Stories Shape Unusual Bargaining Process in Ramsey County

Imagine looking around a room full of supervisors and fellow AFSCME members, knowing you’re about to speak publicly and share an emotional story.

The management negotiations team sits poker-faced.

And to raise the stakes even higher, your story could lead to a contract with better benefits and working conditions for everyone.

“Your voice shakes when you talk because who are you? It’s a room of 50 people,” recalls Douangta Vang-Sitcler, a Ramsey County public health nurse and Local 8 steward. “You need managers to acknowledge this is their workforce, and they make decisions that affect how workers feel when they come to work.

“They don’t have a choice but to listen,” she adds. “We take advantage of that. We have the floor.”

Sharing stories is an essential part of interest-based bargaining, an unusual and intense process that involves even more give-and-take than traditional bargaining. Instead of exchanging proposals, the negotiating teams for workers and employers share a list of their interests. They discuss each interest and why it’s worth negotiating. Then workers share personal stories about why certain contract language or benefits are crucial.

“Emotionally, people respond to things,” says Tim Blase, Local 8’s chief steward and an assistant probation officer at the Ramsey County Juvenile Detention Center. “There’s a human element to it. Management needs to understand how we are affected by contract language or policies. It affects our lives and our families and loved ones, too.”

It was through interest-based bargaining – combined with strong unity and months of planning – that Ramsey County workers won their best new contract in years. Five county locals that bargain together ratified a total of nine contracts including: Local 8 general unit, professional unit and public health nurses/registered nurses; Local 151 general unit, LPNs and Workforce Solutions; Local 707, Lake Owasso Residence; Local 1076, Ramsey County Care Center; and Local 1935 parks and recreation. The contracts cover 2,180 workers.

The three-year contracts include 2.5 percent general raises each year; paid parental leave; increased tuition reimbursement; and largely hold the line on health care costs.

Not every interest listed in this type of bargaining makes it into the contract. As workers learn more about each other’s working conditions and needs, competing interests tend to fall away. Workers band together to solve the most pressing issues.

“It’s not just one group’s issue anymore – it’s AFSCME and Ramsey County’s issues,” Blase says. He and Local 1935 treasurer Steve Reeves pushed for paid parental leave. The county didn’t offer that benefit when Reeves had children.

“My wife and I both used sick leave and vacation,” says Reeves, a maintenance and operations worker in the parks and ice arenas. “I drained my vacation right down. I would have been able to spend more time with my family if I had had paid parental leave. What happens if there’s an emergency later? What do you do then?”

Blase also spoke in support of some Local 8 custodians on the overnight shift. The county planned to move them to days, where they’d lose their shift differential and have to pay to park.

“I gave an emotional appeal to management: You guys don’t understand how this is affecting their lives,” Blase says. “We’re looking at thousands of dollars these people are going to lose. If I lost thousands of dollars a year, I’d have a hard time paying my bills – and these are some of our lowest-paid members. To do that to somebody is just wrong.”

The county decided that the differential would be grandfathered in for this contract

Workers also won general pay increases, along with extra pay to help retain correctional health nurses, who experience high turnover. Vang-Sitcler explained when there’s no nurse to take calls, sick duty falls on deputies.

“We train correctional nurses in, they leave. We train them in, they leave,” Vang-Sitcler says. “Who suffers? It’s the clients we serve, it’s the public we serve. These women and men do really hard work. How do we support them being there?”

Other issues workers shared included preventing mandated, unscheduled overtime shifts at the county nursing home; and increasing tuition reimbursement and improving transparency so more people can get the benefit. The workers’ negotiating team also talked about improving policies, like strengthening contract language to give first preference to qualified internal job candidates and address racial disparities.

As with any process, interest-based bargaining has its pros and cons. Workers describe it as laborious, long and even tedious.

“Emotionally, it was really hard,” Vang-Sitcler says. “The membership doesn’t know the level of sacrifice, of vulnerability, of preparation.”

But Reeves says it also can be empowering and lead to more solidarity. “This is for the betterment of the county, making the county a better employer, giving better benefits to attract and retain people.”

And making the county better for workers makes it better for the whole community.