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Strike looms as St. Louis County snowplow drivers reject final contract offer

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St. Louis County snowplow
A St. Louis County snowplow clears a road north of Duluth in March 2013.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News 2013

Updated: 9:15 p.m.

Snowplow drivers for St. Louis County have rejected a final contract offer, setting the stage for a strike as early as Tuesday morning.

County plow drivers represented by Teamsters Local 320 voted 117-8 on Saturday to reject the county's proposed contract, offered at the end of a marathon mediation session on Friday.

The drivers' previous contract expired at the end of 2019, and the union filed an intent to strike notice on New Year's Day. The earliest a strike could happen is 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

"We'll call the strike when we think the time's appropriate," Teamsters Local 320 Secretary-Treasurer Brian Aldes told MPR News on Saturday after the union vote in Eveleth. "Obviously we've been planning for weeks in preparation for this. And so we're going to be thoughtful, diligent... Our main priority, along with the union's negotiating committee, is that we're able to resolve our disputes, and avoid work stoppage (so) the members can continue to serve the public as they enjoy doing."

Aldes said a main sticking point is employees' maximum accrual for sick leave, along with shortcomings in health-care coverage.

The Teamsters represent more than 150 plow drivers, and Aldes said “the membership is standing strong. … They feel empowered and they feel good.”

County officials said the final contract offer includes wage increases, a higher starting wage, more flexibility in health insurance and increased accrual rates for vacation and sick leave.

The county said the Teamsters' proposal of an increased maximum sick leave accrual would have cost $1.5 million — and exponentially more if other bargaining units then requested the same increase.

County Administrator Kevin Gray called Saturday’s vote outcome “disappointing.”

“We put forward, as part of our last, best, final offer, a very solid proposal that I think merited support,” he told MPR News. “It's also consistent with what other bargaining units have already approved, and is mindful of the impact to our taxpayers as well. It was a good, solid proposal. …

“We've made our last, best, final offer. The proverbial ball is in their court. I'm hopeful that Teamster leadership won't subject these hardworking employees to be on the picket line instead of in the trucks.”

St. Louis County is responsible for maintaining more than 3,000 miles of roads — and on top of that also plows some town roads, private roads and driveways.

Snow is in the forecast for the coming week. If there is a strike, county officials have said supervisors and other licensed staff will fill in to keep roads plowed.

"We have been working on contingency plans for weeks,” Gray said. “We will continue to put public safety as a first priority. We'll continue to plow county roads and deliver that service. We've got a priority road plan so that we can meet the highest-traffic routes first."