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EGF water and light workers to strike

East Grand Forks water and light workers will go on strike this morning after rejecting the city's labor contract proposal Thursday. The strike is scheduled to end as late as Sept. 17, in about 2 1/2 weeks, but it could last longer. Water and lig...

East Grand Forks water and light workers will go on strike this morning after rejecting the city's labor contract proposal Thursday.

The strike is scheduled to end as late as Sept. 17, in about 2 ½ weeks, but it could last longer.

Water and light chief Dan Boyce said his understanding is that Teamsters Local 120, which represents the strikers, could file for an extension with the state.

He said he doesn't expect the strike to affect utility customers.

The city already has a contingency plan in place. For example, if a water main broke, the city could call contractors as it would now do if the water main were too deep for its equipment. If the power went out in a neighborhood, the city's system is redundant enough to allow it to reroute power.


Water and light employs 19, and 14 of them will go on strike. The remaining five managers, Boyce included, will have to cover for the rest. Some nontechnical work, such as mowing around electrical substations, could be put off or go to other city workers, according to Boyce.

"One thing we've learned from going through the flood," he said, "you plan for the longer run, but you take things one day at a time."

Better wages, benefits

The striking workers sought higher wages and better benefits but the city rebuffed them with a final offer that was roughly equal to what it gave fire and police unions.

Boyce has said he recognized that his electrical workers especially are underpaid compared with their counterparts at investor-owned utilities. In the past nine months, the city's lost three of five linemen to investor-owned utilities, he said.

But the city's position, he said, is that it cannot raise water and light wages significantly without offering the same raises to certain other workers because of state pay equity requirements.

The Herald could not reach Teamsters Local 120 for comment at press time.

For water and light, wages represent one-eighth of the budget and do not strain the department fiscally. The rising price of wholesale electricity is a greater problem, according to Boyce.


For other city departments, he said, wages represent something like 60 percent of the budget.

And that's the rub.

State Statute 471.992 requires cities to "establish equitable compensation relationships between female-dominated, male-dominated and balanced classes of employees in order to eliminate sex-based wage disparities in public employment in this state."

In plain English, that means if the men in water and light see pay increases, then women elsewhere in the city doing work of the same value must get a pay increase, as well.

City administrator Scott Huizenga said in a statement that the city must report its compliance with state law in 2009 and, if it failed, it would risk losing local government aid.

LGA constitutes a large chunk of the city budget.

It's not clear what Teamsters Local 120 wanted because representatives have not been available and the city has been coy.

But Boyce said the top wage for a lineman is $25.42 and he's heard from former employees that they were getting paid about $5 more at investor-owned utilities.


If the city offered that, it'd be close to a 20 percent increase.

Instead, it offered a 3 percent wage hike retroactive to the start of 2008 and the same wage hike in 2009. Night shift workers would get an extra $2 an hour and there would be a formal on-call system for weekend employees.

Health insurance would be the same as other employees.

The average increase in wage and benefits for a lineman would be about $8,292 a year, more than half of which would be in additional city contributions to insurance plans.

Depending on how long the worker's been with the city, he could get additional bumps in pay.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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