Ramsey County AFSCME members hold informational picketing in downtown St. Paul.

By showing up in force outside the Ramsey County Courthouse, members of five AFSCME locals persuaded county negotiators to put their proposed wage freeze on ice.

In bargaining that began Dec. 29 – one day after workers rallied – and stretched into the early-morning hours, the local unions reached tentative agreements on new contracts with the county that, if ratified, will increase wages by 6% over three years, in addition to one-time bonuses for staff who worked on the front lines of the pandemic.

“With over 200 members and allies, we showed the county employer and the residents of Ramsey the solidarity that we have as workers,” public health nurse Douangta Vang-Sitcler said. “This is the largest level of local union mobilization we have seen in many years.”

Vang-Sitcler’s union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 8, bargained with the county alongside locals 151, 707, 1076 and 1935. AFSCME members ratified the contracts, which cover thousands of workers, in voting that concluded last week.

The new agreements expand eligibility for paid parental leave and make Juneteenth a holiday, among other gains. The union bargaining team also succeeded in beating back steep increases to workers’ medical and dental insurance costs, in addition to the proposed wage freeze.

But the county didn’t get serious about workers’ demands until union members got loud outside the courthouse. Ramsey County locals planned the Dec. 28 rally with support from AFSCME Council 5, and tapped into solidarity from across the labor community.

“Many of our members are Ramsey County residents or grew up in this county like I did, so our hearts belong to this community, our community,” Vang-Sitcler said. “We’re dedicated to serving the residents, especially right now with the world events that we are experiencing and the impacts of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“I hope the county board heard what we had to say about who we are and why we are here working for them. I hope that made a difference and continues to make a difference moving forward.”

Julie Bleyhl, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, credited members for sticking together to demand a better offer from the county.

“Unions are the most powerful, people-centered movements that lift up the standards of living for all working people,” she said. “To our members: The historic level of activism you have shown in the form of calling and emailing County Commissioners, signing petitions, attending an informational picket during a snowstorm, talking to your co-workers, and voting on your next contract are all emblematic of the times we are all living in – that workers call for dignity and respect for the work they do and won’t accept anything less.”

But Vang-Sitcler, who served on the bargaining team, said AFSCME members can’t afford to let their guard down, even though bargaining may be over.

“We represent workers from multiple job classes and salary ranges across the county, and we recognize that today’s inflationary market may impact each family’s economics and budgets differently,” she said. “Ultimately, our TA was recommended … with the realization we will continue our collective efforts to push back on any future harmful proposals.”

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