Stocking the burn barrels. Firing up the propane heater. Handing out signs and adjusting warm hats.
As members of Teamsters Local 320 went over the final preparations before walking off the job Wednesday morning, morale was high.
“We’re just hoping to get equality,” said Tom Allen, who has been a mechanic for two years and was working the picket at the St. Louis County garage on Jean Duluth Road. “We’re looking to be long-term employees and we do a good job. We’re out here working for equal pay and equal rights.”
Teamsters Local 320 represents plow drivers, mechanics and other employees in St. Louis County. They went on strike Wednesday morning.
While plowing has gotten a lot of attention in this snowy (and rainy) winter, Cory Garden, a senior operator and member of the negotiation committee, stresses that the workers who are striking do a wide variety of important jobs, such as the sign department, bridge inspection and equipment maintenance.
“About 65 percent of the job is plowing snow, but we also take care of the gravel roads, the rights-of-way, potholes…we just help make sure the public gets from A to B,” he said on the picket at the large St. Louis County garage at Midway Road and Hwy. 53. “If there’s a windstorm or water on the roads, we’re out there helping.”
Garden added that this spring is likely to be a tough one, not only because of the melting snow, but because of the frozen rain from last December under the snow. He said he and a crew had just been out helping melt through a culvert that had backed up and washed out someone’s driveway. All of this is work that Local 320 members perform on the job.
The Teamsters are striking over the county’s healthcare inequality for employees of the Public Works Department, who get less coverage and pay more than management and nonunion employees. They are also demanding a restoration of their seniority rights formerly rescinded through arbitration.
That arbitration helped divide employees, said Dan Foshay, an equipment operator who started just a few months ago and who was picketing at the Midway Road garage. That disparity is frustrating for everybody, he said. Little things like a small increase in health-care premiums are a bigger hit for those driving the plows than in management, he said.
The strike response has been strong so far, says Sami Gabriel, president/business agent of Local 320. Everyone who had signed up came out in the 15-degree weather, she said, and are ready to be out as long as it takes. “They just want parity,” she said.
“We’ve had tremendous support,” she added while working a table full of treats and hot coffee next to the Local 320 trailer parked at the Midway garage. The Teamsters 120 semi truck made appearances at several garages, dropping off pallets to burn and laying on the horn in solidarity. And more cars than not passing by honked in support as well. Pickets were expected at every garage in St. Louis county; drive by and support them.
“They’re all hard core,” Gabriel said of the Local 320 members. “Some of them are old Iron Rangers — they’ve been through it before.”
Snow is in the forecast for Duluth and Hibbing on Wednesday afternoon. At the Jean Duluth garage, a plow was visible moving around the property. “Look, they’re practicing,” laughed one of the people on the line.
St. Louis County has said it has a contingency plan for managing plowing when it snows, including the use of supervisors.
Check back for updates on this developing story.