Chuck Chism is angry. The burly, bearded, white-haired 57-year-old is stewing at a conference table in Mounds View City Hall. The room is packed with more than 40 city officials, union supporters, and citizens. ¬ So far this May evening, the mayor has been declared a scab, the city administrator has accused workers of tampering with phone lines and destroying city property, and a city council member has advised an employee to "get a real job in the world."
All of this is pretty tame compared with what Chism has to add to the civic discourse, however. "I'm gonna sue your asses," the former iron worker declares. "I'm tired of this bullshit from you, you, you, and you," he adds, pointing to the various city officials gathered around the table. "You're all a bunch of twerps." At this Chism stands up and storms out of the room.
Welcome to Mounds View, population, 12,738 (or 12,541--if you're entering town from the east). For nearly a year this quiet, working-class suburb 15 miles north of the Twin Cities has been embroiled in a contentious labor dispute that threatens to destroy city services and leave the municipality mired in legal bills.
In August, city clerical workers and seasonal employees of the municipal golf course voted to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 14 (AFSCME), which represents roughly 14,000 workers in the Twin Cities area. Despite 15 separate negotiating sessions since, not to mention the involvement of a mediator, the city and the union have yet to agree on a labor contract. In March Local 14 filed suit in Ramsey County District Court charging that the City of Mounds View had violated labor laws by bargaining in bad faith and discriminating against union supporters. The next month city workers passed a declaration of "no confidence" in their city administrator by a margin of 48 to 4. A few days later the union employees went out on strike, creating a labor stoppage at city hall and the Bridges Golf Course--and there seems to be no end in sight.
"We are not changing our position," declares Mounds View Mayor Rich Sonterre. "We have determined that we have been fair to the utmost point in our offers. This is what's on the table; this is what they can deliberate over; this is what they can vote on, yes or no."
Local 14's assistant director, Jerry Serfling, makes a settlement sound about as likely as Cesar Chavez rising from his grave: "When you've got a city that relies on attorneys that don't seem to know what they're doing, and a city administrator who won't and can't compromise, and a mayor that's enjoying the conflict, it's not very likely."
Whether you bleed Teamster red or Chamber of Commerce blue, it's difficult to imagine that the feud could get any more nasty or absurd. The actual monetary differences separating the two sides are paltry. Mounds View has offered to contribute $518.30 toward employee healthcare plans this year, or 66 percent of the total cost, while the union is asking for $530. "It kind of boggles my mind why somebody would be out there picketing over 12 dollars," says city council member Roger Stigney. "The strikers certainly can do what they want to do, but I really have to question, Is this beneficial or is this union suckering them?" In some cases the two sides can't even agree on what they disagree on. City officials say that wages for seasonal golf-course workers remain in dispute, while Serfling maintains that the city's last offer was accepted by the union.
The most divisive issues, however, have less to do with money than emotions. In January, Mounds View stopped paying for the supplemental health insurance of Marge Norquist, a 72-year-old employee in the finance office. Norquist receives Medicare, but she needs the additional insurance to cover healthcare costs not reimbursed by the federal government plan. Mounds View officials determined that paying for this coverage, roughly $200 a month, violated the law and that the arrangement had never been approved by the city council.
Senior citizens are at the center of the other contentious issue as well: the fate of seasonal workers at the city-owned, nine-hole Bridges Golf Course. Most of the workers are retirees and many of them are veterans. In past years the men simply showed up at the start of the golfing season and resumed their jobs. Last year city officials decided that it was necessary to go through a formal hiring process each year; the men would have to fill out applications and sit for interviews. "All we're doing here is being accountable to the law," says Mayor Sonterre, referring to a state mandate that government jobs be filled through a competitive hiring process. Despite the strike the city has now filled 14 of the 16 seasonal positions at the golf course, with only two of them going to past employees.
Union supporters believe Sonterre's reliance on legalese is simply a way to obscure the fact that the city is retaliating against workers for organizing. "Marge's only crime was that she was a union supporter, and the same thing with the old-timers at the golf course," argues Serfling.