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St. Louis County has plan if snowplow drivers strike

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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: 8:43 p.m.

Union snowplow drivers in St. Louis County could go on strike as early as 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, as some snow is expected in the region.

Erik Skoog, recording secretary of Teamsters Local 320, would not disclose the union's strike plans on Monday to hold leverage over the county. But he said both parties are concerned about public safety.

"Our members would prefer to continue plowing and servicing the vehicles and making public works operate by keeping the bridges in check and all that, but unfortunately, you know, here we are. We are in a bad situation," Skoog said.

County officials said on Monday that they have a contingency plan to keep roads plowed, but they are hoping they don’t have to use it.

“We have supervisors from the Public Works Department, and staff in other departments who are all licensed and qualified to use snowplows,” said St. Louis County spokesperson Dana Kazel. “Public safety is our top priority and we will get the roads plowed — but it’s a smaller workforce so [residents] will have to be patient.”

Members of the union voted 117-8 on Saturday to reject the county's final contract offer, citing issues over healthcare and accrued sick leave. Starting Tuesday, the union has a 20-day window in which members can go on strike.

Teamsters local secretary-treasurer Brian Aldes said the union was continuing strategy discussions and is open to further talks with the county.

Aldes criticized the county’s backup plan, saying it was a “shame” and that the county wouldn't be able to keep up with the work.

“It’s a priority to make sure the community has safe roads and bridges to travel on,” he said. “For the county to be comfortable to just put out supervisors or foremen in those plow trucks, the county is doing a disservice to the public.”

Kazel said the county is concerned by the union's decision to take a risk with public safety as a bargaining tool.

St. Louis County’s Public Works Department plows more than 3,000 miles of roads, including county and state highways. The county encompasses about 7,000 square miles — the state’s largest county by land mass.

If the contingency plan is implemented, Kazel said, roadways will be prioritized based on traffic count. Because the county is so big, it’s rare for a snow event to impact the entire county, but county staff members are ready to travel to areas that need plowing.

There is some snow in the forecast. National Weather Service meteorologist Josh Sandstrom said the county could see “a pretty active pattern here for the next week or so” with three widespread systems moving through the county in the next week.

The areas surrounding Duluth, Ely and the Iron Range cities of Hibbing and Eveleth are expected to see 1 to 3 inches of accumulation starting Monday night and into Tuesday morning. Sandstrom said some areas in far northern St. Louis County could see up to 4 inches. A similar system is expected to move through the area on Wednesday, with a potentially larger system expected Friday and Saturday.

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this story.