By Al Ekblad
International Union of Operating Engineers, Local #400
Ric Holden’s statements in the December 23, 2010, Ranger Review article, “Buffalo Rapids District #1 Abolishes Union” that the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local #400 caused the split of Buffalo Rapids Irrigation Districts No. 1 and No. 2 , which were formerly jointly managed under the Buffalo Rapids Board of Control, is absolutely incorrect. Mr. Holden’s portrayal of both the dissolution of the Board of Control and negotiation process is simply not accurate.
As anyone who attended the literally dozens of Board of Control and District Board meetings will tell you, the two districts split for three main reasons: 1) Mr. Holden’s attacks on the management and workers at Buffalo Rapids; 2) Dubious business decisions by District No. 1 not to raise user rates which caused the District to operate with unfunded liabilities necessitating bank loans and loans from District No. 2; and 3) Concern on the part of District No. 2’s Board Members that the actions of District No. 1 would jeopardize District No. 2’s ability to provide water to its producers if the partnership between the two Districts continued.
From my involvement in this process, beginning in September, 2009, it was clear to me that the Board of District No. 2, wanted to continue to provide good service to the producers they serve and keep as many of the employees as they could because they recognized the value of their service. A contract between District No. 2 and its employees was negotiated in a very open and fair process because the Board and the employees wanted to work together and because they respected each other. Contrary to Mr. Holden’s assertion “the union took control of everything” it is important to note that three workers from District No. 2 participated in all negotiations and that all of the employees covered by the contract voted on the contract.
The situation with District No. 1 was much different. First, only one employee of the Board of Control was willing to go to work for District No. 1. Second, we offered District No. 1 the same agreement that had been negotiated with District No. 2 with the understanding that we would, and did in fact agree to, make changes in that agreement to meet the particular needs of District No. 1. Instead of countering to this good faith offer with a reasonable counter-offer, District No 1 countered with a proposal that dramatically reduced the benefits and working conditions for all of its employees. At that point, it became clear that negotiations were going to be very, very difficult and that the employees were better off working under the conditions of an existing “Letter of Understanding” that had been signed by the Chairman of District No. 1. It is important to note that the mediator from the state who had worked through negotiations with both districts withdrew at the same time because he felt the two sides were so far apart there was nothing he could provide to assist us.
With regard to why our local union withdrew from negotiations with District No. 1, it is quite simple. The only employee who had transferred from the Board of Control decided he did not want to work there anymore, and when I spoke with Joanne Marble who was the only other employee I could contact, she stated she did not want to be represented. Had she asked me how our union spends the dues we collect from members, I would have gladly explained that to her. I would have explained that she had the right to inspect our books and records. I would have also pointed out that her belief that the employees did not have a say in how the union conducted business was incorrect because we elect our leadership, just like an irrigation district.
Buffalo Rapids Board of Control operated both District 1 and 2 for 56 years. It had been recognized many times as one of the best irrigation districts in the state, if not the nation. It was a major employer with up to 13 full-time employees and several seasonal workers. That partnership no longer exists and things are very different. As for our union’s role in all of this, we were asked by the employees to help them protect themselves and we did that while at the same time we worked cooperatively with the Board representatives from District No. 2.
In closing, I want to thank Barry Rakes, Ray Strasheim and Rick Harding who represented District No. 2 in negotiations for their integrity and respect of the workers. Neither side got everything they wanted, but we reached an agreement and the parties are living under that agreement.
NOTE: The Ranger Review article mentioned above is published in this week’s issue of the Tribune and can be found on page 3.
Published Jan. 19, 2011