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City union approved: Mitchell joins ranks of six other South Dakota towns

City of Mitchell employees have approved the creation of a union that will soon begin privately negotiating a contract on their behalf. The result of the union election was 54-33. The election was conducted Thursday, and the results were released...

City of Mitchell employees have approved the creation of a union that will soon begin privately negotiating a contract on their behalf.

The result of the union election was 54-33. The election was conducted Thursday, and the results were released Monday.

The 33 votes against the union consisted of 18 actual "no" votes and 15 no-shows, which were counted as "no" votes in accordance with union election procedures. The 54 "yes" votes were 10 more than was necessary to approve the union.

The local union will be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 59, which is headquartered in Huron.

Paul Aylward, the organization's executive director, released the election result to The Daily Republic and described it as a victory for the affected city employees.

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"They will have a say in the workplace now, which they have not had," Aylward said.

The Daily Republic asked Aylward to arrange interviews Monday with pro-union city employees, but none came forward immediately. Mitchell Mayor Lou Sebert said he disapproves of the union.

"I don't think it's a positive for the city or the employees," Sebert said.

The mayor said he anticipates requests for better pay and benefits, but he thinks the city's pay and benefits already are good and he doubts the City Council will want to spend a greater share of its budget on those items.

"When you have X-number of dollars to spend and you pay more for salaries or benefits, that means you have fewer projects," Sebert said. "The money's got to come from somewhere, and if you keep taking away from projects, pretty soon you're going to need fewer people."

According to a recent count, the city has 179 full-time positions. Fifty-nine employees from the police, fire and communications divisions already were eligible for membership in existing unions prior to Thursday's vote.

The new union is open to 87 employees who come from nearly every facet of city government. Employees that already are eligible for the existing unions are excluded from eligibility in the new union. Also excluded are elected positions, supervisory positions and seasonal positions.

Mitchell now joins the ranks of several other large South Dakota cities that already have similar unions represented by AFSCME Council 59. They include Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Watertown, Huron, Vermillion and Yankton.

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The Mitchell election marked the second attempt at unionization in modern times by the city's employees. In 1997, some water and wastewater workers tried to unionize, but the state Department of Labor ruled that they could not form their own unit separate from other city employees.

Aylward said Monday that the next step for the new union is the organization of a bargaining committee that will contact the city and seek a meeting to begin negotiations. Though multi-year contracts could eventually be sought, Aylward said the union will probably seek a one-year contract initially so that the deal can be easily reworked if problems arise during the first year.

Negotiated items could include wages, hours, vacation, sick leave, procedures regarding job vacancies and seniority, according to Aylward, who declined to identify more specific concerns already voiced privately by union-eligible employees.

"I think there are a number of things they want to negotiate that the city has not been responsive to their needs," Aylward said.

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