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Hennepin County AFSCME workers demand respect

By staff

Minneapolis, MN – More than 100 Hennepin County AFSCME workers packed the Hennepin County commissioners board meeting, August 14, to protest two issues currently being negotiated in their union contract. The county is proposing to eliminate step pay increases that benefit workers. As well, commissioners are being stubborn on the issue of pay equity.

Step pay increases

Currently the average county worker gets one step a year, which represents about a 5% increase in hourly pay. This increase is essential because Hennepin County pays its workers less than other counties in Minnesota. The county proposal to eliminate steps and move to a 2.5 % “merit raise” came as a shock to union negotiators and rank-and-file members alike.

“Who is it that you value? We will have to play the game of who has brown-nosed to their supervisor to be able to get any kind of a merit-based pay. Do you value our everyday workers who are doing the hard work of serving your residents? Or highly paid top executives? Do you value equal pay for equal work?” Grace Baltich, president of AFSCME 34, asked the commissioners.

“The county is looking to break the promise that you made to your workers. First of all, introducing that idea at the second to last mediation session to a process that's been going on since May is frankly shameful,” said Jim Ahrens in supporting step pay increases. Ahrens is vice president of the Hennepin AFSCME Policy Committee with 26 years working for the county.

Equal pay, equal treatment

The county proposal also maintains unequal pay between Senior Social Workers and Public Health Nurses. Currently Public Health Nurses make a top pay of $25,000 more than Senior Social Workers for doing the same work.

Speaking to the wage disparity between Social Workers and Public Health Nurses, Sheila Matson, a Social Worker, asked the commissioners: “How would you feel if you made $25,000 less a year than your co-commissioner sitting right next to you for doing the same work?”

Sam Gutierrez stated: “This is one of the richest counties in the state of Minnesota, one of the most powerful counties in Minnesota. This county supposedly prides itself on valuing workers and valuing diversity,” but added, “The disciplinary process is used against workers of color to terminate workers of color at twice the rate they're employed.”

Hennepin County is flush with money

A financial analysis conducted by a Labor Economist at AFSCME International found the county's finances in excellent health, citing its AAA rating from Moody's Standard and Poor and its strong reserve funds. Recent county board expenditures also reflect confidence in the county's financial situation.

In Sept of 2017 the board authorized the purchase of the Thrivent Financial Building and an adjoining parking lot for a combined price of over $66 million. On July 31 the board approved big increases for top county management: 10.7% for the county administrator, 19.9% for assistant administrators and 10.9% for department directors.

“If there is money for new buildings, increasing administrative pay and hiring consultants,” argued Ali Fuhrman, president of AFSCME Local 2822, “then there certainly is money to pay the people that keep this institution moving.”

Fuhrman also highlighted the board's payment of $180,000 to Mercer Inc., a consultant firm, to “reform compensation at the county” and its holding of a closed door meeting on Nov. 22 to discuss labor strategies. Commissioner Peter McLaughlin passed the motion for the payment and the closed door meeting. McLaughlin barely held on to his seat in the primary election, where Angela Conley challenged him.

Deb Konechne, a Public Health Nurse framed the issues, “Is Hennepin County riding on the coattails of the Janus decision in order to pry takebacks from our workers? Hennepin County is looking more and more like a corporate model that aims to concentrate funds in executives and property while trying to cut from those of us who do the important work of serving the members of our community. Steps are the wage adjustments that allow us to get to the pay level we should be making as we gain experience in our positions.”

Over 4000 AFSCME workers are in negotiations with Hennepin County. They vow to continue their fight to maintain steps and get fair wages with call in days to county commissioners. They return to the bargaining table August 20.

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