Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Locals Fight Back

Grand Marais bargaining team member Greta Hall.

There was a time, Cheryl Rodewald says, when Grand Marais city workers wrapped up contract negotiations in “15 or 20 minutes.”

This was not one of those times.

Instead, city workers – who are part of Local 66 – dug in for the biggest contract showdown they’d experienced. They refused to sell out a co-worker, even when the city held their contract and pay raises hostage for nearly three months. The city hoped they would break. They didn’t.

“Basically, we fought this whole thing for principle,” says Greta Hall, a member of the bargaining team.

Drawing the line

The showdown centered around the layoff of Charles Christiansen, longtime lifeguard at the municipal pool. Everybody knew his layoff was coming: The city closed its pool in January because the city, county, and YMCA opened a new pool and turned control over to the Y.

But the city administrator refused to let Christiansen exercise his contractual right to bump into another job. After the union filed a grievance, the city dragged its feet. Then, in contract negotiations, the city insisted on new, retroactive language to strip Christiansen of his bumping rights entirely.

“It wasn’t right,” Rodewald says. “They weren’t following the contract they signed. They were totally rewriting it to make Charles’ grievance null and void. And they told us we were not going to get a contract until we settled this issue with Charles and the pool. And that’s when it got ugly and messy.”

Union leadership didn’t realize it at the time, but they actually set the stage for tapping their members’ power last summer. That’s when they met one-on-one with all 30 workers in the bargaining unit. “We just popped around to say ‘hi,’ to ask their concerns,” Rodewald says.

In winter, when contract talks went nowhere, those lines of communication were still fresh. Union members wasted no time showing they were serious and united in standing their ground. They were not going to let the city pit the rest of the bargaining unit against Christiansen.

Members used both honey and vinegar to fight back. They kept negotiating, but rejected the city’s proposed language and authorized a strike. They pursued mediation, but also lined up unfair labor practice claims to file against the city.

When union members realized the city administrator was keeping city council members in the dark about negotiations, the union enlightened the council. Union members signed a petition pledging they would not cross a picket line. They delivered their petition, in public, at a city council meeting.

Council members “seemed surprised,” Rodewald recalls. “A lot of them, in fact, had no idea that any of this was going on.”

One-on-one pressure

Union members also stepped up one-on-one conversations of their own. They spread the word among other AFSCME members up and down the North Shore, who started calling Grand Marais officials. City workers wrote personal letters to each council member; Christiansen and a union negotiator hand-delivered them.

Meanwhile, as often happens in small communities, word spread. Everybody in Grand Marais seemed to know Christiansen, Rodewald says, and nobody seemed happy that he was getting the shaft.

Within a week, city council members had heard enough.

City negotiators dropped their demands to retroactively strip Christiansen of his bumping rights. City workers got a contract they could live with.

Won’t be stepped on

The layoff itself remains unresolved, but it is being handled through the normal arbitration process.

“We got the issues separated,” Rodewald says. “We got the word out to the other people that, ‘Hey, this isn’t right.’ And we won.”

It’s a victory, she says, for the meaning of a contract – that the city just can’t ignore what it signed because it doesn’t like the results.

“We won for the principle,” Hall says, “for Charles, his rights, and all our rights. I know that if I ever get stepped on, we’ll stand up for my rights, too – or anybody else’s.”

“I have to admit,” Rodewald says, “that before this happened, we weren’t very strong, we weren’t really tight. We really didn’t talk a whole lot. I kind of thank the city for doing this because now, as a union, we’re tight. We’re ready.”

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