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South Dakota - Union Proves Its Mettle in Contract Battle

Battle Tested - City employees of Yankton, S.D., are proud of their first contract, won after a two-year effort.

Battle Tested
Battle Tested - City employees of Yankton, S.D., are proud of their first contract, won after a two-year effort. Shown (left to right) are Local 3968 members John Slemp, street department steward, local Pres. Beth Parr, Sec.-Treas. Sue O'Grady, Vice Pres. Brad Blinde, and Bruce Ulmer, recording secretary. (Photo credit: Council 59)

Winning a first contract is always an achievement, but the collective bargaining agreement won last spring by approximately 80 employees of the city of Yankton testifies to the determination of a small unit that refused to give up.

The employees — dispatchers, clericals and those who work in parks, public works and the library — were discouraged during the two difficult years it took to achieve success, and some did consider giving up. Because they didn’t surrender, however, they won.

Paul Aylward, executive director of AFSCME Council 59, credits the resolve and optimism of Local 3968 Pres. Beth Parr, a municipal records clerk in the finance office, and the Local 3968 bargaining committee, for keeping the unit together through the tough times.

Trouble began as soon as the employees made known their intention to join AFSCME in 2008. The city commission hired an out-of-state law firm to break the workers’ will. It didn’t succeed. In early 2008, the employees voted overwhelmingly for AFSCME representation.

Negotiations for a first contract began that June, but in March 2009 — just as the workers felt they had made some progress — Parr says “the city declared it was their final offer and refused to come back to the table.”

The union next requested mediation, but that session lasted only 15 minutes before city officials walked out. Although frustrating to the local’s members, Parr helped to bolster their solidity by taking them step-by-step through the process and explaining the city’s delaying tactics.

Despite their setbacks, the workers persuaded the city to return to the negotiating table in March 2010. Their perseverance paid off with a first contract that includes job protection measures such as a grievance procedure, plus a 4 percent raise over two years (retroactive to January 2009) and other benefits.

Parr credits her co-workers for proving their strength by sticking together in the face of adversity. “I think the city came to realize the employees are valuable,” she says.