Formal notice that multiple Menahga city employees seek to join labor unions lead to a heated disagreements among the Menahga City Council.
During their Aug. 27 special meeting, the council received two “notices of maintenance of status quo” from the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS).
A petition was filed Aug. 20 to BMS by Teamsters Local 346 of Duluth requesting certification as the exclusive representative for employees of the public works department and city hall for collective bargaining purposes, excluding licensed essential, liquor store, supervisory and confidential employees.
Another petition was filed Aug. 22 by Teamsters Local 320 of Minneapolis seeking to represent essential supervisory personnel within Menahga, excluding confidential and all other employees.
“To preserve existing conditions and promote a free and fair environment for the resolution of this question of representation,” the notice states the following must remain in effect until an investigation or hearing has been conducted and a determination issued by the BMS:
Wages, hours and all existing conditions of employment shall not be changed;
Negotiation shall not be carried on;
Threats or promises as to changes in wages, hours and conditions of employment are prohibited;
Employees shall not be questioned by the employer with respect to membership in a labor organization;
Employees shall not be discriminated against as a result of filing the petition.
Due to these orders of status quo, the council tabled three agenda items: review of the city’s organizational art; discussion of job descriptions and expectations of all positions, and a closed meeting for probationary employee job evaluations.
In an Aug. 26 letter to the council, city attorney Tom Winters advised, “We are not allowed to do a review of any employee that is a potential member of the union, after the application for union membership has been submitted. I have a concern that this will be considered a retaliatory action.”
Mayor responds to accusation
In an Aug. 26 letter, Kevin Beck, a St. Paul attorney representing Teamster Local 346, wrote, “It is our information and belief that Mayor (Joan) Liimatta has demanded to know the identities of the individuals who signed authorization cards” and “has requested the hiring of an attorney who will be ‘anti-union’ and that she wishes to hold public meetings to discuss labor negotiations and the individuals who have sought union representation.”
At the special meeting, Liimattta replied that when she learned city employees wanted to discuss union opportunities, she went to the BMS website to learn how to proceed. She said that BMS recommends that cities “get the petition list and immediately hire an experienced labor attorney.”
Liimatta read out loud her email response to Beck, which said, in part, “This is all I have asked Mr. Kreklau to do. I am not anti-union. I am a former Teamster myself. I would never consider getting the middle of labor negotiations or attempt to speak with anyone who is in the process of making that decision. You have been misinformed! . . .I don’t know who gave you those ‘fightin’ words,” but they are unequivocally false.”
To retain or not retain?
Liimatta recommended to the council that they retain an attorney to represent the city now, rather than “scramble” later.
Council member Art Huebner disagreed, calling it “premature.”
“It seems our goal is to attack everything before us before we know what it’s about,” he said.
Huebner stated he was in a union for 30 years, and, in his estimation, an attorney won’t be needed until negotiations begin.
Kreklau noted that Winters has some labor negotiation experience.
Kreklau said he intends to put in labor negotiation costs as a contingency for next year’s budget. “New contracts are little touchier, a little more difficult,” he said, adding that, at the county level, they set aside about $12,000. A “once-over” of existing contracts might cost “as little as $1,500 to $2,500.”
Liimatta emphasized that she wants an attorney with “extensive” experience, as recommended by BMS.
Council member Karol Andreasen asked how long the unionization process could take.
“Depends on how dirty they, how rough they get,” Huebner said.
Kreklau estimated the process could take roughly three to six weeks. After determining who is in the bargaining unit, he said there will be a mail ballot to employees about union membership. If a majority vote to unionize, he continued, then the bargaining unit is certified and labor negotiations may begin.
Liimatta asked for a motion authorizing her to contact a labor attorney when the time was right.
Huebner said he was uncomfortable with giving her that permission. “I don’t trust you, Joanie. I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you,” he said, adding that no one should have advanced authority.
Council member Robyn Keranen suggested it would be fine to research potential attorneys, then select one as a full council.
Kreklau said the mayor has authority without a motion.
‘No contact’ debate
Liimatta said she has no issues with unions, but is concerned about the flow of communication “because there’s been a lot of dissention, and it’s been noted by the League of Minnesota Cities. Standard & Poor’s even talked about us not getting along.”
Liimatta said she wanted to limit anything that could be “misconstrued as volatile.” She asked for a motion that the council discontinue any conversations with employees and only address topics through the mayor or vice mayor or at council meetings.
Council member Tim Ellingson read from the “labor relations” chapter in the League of Minnesota Cities’ human resources manual, reiterating that the city cannot interfere with employees’ ability to form a union.
He made a motion that no council member may have contact in any form with city staff, with the exception of the mayor or vice mayor, creating a future agenda item or signing checks.
“Boy, sounds like a dictatorship to me,” Huebner said.
Ellingson said he made the motion to eliminate any possible mistakes by council members.
Police Chief Adam Gunderson pointed out that Keranen is on the first response team, so she’ll need to communicate with him, for example.
Kreklau expressed concern that the motion is a change in existing conditions of employment, which would violate the order of status quo.
Ellingson withdrew his motion, saying he’d “hope for the best.”
Keranen said the council is fully aware of the order and will respect it.