Contract negotiations that move at a glacial pace. Bus schedules that force drivers to exceed the speed limit. Managers watching employees through binoculars from afar. The Met Council’s workforce is fed up with a work environment that union leaders say has been steadily worsening since Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Peter Bell chair of the council seven years ago.
But union locals, banded together as the Represented Labor Coalition of the Metropolitan Council, are fighting back.
Workers packed the gallery at the Met Council’s meeting May 26, demonstrating their support for Operating Engineers Local 35 President Billy Fitzgerald as he publicly voiced workers’ concerns before the council.
“We do the work. We make the region happy,” Fitzgerald said. “We drive the buses and the trains. We treat the wastewater. We protect public health. We provide affordable housing. We are the stewards of the region’s parks and trails. We partner with local communities to plan their future.
“If there’s dignity in work, why isn’t there dignity for all workers?”
|Workers packed the gallery at the Met Council’s meeting May 26.|
Photo by Michael Moore
Fitzgerald proceeded to highlight some of the more undignified conditions in which workers toil for the Met Council. That list includes the interceptor crews – Met Council workers who repair broken pipes in the metro sewer system – who say a supervisor has taken to watching them through binoculars.
“Instead of walking onto the worksites, he takes his own vehicle and parks a half block away and uses binoculars,” said Art McGrane, president of the union that represents the workers, Local 668 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
“It’s totally disrespectful. You’re a supervisor, so you have a right to watch them on the job. But do you really have to sneak around?”
It’s just one example, McGrane and Fitzgerald agreed, of growing distrust between labor and management at the Met Council – distrust that is changing the workplace culture and taking a toll on morale.
“We’re a number on the books. We aren’t full part in this anymore,” McGrane said. “Morale is just terrible throughout the agency.”
Documenting that culture change – backing up anecdotes with data they can present to council members – is difficult to do, but the coalition took the first step last month, when Fitzgerald formally requested information on workers compensation claims, grievances filed, terminations, overtime pay, increased attorneys fees and use of subcontractors to do Met Council work.
The requested information reflects trends unions in the coalition believe may be developing within the agency.
“We all noticed there’s been a huge uptick in grievances and disciplines and terminations,” McGrane said. “We want to see if our perceptions is true.”
The coalition has yet to receive the requested information from the Met Council.
“We did receive a letter requesting clarification for the majority of information we requested,” McGrane said. “I think it was simply a delaying action on the Met Council’s part, but we have answered their letter with the clarifications requested.”
The going may be slow, but in working together, the unions are already better off than they were a year or two ago, McGrane said.
“During that last round of bargaining, they tried playing us against each other. They would say, ‘Look, Local 35 took this. Why won’t you?’ That’s when we all finally started talking and figuring out what they were doing.”
Other member unions of the Represented Labor Coalition of the Metropolitan Council are Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, Electricians Local 110, Machinists Local 77, Painters Local 61, Pipefitters Local 455, Teamsters Local 320, the Transit Managers and Supervisors Association and locals 192 and 203 of the Law Enforcement Labor Services.
Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at www.stpaulunions.org