Business & Economy

Hundreds of Minneapolis park workers poised to strike for a week beginning July 4

People wear orange and hold signs
“I’m a certified arborist working for the best park system in the nation and I can’t afford a home. It’s sad,” arborist Scott Jaeger said. “It’s not a middle class job anymore.”
Cari Spencer | MPR News

Hundreds of Minneapolis park employees are set to strike over the Fourth of July — one of the busiest days for the city’s green spaces.

The union, which represents more than 300 workers who help keep the parks clean and safe, announced strike plans Tuesday. They say the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s latest contract proposal lacks sufficient wage raises and hazard protections — and includes new language that hampers transparency and bias safeguards.

“We’re not asking for special treatment, we’re just asking for fair treatment,” said LIUNA Local 363 business manager AJ Lange at a press conference Tuesday.

That announcement followed more than 15 hours of negotiating with the park board Monday and another seven months of failed negotiations prior. Lange said the union requested another bargaining date, but was met with a refusal. He said workers will strike for one week and are prepared to file another strike notice if the board doesn’t “come back to the table with a fair offer.”

The MPRB argues negotiations have been reasonable and in good faith — and that the final offer is “competitive, fair and equitable.” They are prepared to adjust maintenance service around a smaller staff.

The board also says employees who strike will not be able to return to their job until an agreement is ratified.

“We asked — and still ask — that they bring our last, best and final offer to their members for a vote,” said Robin Smothers, a spokesperson for the board, over email.

The union says they are prepared to file an unfair labor practice charge with the state, after receiving at least one legal opinion from Minneapolis-based law firm Cummins and Cummins that barring striking employees from returning to work constitutes an “illegal threat of a discriminatory lockout.”

Smothers said in a statement that the MPRB legal counsel’s position is that their approach is not an unfair labor practice and they plan to go forward with that plan.

Safety during encampment cleanups an issue

A week before the latest negotiations, the union rallied outside of Lyndale Farmstead Park. That’s where Minneapolis’s Parks superintendents have historically resided, starting with Theodore Wirth in 1910.

The current resident is Al Bangoura. While his superintendent’s salary has climbed alongside inflation, the union argues their positions have not matched pace, falling behind while the park’s reputation consistently soars high on national rankings.

The park board has proposed a 10.25 percent wage increase over three years, including a 2.75 percent increase the first year and a $1.00 market adjustment for 13 positions over the following two years.

Union leadership say they asked for a $5.00 market adjustment and the board’s proposed wage still means some positions would lag behind other cities.

The increase would bring the maximum pay for a “parkkeeper” from $30.99 to $35.52 an hour by 2026, which remains lower than parks maintenance employees at 19 competitive suburbs, according to a League of Minnesota Cities' 2023 local government salary survey.

“MPRB leadership believes it is vitally important that employee wages and benefits are fair and competitive throughout the organization,” according to a statement, which pointed to a policy of 37 paid days off per year for employees with up to four years of service.

Parkkeeper Lanel Lane provides for a family of four, including a teenaged son and 6-year-old daughter who grew up playing soccer on the park’s greenery. Despite being a dual-income household, Lane says his family doesn’t have enough money to cover the bills or keep up on car repairs.

“I don’t have no money in savings right now,” said the 40-year old. “I’m not living paycheck-to-paycheck, I’m living a check behind paycheck-to-paycheck. If the wages go up, I think we can stay afloat. That’s all we’re asking.”

Lane says he’s been with Minneapolis parks for more than a decade, arriving at 5 a.m. daily in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, during 2020 riots that followed the murder of George Floyd and regularly, when tasked to clean up homeless encampments.

It can be a grueling job, he said. He’s frequently cleaning up broken glass, needles and feces, ensuring the public spaces are safe to enjoy. On one of his most difficult days, Lane said he watched a woman die from an overdose. But like any other day on the job, he pushed on.

“Just to see the poverty was disheartening,” he said. “It touched me, man. I cried a few times just thinking about how people are living out here.”

One major issue the union has with the proposed contract is insufficient hazard protections. The board offered eligible employees safety glasses and a hazard pay hike from $0.75 to $1.50 per hour for workers while performing “encampment clean-ups” with “visible biohazardous material and sharps.”

People in orange hold signs
Members of LIUNA Local 363 rallied on June 25 ahead of final negotiations with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board over a new contract.
Cari Spencer | MPR News

The union claims the safety glasses provision was a previous “takeaway.” LIUNA Local 363 manager Lange said Tuesday he wanted retaliation protections for workers who raise safety concerns, as well as the ability for workers to request a risk assessment and halt work until that assessment has been completed.

The fear of risky situations is something parkkeeper Hunter Hoppe says he faces on the regular.

“There’s been homeless encampments we’ve had to take down that personally hurt my heart because you don’t know what they’re going through,” Hoppe said. “But even when you’re doing that you don’t know if someone living there is going to come up and potentially get mad at you guys even though we did give them a notice.”

‘Not a middle class job’

Arborist Scott Jaeger said he’s turning 40 soon and had hoped to buy a home by now. What was once feasible for the generation above him feels totally out of reach. He rents an apartment with his partner in Minneapolis where the average rent eats nearly 40 percent of his monthly income, he said.

“I’m a certified arborist working for the best park system in the nation and I can’t afford a home. It’s sad,” he said. “It’s not a middle class job anymore.”

Jaeger wanted to be a civil servant, but the career doesn’t seem sustainable now.

“We love being civil servants,” Jaeger said. “That’s why all of us got into this job. It’s just, eventually your love for helping the community will stop once you can’t afford to pay the bills or live in the city that you serve. So eventually, that’s going to stop.”