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County, union, dispute contract for two years (09/29/2013)
By Chris Rogers
Even as new contract negotiations begin, Winona County and the Assistant County Attorney's Union are still wrestling over their last bout. After two years of negotiation and an arbitrator's order, the county and the union still have not reached an agreement on the 2011 through 2013 contract. Arbitration, in which a third-party labor lawyer decides on a fair contract, is a last resort for resolving contract disputes, but after numerous meetings failed to resolve conflicts over health care premiums, raises, legal protections for accidental malpractice, and union representation at disciplinary meetings, the union called upon a Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services arbitrator.

On every issue but one, the arbitrator sided with the county. The county lost on a proposal to increase the attorneys' share of health care premiums from zero percent to 15 percent over two years, which the union opposed. The arbitrator sided with the union on that issue, remarking that "the extra cost is not insubstantial and would significantly reduce their pay." Other county unions will face 15 percent cost shares for single coverage health insurance; however, the arbitrator noted, all of the assistant county attorneys receive single coverage while many in other unions choose family insurance. Cost share for family insurance was not changed.

The county's proposal on wages no raises in 2011 followed by a four percent raise over the next two years was awarded. That is similar to what other county unions received, Assistant County Administrator/Personnel Director Maureen Holte said. The union asked for 2011 raises that would put attorney salaries on a par with their counterparts in comparable counties, followed by another four percent raise in 2013. In arguing for raises, "the union presented clear and convincing evidence" that "because they act on behalf of the people in literally thousands" of important criminal cases plus civil cases, "their workload, hours, stress, safety, and the impact of their efforts" deserve special consideration, the arbitrator wrote. However, the county successfully persuaded the arbitrator against awarding raises by countering that due to staffing reductions, all county employees are working harder.

The union wanted guarantee union legal representation at disciplinary meetings or meetings that could lead to discipline. It is the legal right of the assistant county attorneys to have their union lawyers present at such meetings a protection that is afforded to police. That protection may be afforded to Winona County administrators or other staff, said American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 65 Organizing Director Dean Tharp. The union also sought additional legal protections against malpractice lawsuits. Attorneys have a right to a voice in protecting themselves if disgruntled citizens who have been the subject of prosecution sue, Tharp asserted. While it appears that the county did not argue extensively against either proposal, the arbitrators ruled against the union on both, saying that the burden of proof lay on the union and that they did not provide significant evidence in favor of the extra protections.

Holte said that the county is happy with results of the arbitration process.

"It is what it is," Assistant County Attorney and union representative Kevin O'Laughlin replied when asked if he was satisfied with the arbitration. "There are parts where, obviously, we were pleased, and with other parts we didn't get everything we wanted."

Though the arbitrator has made his decisions, the union and the county are still discussing the "interpretation of language" of the decision, according to Holte. O'Laughlin said he expected the parties to reach an agreement soon. "I actually anticipated that it would have already been completed," Holte commented, saying she could not predict when an agreement would be reached. Holte declined to discuss which details were still being debated. The arbitrator was unclear on how to apply his decision on health insurance to the nuts and bolts of the contract language, according to Tharp, but it is a minor issue, he said.

Holte and O'Laughlin agreed on one thing: it was the longest battle the union and the county have had in recent history. All of the county's six other unions reached contract agreements by April 2012. 


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