Ramp workers vote to unionize

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December 15, 2003 // UPDATED 11:09 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Pay hikes, parking rate hikes still uncertain

Cashiers working for Downtown's largest parking ramp employer, Municipal Parking Incorporated (MPI), voted for union representation earlier this month -- a move labor organizers say will put them on more equal footing with management.

MPI employs about 300 workers at city-owned lots. At the Dec. 2-3 election, parking ramp cashiers and office clerks voted to affiliate with Teamsters Local 120, which represents 8,500 public employees. The vote was 75-67.

Those with objections to the election, a slim eight-vote majority, had until Dec. 17 to file an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board.

Those supporting the organizing drive say parking ramp workers are underpaid and under-appreciated by management -- criticism MPI rejects.

Erik Skoog, an organizer with Teamsters Local 120, has been working on the campaign to unionize ramp workers for 18 months. He said a survey conducted by organizers this spring revealed MPI paid workers an average of $8.25-$8.50 per hour. That would be roughly $16,500 a year for a 40-hour week.

Unionized attendants at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, on the other hand, earn an average of $14.96 an hour, he said, which translates to $30,000 a year. The Teamsters represents about 175 parking cashiers at the airport.

Dennis Carter, MPI's director of human resources and administration, said company workers earn $10.25, on average, or about $20,000 a year.

Skoog said it's too early to speculate what ramp workers would demand to be paid. Carter and Skoog would not speculate on what kind of impact, if any, unionization would have on parking rates at Downtown ramps. City Councilmember Sandra Colvin Roy (12th Ward), chair of the Transportation and Public Works Committee, which oversees city-owned parking ramps, was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Besides pay issues, labor organizers are working to address morale problems.

"Their marching beat has been that they want to be able to go to work and have a voice. They don't want to have to feel threatened by a manager," Skoog said. "They just want to show up to work and know if there's a problem that they can voice their opinion and not be scared of any retaliation."

Some employees have expressed a reluctance to show support for union representation, fearing other employees will be treated more favorably through better hours and other benefits, Skoog said.

MPI's Carter said his company has an "open door" policy for all employees with concerns and has a grievance policy posted in employee handbooks and at work sites.

He said no workers have come forward with serious complaints about working conditions.

Besides approaching parking ramp workers and management, the Teamsters have worked behind-the-scenes, lobbying City Councilmembers who recently voted to extend MPI's contract another year, Skoog said.

Fuad Osman, a Teamsters labor organizer who speaks seven languages, has been one of the main organizers. Osman, a native of Ethiopia, has served as a translator for the Teamsters in approaching parking ramp attendants, many of whom are African immigrants.

He's become familiar with many of the cashiers Downtown. Osman worked as a parking valet at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport when he first moved to Minnesota seven years ago from Paris.

He became an organizer for the Teamsters a few years ago. He said some Downtown cashiers are hesitant to speak about their working conditions when approached by union organizers.

When he greeted one woman recently working in a booth at the Jerry Haaf Memorial Parking Ramp, 424 S. 4th St., she waved him off and said she didn't want to speak to him.

MPI's Carter said under company policy, workers are prohibitedfrom talking with solicitors (a category under which labor organizers fall) while on the clock. The ramp workers can speak with union representatives during their break time, however.

Osman said workers who have shared their thoughts have complained about a backlog in maintenance. Some say their booths are too cold during the winter, while others feel they aren't respected by MPI managers, he said.

William Maley, 62, of south Minneapolis, for example, shared some critical views recently with Osman and a Skyway News reporter. He has worked in the ramp attached to the Hilton Minneapolis, 1001 Marquette Ave., since 1990.

Maley said he earns a little more than $10 an hour, which amounts to about $1,600 a month -- a sum that hasn't increased much since he first started working for MPI 13 years ago.

Beyond low wages, Maley said he often feels underappreciated at work. "There's some people who don't know how to say, 'thank you,' around here," he said.

He said he hopes Teamster backing will help workers secure higher pay. "The union will give us a voice," he said.

MPI has held informational sessions for employers thinking of voting for union representation, which Carter said presented labor union pros and cons objectively.

Labor organizers said workers were told the sessions were mandatory. Carter disputed that, saying employees did not face disciplinary action if they refused to attend.

"It is up to the employee whether or not they would like to have a union," Carter said. "It is not up to the company. That's our position -- short and sweet."

Skoog said he heard some reports of a worker being threatened with disciplinary action for not attending one of the sessions. Skoog described the sessions as opportunities to portray unions in a negative light and highlight the downsides of the labor movement, associating them with corruption.

The December election secured representation for clerical workers and cashiers. Another election will be held Dec. 23 for 125 valets employed at the ramp adjacent to the Minneapolis Hilton.