As talks continue, Hennepin County workers prepare for strike


“STRIKE!” The word echoed through the building, shouted by several hundred sign-waving AFSCME members.

The setting was not the University of Minnesota, however, where four AFSCME locals representing 3,500 workers are in the third week of a strike. The setting now was Hennepin County Government Center, where six AFSCME locals representing 5,000 workers are in negotiations for a new contract.

“Let them hear you up on the 24th floor,” urged Cliff Poehler, treasurer of AFSCME Council 5 and an attorney in the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office. The crowd’s “STRIKE!” roar grew louder.

“It’s take-backs, take-backs and more take-backs,” Poehler said, updating the noon-hour rally on contract negotiations.

Poehler told the crowd that Hennepin County negotiators are proposing several contract changes:
• making County employees pay more out-of-pocket for health care;
• threatening to cut full health coverage;
• converting some full-time jobs to part-time jobs with reduced health benefits;
• allowing supervisors to take on union work;
• denying some health benefits to future employees.

On the last point, Poehler voiced especially strong concerns: “We’re not going to pit union members against union members by denying benefits to future members.”

“We’ve been way too nice,” asserted Jean Diederich, president of AFSCME Local 34, which represents social service employees. “We don’t take ownership for the value we give the County. The work that we do, the value that we give this County, every single resident of Hennepin County has benefited.”

“Please go back to your worksites and let your co-workers know how important it is for them to get involved and support our [negotiating] team,” Diederich urged rally-goers.

After the rally, strike committee chair Roy Elliot outlined the strike preparations that have begun as negotiations continue. “It’s important we show a united front,” said Elliot, a member of AFSCME Local 552 who has worked with the County’s Probation department since 1978.

Elliot said several committees have formed to divide responsibilities to wage a possible strike. Since Labor Day, he reported, “the number of people volunteering for committees has increase considerably.”

Some of the committees include: internal communications, picketing, kitchen (to provide food to strikers), and hardship (to provide aid to members for whom a strike brings particular economic hardship).

“If the County doesn’t think we’re serious, they’re not going to come up with a serious contract offer,” said Elliot, explaining the extensive strike preparations.

“Hopefully, it won’t come to a strike,” Elliot said. “We will be prepared for that if it does; we’ll work to avoid that if we can.”

Additional negotiations are scheduled for Sept. 24, Oct. 8 and Oct. 22. Nov. 5 and Nov. 28 are scheduled for possible mediation.

The six AFSCME locals representing workers at Hennepin County include: Local 34 (Social and Health Services), Local 552 (Probation and Parole), Local 1719 (Adult Corrections Officers), Local 2822 (Clerical and Related), Local 2864 (Professional Librarians) and Local 2938 (Legal Unit).

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