Short-circuited

Minneapolis tried to cut its electrical inspectors. Then the union took it to court.

In April of 2004, the labor contract governing work conditions for 10 electrical inspectors employed by the city of Minneapolis expired. During the ensuing year, negotiations between the two sides went nowhere. Last May a mediator was brought in to help settle the labor dispute, but that effort also proved fruitless.

The chief stumbling block: The city's refusal to grant raises larger than 2 percent. In January 2003, faced with mounting budget shortfalls, the City Council voted to cap municipal raises at 2 percent. Most of the city's bargaining units have grudgingly gone along with the budget stricture, but the electrical inspectors have held out for more.

"We've agreed to everything except the wages," says Tim Giles, director of the city's employee services division. "They have some specific objection to the public policy position that the City Council has adopted about the 2 percent wage cap. They want more than that."

Minneapolis electrical inspectors Dave Long (left) and Larry Clark fear that their days working for the city are numbered
Bill Kelley
Minneapolis electrical inspectors Dave Long (left) and Larry Clark fear that their days working for the city are numbered

Last month, with bargaining still at an impasse, the City Council took another controversial vote. This time the body voted, by an 8-4 margin, to eliminate the 10 electrical inspections positions and hand that duty over to the state. The measure was subsequently signed by Mayor R.T. Rybak. As of October 1, the city stopped accepting applications for electrical permits from businesses and homeowners.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 292, the union representing the workers, believes the move was blatant retaliation for its bargaining stance. "Why are they all of a sudden picking on this department?" asks Steve Claypatch, the union's business manager. "We've lost the ability to collectively bargain. It's a human rights issue."

Claypatch also wonders whether the personnel move is retribution for the union's endorsement of Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin over incumbent Mayor Rybak. "One thing led to another and we think there is reprisal here," he offers.

The union filed a lawsuit late last month in Hennepin County District Court claiming that the move violated labor laws. It also sought an injunction prohibiting the city from going forward with the plan. Last week Judge Harry Crump granted a preliminary injunction barring the city from eliminating the inspections jobs and mandating that the two sides return to the bargaining table. "It just undid everything the council did," says Gregg Corwin, the union's attorney. "The court is saying they can't lay us off and they can't have the state do the inspections."

Minneapolis officials insist that the change in electrical inspections is simply good business. Henry Reimer, the city's director of inspections, says the personnel move emanated from threats by the electrical workers to strike. "The department began looking at contingencies in case a strike were to occur," he says. This analysis found that electrical inspections were actually costing the city. Budget expenditures outpaced revenues by $400,000 last year, some $1.7 million to $1.3 million. This happened, Reimer notes, in spite of the fact that the city's fees are significantly higher than what the state charges.

City Council President Paul Ostrow maintains that the decision had nothing to do with the union's bargaining stance. "That claim is one that offends me and I take great exception to it," he says. "This was a policy decision."

The union disputes the city's fiscal analysis. Corwin says that Minneapolis cooked the books by attributing roughly half the administrative overhead of the inspections department--which also includes building permits and fire inspections--to the electrical inspectors, despite the fact that there are only 10 workers. (There are 146 workers in the department overall.) "They manipulated the numbers," he charges.

Whatever the city's motivations, the 10 electrical workers are now left in the lurch. They continue to work, performing inspections on permits that were issued prior to October 1. But they have no idea how long their jobs will exist.

Larry Clark has worked in the department for 21 years. "I'm looking to retire here, in spite of what the city of Minneapolis is trying to do to us," he says.

Dave Long has been with the department for less than a year. He says he took a $2 per hour pay cut to work for Minneapolis because its electrical inspections team had a good reputation. "We're kind of invisible," he notes. "I don't think a lot of people know that we exist because there aren't that many electrical problems in the city. That's because we do a good job."

Both sides are now waiting to see what will happen with the lawsuit. Judge Crump has scheduled a hearing for next month.

 
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