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District court finds Crow Wing County committed unfair labor practice

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A district court ruled Crow Wing County’s unilateral action stopping step wage increases in 2012 was an unfair labor practice in violation of state law.

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The ruling was filed Wednesday in the Ninth Judicial District.

The court found there were no material facts in question in the case.

At the end of 2011 as a three-year collective bargaining agreements expired, the county notified the unions it would not extend step increases — an incremental wage increase. Existing collective bargaining agreements stated if a new agreement wasn’t in place before the old one expired, all benefits remain in effect until a new agreement was concluded.

The collective bargaining agreements stated employee would receive step wage increases on Jan. 1 each year.

The unions contended contract language meant step increases would continue because the existing collective bargaining agreement was followed until a new agreement was reached. The unions filed grievances. The county contended the incremental wage increases were not automatic and initiated a freeze. The county agreed to negotiate but started the freeze on step increases as of Jan. 1 while negotiations continued and before an agreement or impasse was reached, the court found.

The court found the unions didn’t waive the right to bargain over the issue of the incremental wage increases.

“The county unilaterally modified the terms and conditions of employment without satisfying its statutory obligation to meet and negotiate in good faith,” the court found. “The county’s unilateral action constitutes an unfair labor practice” in violation of state law.

The court listed union contract language that wage increases were based on the grade of an employee’s job position and the number of years of service. Contract language also stated the incremental increase was contingent upon the employee receiving a satisfactory performance in the preceding year.

The county stated there were separate wage schedules for each year of collective bargaining. The county contended step increases were not based on longevity and weren’t automatic because they were subject to satisfactory job performance.

The court found the county’s unilateral decision to withhold the incremental wage increases deprived the union employees of their collective bargaining rights.

The court issued an injunction and granted the unions a summary judgment. The county is permanently prohibited from withholding the increment wage increases during the first year of a new collective bargaining agreement and subsequent years if a new agreement is not settled.

Seven of the 12 unions representing Crow Wing County employees petitioned the court in this case. Unions represented in the court action were: Local Union No. 346 representing corrections and dispatch supervisory employees in the sheriff’s office; Minnesota Teamsters Public Law Enforcement Employees’ Union Local No. 320; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; AFL-CIO Local Union No. 689A; Minnesota Nurses Association; Law Enforcement Labor Services Locals No. 13, No. 14 and No. 16.

The county was ordered to pay back pay to all plaintiff employees who would have received them on Jan. 1. The judgment was stayed for 30 days.

Tami Laska, county human resources director, said she was disappointed in the court’s ruling. In a statement issued to all county employee, Laska said the basis for withholding the step increases was not to freeze employee pay but to allow for a discussion of alternatives and, through negotiations, arrive at a solution.

Laska said having the judgment stayed provides 30 days to consider alternatives.

The county has expressed its goal to move to a pay for performance model. Previously the county agreed to a 2 percent wage increase in 2012 and 2013, including workers at the maximum of their pay range.

“Through the litigation, unions representing county staff chose to spend the offer differently, providing steps to approximately 65 percent of our employees rather than 2 percent to all staff,” Laska stated. “We believe the county’s offers, whether performance based pay or the 2 percent referenced above, were both better alternatives and a fair market value for wage adjustments in this economy. From a financial perspective, the step adjustments will exhaust the 2012 county wage budget, which was set at 2 percent.”

The county reported public dissatisfaction with automatic pay increases has grown.

“With 88.9 percent of our increases in operating expenses being driven by personnel costs, it is increasingly difficult to rationalize or defend automatic pay increases that occur without regard to performance,” Laska said.

Laska said the county remains committed to pursuing a performance-based pay that is market competitive, fair and equitable and looks forward to continuing the discussion at the bargaining table to productively resolve labor negotiations.

The issue is expected to go before the county board for a decision on future actions, such as the potential to appeal, at its next meeting on Oct. 23.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.

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Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
(218) 855-5852
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