Workers of Suburbia Unite!

Mayor Scab? Rich Sonterre hawks beverages at Bridges Golf Course
Tony Nelson

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.

The animosity in Mounds View is rooted in a sweeping shakeup that rolled through city hall last summer. In June the city's finance director, Bruce Kessel, and the manager of the golf course, John Hammerschmidt, were both fired. City officials claimed that the pair were responsible for unauthorized expenditures, including more than $250,000 in bonuses for golf-course employees. In the next two months, four other top officials, including the police chief and the public works director, resigned from their posts. In August city workers voted to join AFSCME by a margin of 19 to 4.

John Uline, a retired newspaper pressman who for the past three seasons has driven the beverage cart at the golf course, says that the city never attempted to heal the wounds created by last summer's turmoil. The last straw for him was when the city refused to allow golf-course employees to hold their annual Christmas party at the club. "It was just another slap in the face," he says. Uline, who is 64, has filed an age-discrimination complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.


Every melodrama needs a villain, and in this case it's city administrator Kathleen Miller. She took over Mounds View's top post in September 2000 and has directed the bureaucratic overhaul. The day after the contentious city hall meeting, three women are picketing in front of the government center in the early afternoon. They carry signs ("On Strike; Please Stay Away," "Fair Contract Now; Honk") and direct barbs at Miller.

"Even if it's settled, it's still gonna be rotten in there because of Kathleen," says Marge Norquist, the employee whose health benefits were cut. "I care more about the city than all of them combined," adds Barb Benesch, who's worked for Mounds View for 23 years. "We're the ones who care. That's why we're here. She's destroying everything." The women charge that Miller wouldn't even let workers put up a Christmas tree in city hall last year. By contrast they fondly recall less turbulent days in Mounds View, when supervisors had an open-door policy and city barbecues were routine. "We were like a family," says Benesch.

Miller is unfazed by the criticism. She believes that the vote of no confidence was simply a ploy ginned up by Local 14 to create turmoil. "That's a typical union approach," Miller says. "If they're not getting their way at the bargaining table, they use other tactics. This is one of them."

To hear city officials tell the story, other tactics employed by Local 14 have left Mounds View teetering on the verge of anarchy. They contend that a wave of vandalism has struck the golf course in conjunction with the labor stoppage. Sonterre and Miller claim that locks were superglued, portable toilets were ripped off their supports and tipped over, a wrought-iron bench lost a leg, and a phone box was destroyed, resulting in two days of lost phone service. City officials also charge that unauthorized golf-equipment orders were placed on the club's behalf and that other shipments were canceled.

Union supporters dismiss the charges as ridiculous. "That whole regime up there lies faster than three dogs will trot--the mayor, the city administrator, all of them," scoffs Chism, who used to provide golf lessons to kids at the club and claims he's still owed more than $1,500 in pay. "Nobody's vandalized anything up there. That's just some propaganda shit that her and her little crew have come up with."

The elderly workers are also allegedly wreaking havoc on the picket line. Mounds View is seeking an injunction prohibiting strikers from blocking the entrance to city hall and the golf course. In court documents, Mounds View charges that picketers have falsely told golf patrons that the course was closed, prevented mail delivery on two occasions, and even struck a pizza-delivery truck with a picket sign. (Ramsey County District Judge Judith Tilsen has yet to rule on the motion.)

Two weeks ago Mayor Sonterre further inflamed workers by hopping in a beverage cart at the golf course and delivering pop and beer to the players, a task normally performed by paid employees. "We wouldn't say he was out there serving beverages; we'd say he was out there scabbing," notes Serfling.

Sonterre says he was simply trying to tell the city's side of the story to club patrons. "It's important that they hear the truth from our perspective, and I think it's important that they hear it from me," he says. "This is either a time when you lead or you essentially sit on your butt and get your butt handed to you. I'm not willing to do the latter."  

Sonterre says he's tired of the personal attacks, calling recent weeks a "nonstop Rich-is-a-dirty-rotten-bastard-and-you-can't-trust-him fest." He longs for a return to the relative anonymity normally accorded to the mayor of Mounds View.

"I just want it to end," he sighs. "The reality to this is that when it ends there's going be a healing process and as far as I'm concerned that's the real issue. How the hell do we deal with the healing process?"

Perhaps everyone can gather at Sonterre's house for an old-fashioned Mounds View barbecue.

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