Carver and Freeborn counties. It also represents one University of Minnesota Police unit, as well as units in the Owatonna and Albert Lea police departments. Some bargaining units, however, chose to stay with the Teamsters. In Owatonna, for example, patrol officers did not switch unions.
Officials with the new public employees' union declined to comment for this story, saying they preferred to keep a low profile as they continue to increase their membership.
But von Wald said the new association has flourished in response to members' frustration with large national and international unions, like the Teamsters. One of the biggest complaints boils down to dollars and cents.
"You look at the amount of union dues you pay, you know, which is twice your hourly wage," she said. "And you look at it and go, 'OK, so they come and do contract negotiations once a year and that's it? And you pay hundred of dollars a year from this service and you get nothing?' "
The new association's monthly dues of $39 are nearly half what the $70 a month von Wald paid to a part of the Teamster Union.
While the Teamsters have a more powerful lobbying operation, she said, the smaller association is more responsive and accountable to her department's needs.
"[With the] Teamsters, you call your business agent, it could be a couple days, three days, five days, before you hear anything back from them," von Wald said. "Thus far with this group, I sent off an email or a phone call, and usually that day or the very next day... they get back to me."
Although the new union is growing, it still represents just a tiny fraction of the 60,000 public employees in Minnesota's Teamsters Union, said Susan Mauren, principle officer of Teamsters Local 320 in Minneapolis.
"We're a large union; we're a powerful union," Mauren said. "We have a presence at the Capitol. We have a presence nationally and a proven track record, so what I am concerned about are the members and whether their needs are being met."
Mauren acknowledges the cost difference between the two unions. But she defends the services of Teamsters Union, which include a food shelf, credit union and counseling service and job bank. She said larger unions will always have more bargaining leverage.
"So there's a variety of things that you get with your Teamster dues that I think is unique and that we're proud of," she said. "I really think that paying union dues is like having insurance on your job — and we want to give our member the best insurance, not the cheapest insurance."
But in tough financial times, public employees like von Wald of Owatonna are more interested in finding a good deal.
"It's just like anything else. When you can get it at a cheaper rate and get the same benefit and whatever, who doesn't take the same service at a lower discount? I mean, people do it with cable, people do it with their phone bills," von Wald said. "Everybody's always searching for getting the same stuff for the least amount of money."
Saving money is a big deal for von Wald, so she's willing to give the new union a shot for at least a couple years. If it doesn't work out, she said, her department will always have the option to vote to return to the Teamsters.