Twin Cities

No clear path forward as Minneapolis park workers remain on strike

Workers hold signs
Members of LIUNA Local 363 hold signs during a picket on Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge near the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on Monday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board commissioners don’t usually get involved in union contract negotiations until they’re handed the final agreement — but never before have failed negotiations led to a strike. 

In response to park workers hitting the picket line on the Fourth of July, park commissioners held a special meeting Monday to discuss negotiations. Central to the conversation: how proposed wage increases would affect property tax levy increases, and controversial language in the park board’s “last, best and final” offer to LIUNA Local 363 leaders. 

No clear path forward was reached. The weeklong strike is set to end Thursday — though union officials said workers could extend their strike if necessary.

A crowd of more than 100 union members packed the room for Monday’s meeting in orange T-shirts. While they were not granted time to speak, the tension of the long-running labor dispute was clear in occasional quips, pushing back against statements from the board. 

That included when Superintendent Al Bangoura said striking employees would be welcomed back to work Thursday. Bangoura said preventing those who want to return from working is “not the MPRB value set,” a statement met with bitter laughter and a jeer of “it’s not values, it’s the law.” 

Earlier in the day, the union had filed an unfair labor practice charge, accusing the Board of threatening striking workers with a discriminatory lockout. The board had said it would not allow striking workers to return to work until a new contract was ratified and had the backing of their legal counsel. But later in the day, ahead of the meeting, the board sent an email to workers saying they would be able to return. 

People in orange stand under a tent
"All our livelihoods are at stake here. These are our parks. This is our community. And we want to work, but not at the cost of our dignity," said the park worker union's business manager A.J. Lange at a rally ahead of the July 8 meeting in Minneapolis.
Cari Spencer | MPR News

What’s the tax impact of wage increases?

Juli Wiseman, the board’s director of finance, said management’s wage-increase proposal to union members would raise property taxes by 1.25 percent in 2025, while the union’s would raise taxes by 2.1 percent.

Wiseman said the union’s proposed wage increase would push the property tax levy increase for 2025 to more than 10 percent. Commissioner Becka Thompson, who represents District 2, said that’s a cap that commissioners directed staff not to exceed in contract negotiations.

The maximum property tax levy increase for 2025 will be under discussion Wednesday. The board will consider an ensuing resolution July 24. 

Wiseman explained that the park board is more reliant on property taxes than the city of Minneapolis, with property taxes generating the cash for 79 percent of the general fund. She said 72 percent of the fund’s expenditures go toward personnel costs. And property tax revenue is down this year, she added. 

“The next three years’ tax increase projections are well above the MPRB averages for tax increases and would actually be in the top four highest property taxes in the last 20 years,” Wiseman said. “We have a very uphill battle to get a property tax levy that is at the magnitude that we are estimating for our last, best and final or the union’s proposal.”

“Our workers, they are the backbone of our park system … the vast majority of our funds go toward staff and I think that makes sense,” said Commissioner Becky Alper, who represents District 3. “We are faced with a very challenging position. Raise the levy more, which is not completely at our discretion with the BET, or cut expenses. And honestly we’re probably going to have to do both this year.”

Raising the levy would require the support of the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET), a body that sets the maximum tax levy for the city, the park board and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.

Alper said she wants to prioritize valuing workers through better pay, but is concerned about a large levy. She suggested pausing certain capital projects, eliminating staff positions to pay existing staff more and finding other cuts, such as dropping the July 4th fireworks show next year, stating “we should let somebody else like the Twins do fireworks.”

Union officials have argued that the park board could use reserve funds to help cover costs, and that the board has been able to raise top management salaries alongside inflation, while workers’ pay has not matched pace.

Signs are seen
Signs are seen during picketing by members of LIUNA Local 363 at Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on Monday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

More than just money

But the ongoing labor dispute goes beyond financial issues.

Commissioner Billy Menz, who represents District 1 and initially pushed for Monday’s special meeting, questioned proposed contract language that union members say would limit union representation and protections. Menz said his biggest concern with the contract is new language around the grievance process.

The proposed contract says grievances should initially be raised not with the worker’s supervisor, as previous language stated, but instead with their manager or designee. The union has raised concerns about that, saying it eliminates “informal dispute resolution.”

Menz said he wants to make sure the board is supportive of people making mistakes and of “trying new things,” but “sometimes language like this in a contract doesn’t necessarily support the goal for our park system.”

People sit with protest signs in a meeting room
Superintendent Al Bangoura and eight of nine commissioners were present at the July 8 special meeting for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board as well as union members who were not given time to speak.
Cari Spencer | MPR News

Menz also pushed against a proposal that would put new employees on a 12-month probationary period before advancing to the next step. The proposed contract eliminates the “first step,” starting workers at a higher wage — but the union has called the lengthier probationary period a “poison pill,” arguing it removes the guarantee of the pay increases included in the board’s final offer. Both Menz and the union worried it could leave too much at management's discretion.

Commissioner Elizabeth Shaffer, who represents District 4, said the board should discuss “wiggle room” to potentially increase wages more, but said the year-long period is necessary for “standards of workflow” and would be “disrespectful to the taxpayer” otherwise. 

Menz also questioned, but provided no judgment about, a provision that limits the number of union stewards present at each shift for a work area to one. Assistant superintendent Jeremy Barrick argued the provision reduces confusion over who is a steward for reasons of pay, and said it’s included in some other collective bargaining agreements. The union argued that the language serves to restrict union representation. 

What’s the path forward?

Menz tossed a question to Bangoura, specifically — pointing to a “stalemate” between the union and board.

“I’m trying to figure out how this process moves forward,” he asked the superintendent. “I’m wondering what that entails and how long our organization could sustain striking workers.”

Bangoura did not outline a clear path forward.

“I don’t have the answer at this moment on what the next step is, but I do know we want to get back to the table and start to negotiate and really get back to the contract and figure out where we are in this so we can get this resolved to get a ratified contract,” he said. 

However, Bangoura said anything other than asking the union to vote on the board’s last, best and final offer would be “negotiating against ourselves.”

“We had put forward our last and final proposal to the union and we haven’t had a response back from that,” he said — which was met with a smattering of pushback from union members in attendance who said the strike was their response.

So far the union is resistant to a vote, arguing the board’s latest offer is worse than the one that pushed 94 percent of union members to authorize a strike — and that the concessions are too offensive to ask members to accept. 

In a rally outside the board’s headquarters, leading up to the meeting, the union’s business manager A.J. Lange said “the workers will decide” if continuing to strike beyond Thursday will be necessary. 

“If it takes longer because (the board) haven’t woken up, and they haven’t heard our message yet, we’ll continue to strike,” he said. 

At the close of the meeting, union members filed out of the room, chanting in an orange line as they have at parks across the city since July 4. 

People stand outside a building and talk
The park worker union’s business manager A.J. Lange spoke with commissioners Becky Alper and Tom Olsen after the special Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board meeting on July 8, 2024.
Cari Spencer | MPR News

Some commissioners stopped to talk with union members in the parking lot, listening to concerns that park management has been giving “misinformation” in public statements.

“I would like to stay positive,” said arborist Anthony Smith, who’s been present through the past seven months of bargaining. “The commissioners are at least answering some of our questions and talking to us and giving us an opportunity to explain some of the points we’re coming from.”

He added: “We just need to continue to drive that message home so we can get back to the negotiating table and get this settled.”