Last week, six eligible assistant county attorneys within the Rice County Attorney’s office voted to unionize.

AFSCME Council 65 will represent the assistant county attorneys as they enter into the bargaining process with their employers, the Rice County Board of Commissioners. Based in Nashwauk, Minnesota, Local 65 represents 13,500 public employees throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“We’re excited to add them to our AFSCME family, so we’re going to get working on it quickly,” said AFSCME organizing director Jo Parr.

Parr has worked with the assistant county attorneys for the last few months, helping them to navigate the ins and outs of the unionization process. She said that AFSCME Council 65 is already working with the group to come up with proposals that could form the core of a collective bargaining agreement.

Parr emphasized that it’s important for county attorneys offices to keep wages competitive and maintain a pleasant work atmosphere. Otherwise, more experienced and well-versed attorneys are likely to depart for private practice.

With the approval of the union, an order of Maintenance of Status Quo by the Bureau of Mediation Services was lifted. If the county board wishes to make any alteration to the terms of condition of employment, such changes must be negotiated with the union.

Public attorneys are considered essential employees under state statute, meaning that they are prohibited from going on strike. If the attorneys’ union and the county board can’t come to an agreement on this contract or future contracts, either the union or the county board can ask the Bureau of Mediation Services to appoint a third party mediator.

County employees are also entitled to request a third party arbitrator if they wish to file a grievance request. Bureau of Mediation Services Commissioner Janet Johnson says it’s not at all uncommon for her department to receive a request for mediation.

“We receive probably a minimum of 1,000 requests for mediation from parties around the state,” said Johnson.

Minnesota has a strong tradition of unionization, especially in the public sector. Overall 54% of government employees are unionized, and 90% of Minnesota’s state workforce is unionized. Minnesota has the seventh-highest rate of union membership of any state, and the highest percentage of any non-coastal state.

The state’s public defenders are also unionized.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew.

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