State Prepared If Truck Drivers Strike

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — A union covering about 300 state Department of Transportation truck drivers in western Montana warned Friday it may strike amid an ongoing dispute over pay freezes, while the state argues it can’t raise pay since the Legislature didn’t provide extra money to do so.

The workers have been without a contract for more than a year, like many state bargaining units displeased with pay freezes since 2008. But members of Teamsters Local 2 recently authorized a strike if the state doesn’t respond quickly enough as mediation progresses.

Both sides are headed toward mediation talks, but the union said it may still strike if it senses the state is still stalling. The union is seeking a pay raise.

“My preference is to avoid a strike at all cost,” said Daniel Doogan, secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters Local. “I am going to do everything in my power to get a settlement and avoid a strike.”

But Doogan said a strike could be called very quickly if needed.

Chief labor negotiator Paula Stoll said the state has a contingency plan to make sure other workers plow the highways in the event of a strike. The union counters that replacement workers would not be as effective.

“We would make sure the highways are plowed,” Stoll said.

She said the state only has a formal agreement with about 20 percent of the 62 bargaining units that represent its workers. The state is separately being sued by some of the state employee unions over the Legislature’s action to scuttle a small pay raise originally negotiated by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

“This has been a challenging time. Most state employees have not seen a pay raise since October 2008,” Stoll said.

Stoll acknowledged the state could legally give workers in some agencies a raise without specific authorization from the Legislature, but it would have to find the money in the current personnel budget.

“Do we lay off workers to fund a pay raise? That is the only way we could do it,” Stoll said.

The state said the Teamsters workers earn an average wage of $18.21 an hour.