Virginia enacts emergency ordinance after union pickets target councilor homes

The current contract talks between AFSCME union workers and the city of Virginia have been rocky from the start. AFSCME Local 454 filed for mediation before the two sides even started officially bargaining back in December. The latest memo from city hall sums up the standoff this way.

Over the past 25 years, contracts have been settled amicably between the City and all of its Bargaining Units. None of those discussions have escalated to this point of contention we are seeing today. The anger and frustration that this matter has reached on both sides is unfortunate for all involved.

Nevertheless, the 60 city employees represented by AFSCME have voted to authorize a strike that could come this week.

City workers with AFSCME Local 454 have notified the city leadership of their intent to strike. The workers remain united in opposing City Council threats to cut benefits to cover budget mismanagement. The Council created a budget shortfall last fall by refusing to pass a levy that would fund city operations. As a result, six jobs represented by AFSCME Local 454 were cut, despite existing staffing shortages.

But it was another decision by dozens of members of AFSCME Local 454 to mass picket the homes of three city councilors, all women, that ramped up tensions to a whole new level. It didn’t take long for the Iron Range city councilors to respond at their next meeting.

The City Council finds that targeted residential picketing in front of or about a residential dwelling causes emotional distress to the dwelling occupants, obstructs and interferes with the free use of public rights-of-way and has as its object the harassment of the dwelling occupants.

The City Council further finds that, without resorting to targeted residential picketing, ample opportunities exist for those otherwise engaged in targeted residential picketing to exercise constitutionally protected freedom of speech and expression.

The Virginia City Council proceeded to unanimously pass an emergency ordinance banning so-called “targeted picketing” in residential neighborhoods. The Mesabi Tribune noted the ban took effect immediately.

AFSCME Local 454 picketed the homes of Paulsen and councilors Maija Biondich and Liz Motley last Sunday (Feb. 25) and the Sunday before (Feb. 18), [Virginia Mayor Larry] Cuffe said. That is referred to as “targeted picketing,’’ he added, and the new ordinance prevents that from happening, no matter who is doing the picketing.

“They were fearful and felt intimidated by the picketing and targeting their specific house.’’

After the meeting ended, City Councilor Julianne Paulsen took it a step further, offering baby pacifiers to the audience of mostly union members.

Cuffe said he was unaware of Paulsen’s actions at the time because he had his own challenges with the bargaining unit members. “Lots of insults were flying,’’ he said. “We were all dealing with it.’’

Cuffe added Paulsen’s actions were “unprofessional and uncalled for’’ even with the negotiations being very difficult this time around. “She understands that. She was just frustrated’’ and “fear and intimidation is being felt as a result of the negotiations for a new contract.’’

Paulsen apologized the next day for what the union called a “stunt.”

We condemn the actions of Councilmember Julianne Paulsen who presented dedicated public servants with a bucket of pacifiers. This is reprehensible and unacceptable behavior from an elected official. 

Both sides have made plans for a strike. City hall maintains Virginia taxpayers can no longer afford business as usual with ever higher levy hikes. Behind the scenes, they’ve made what’s called a Final, Last, Best Offer to AFSCME officials, who’ve agreed to put it to a vote by members. In the meantime, at least one city councilor refuses to come and go to city hall without the protection of an escort.