AFSCME members picket Carter’s State of the City speech

Members of AFSCME locals 1842 and 2508 picketed outside the Oxford Rec Center.

Clerical and technical workers staged informational picketing outside Mayor Melvin Carter’s State of the City address April 18, putting their frustration over a slow-moving round of contract negotiations on full public display.

“We have felt disrespected at the table,” Como Park horticulturist Bryn Fleming said. “Management has shown up late while we’ve been present. It’s disappointing that this is moving so slowly.”

Fleming is a chief steward with Local 1842 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), representing the city’s technical workers. With the clerical union, AFSCME Local 2508, the unions represent about 1,000 workers in talks that began in December.

AFSCME members’ previous, two-year contracts expired New Year’s Eve, and after six mostly fruitless bargaining sessions, the unions will enter mediation with the city May 8.

Union members’ top priorities in bargaining include 6% annual wage increases, affordable health benefits and safety on the job.

AFSCME members staff the city’s offices, libraries, rec centers and other facilities. Many who work in public-facing positions have described an alarming increase in threatening and violent behavior that leaves them feeling unsafe and understaffed, Fleming said.

“Folks in libraries have experienced assault, verbal abuse,” she said. “For folks in rec centers, it’s the same thing. Safety is a big concern, and we’re really trying to have stronger language on that in our contract. We have seen some movement, but we’d really like to have better collaboration.”

The city’s demands, meanwhile, have included elimination of AFSCME members’ promotional rights, which give union members a first shot at interviewing for certain job openings. Union members also have balked at a proposal to eliminate grievances over civil service violations and, instead, shift the process to a commission controlled by the city.

Those are non-starters for AFSCME’s bargaining team, Local 2508 President Jen Guertin said.

“We are the lowest-paid union members in the city,” she said. “For us to be able to promote up to a higher-wage job, that right to take a test and go to the top of a list for an interview, that’s our career path.”

Members of three unions – the Tri-Council – who work in St. Paul’s parks, public works and water departments ratified a new, three-year contract in March that will raise wages by up to 26%. But they took the city to the brink of a strike to get a deal done.

“We’re not there yet,” Guertin said. “We’re going to try mediation, and I’m hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”

With a mediator involved, Guertin and Fleming said, talks stand a better chance of starting on time and ending when they stop being productive, if nothing else.

“We would set the meeting to start at 5 p.m., and management wouldn’t come into the meeting until 5:30 or 5:45 – on the regular,” Guertin said. “Then we would pass an offer across the table, and they’d leave us sitting there for six or seven hours before coming back to say we can’t get anything done. What’s the point?”

By picketing the State of the City, union members hoped to put Carter on notice that they’re holding him accountable for the city’s lack of urgency.

“When we say things like we’re scared to go to work or we feel unsafe, we’d like to see somebody do something about that,” Fleming said. “And when we say we can’t pay our bills, we’d like to see somebody pay attention to that.

“I would love to feel like the mayor actually respects the work that we do and respects how difficult it can be.”

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