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Hennepin County workers authorize strike after rejecting county contract offer

The two union groups, which represent more than 3,500 county workers, say they need more money from the county and want federal COVID money to pay for it.

MINNEAPOLIS — Two unions representing more than 3,500 workers for Hennepin County have officially filed an intent to strike, saying they need and deserve higher wages, more hazard pay and work-from-home stipends. 

On Wednesday, Jan. 19, the unions -  AFSCME Locals 34 and 2822 - both filed that intent to strike with the Bureau of Mediation Services after rejecting the county's "last, best" offer for a second time. Union leadership says the county can do a better job supporting higher wages and benefits due to the COVID funds supplied by the federal government.

"These workers truly Make Hennepin County Happen. Many of these union members have worked on the frontlines of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, providing critical County services to residents of Hennepin County," said AFSME Council 5 Executive Director Julie Bleyhl in a released statement. "The services provided by these 3,550 workers ensures our community members are supported, safe, and able to thrive."

The unions involved in the negotiations represent county social workers, human service representatives, public health nurses, sentence to service crew leaders, legal secretaries, library specialists and many more job titles. 

Bleyhl insists the negotiating team for the unions will continue working to resume mediation after a cooling off period in hopes of avoiding a strike. 

County Administrator David Hough released a statement Tuesday evening following negotiations, saying in part "The county is disappointed in today’s failed session...Unfortunately, it appears from the union’s press release on Tuesday January 11, and their positioning at the mediation table today that a settlement in line with the other ratified contracts was never their intent."

The two unions authorized a strike Monday, Jan. 10 after their first time reviewing the latest offer put forth by the county. Hough's statement said five other AFSCME locals have agreed to ratify their contracts in line with the offer.

"The county is disappointed that these two locals failed once again to accept the Last Best and Final Offer accepted by the five other AFSCME locals," the statement went on to say.

The two unions represent social services, clerical workers and human service representatives.

County workers who rallied in downtown Minneapolis last week said the weight of the pandemic has stressed them emotionally and financially, and that's why they're seeking a contract more in their favor.

"Many of us contracted COVID and continue to suffer from its long-term effects… Hennepin County received nearly half a billion dollars in COVID money," said Ali Fuhrman, President AFSCME Local 2822, adding the county "refuses to dedicate one dime of it to hazard pay."

Officials with Hennepin County told KARE 11 that other union groups for county employees signed on to the new contract. The county said its new contract provides salary adjustments of at least 2.5% every year for the next three years, and provides a $500 lump sum payment at the start of the contract.

"We are pleased that the majority of the AFSCME bargaining units ratified their contracts and remain hopeful that a voluntary settlement can be reached with the other two AFSCME units at some point in the new year," said Hough in a statement earlier this month.

Workers from Locals 34 and 2822 said they would strike by picketing at different county buildings throughout the region until Hennepin brings them a better offer. 

AFSCME Council 5 tweeted out that the two union groups would be holding an informational picket on Jan. 19.

The two union groups are asking Hennepin County to renegotiate with them this month, and several local leaders are supportive of the renegotiations as well.

"The people who make the decisions don't walk in the shoes of the people who do the work," said state Majority Leader and Representative Ryan Winkler. "You need the support from your leaders to make sure you get a fair contract… we need to respect this work."

"I want to say that we are valuable, we are an asset to the county and we deserve to be paid," said Rhonda Hobson, a human services senior representative. "We deserve enough money to take care of our families."

According to a Hennepin County statement, there hasn't been a strike for county workers since 1981.

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