281 Office Employees Set To Strike

From the MN Sun-Post 11/29/07 edition:

The 90-member AFSCME office employees union in Robbinsdale District 281 filed an intent to strike Nov. 21 with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services.

AFSCME is the abbreviation for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a national union to which the local union belongs. The union includes clerks, building secretaries and some other clerical employees that work in Robbinsdale Area Schools.

Kurt Errickson, a staff representative with AFSCME Council 5, said the office employees have a 30-day window after Dec. 5 in which they could call a strike at any time. He said the union has been negotiating with District 281 since April.

“We know the district is suffering from financial hardship, and we want to work with them,” Errickson said. “But the health insurance increases facing our members are catastrophic.”

Those increases, he said, include a $7,000 increase for family coverage.

Members of each of the district’s eight bargaining groups were offered a 2-percent salary increase for the first year of the two-year pact, and 2.5-percent in the second year. Union members also were offered an additional $50 per person per month for health insurance coverage.

Union members were told that health insurance premium costs could be expected to increase significantly.

The increase that resulted, however, is “completely unaffordable,” according to Errickson.

“People with single coverage also are looking at a huge increase,” he said.

Union President Pam Elletson is a staff-development-support employee in the teaching and learning department at District 281’s Education Service Center.

“We offered to take a wage freeze and take our 2 percent and put it toward insurance,” she said. “We wanted the flexibility to put it where we wanted to have it. But the district refused to do it. We’re not asking for more than any other group got. We understand they want to keep it fair.”

Elletson said skyrocketing health insurance premiums in District 281 are “pricing families right out of insurance.”

Some union members, she said, “have to write a check at the end of the month because they don’t make enough to pay their insurance premiums. They’re working for nothing. We want to do whatever we can to protect our families.”

Errickson said the union received no written proposal on wages and insurance from District 281’s negotiations team until district officials issued what they said was their final offer. The union tried its best to work with District 281’s insurance committee, Errickson said.

“The committee is not equipped to deal with this problem,” he said. “It’s a dysfunctional committee.

He said the union remains committed to settling the contract.

“We’re eager to bargain and resolve the issues,” Errickson said. “The district said it wanted to wait for the teachers to settle, and they wanted to settle employee contracts before the referendum. It’s been very difficult. …

“The bottom line is that we can deal with the numbers on the table if we can get flexibility in bargaining.”

Assistant Superintendent Nancy Rajanen said last Wednesday that five of the eight District 281 employees groups have settled contracts with the district thus far.

“The health insurance coverage is a major issue at negotiations,” Rajanen said. “But as the district is preparing to cut $9 million to $10 million from our budget in the next two years, we need employees to pay a larger portion of their health care costs.”

The contract offered to the office employees union was consistent with that presented to each of the seven other unions, Rajanen said.

“District 281 has a long history of treating employee groups equally,” she said. “Five of our groups have accepted the same wage and benefit package that was offered to the clerks.”

Rajanen said the district is committed to negotiating a settlement “consistent with every other group.”

“I would anticipate that a mediator will call the two sides together and see if we can find common ground,” Rajanen said.

District 281’s custodian/bus driver union contract is still unsettled, as is the contract with district principals, Rajanen said.

The custodians and bus drivers went on a six-day strike against the school district in December of 2000.

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