In the Spotlight

News & Features

Bureau of Mediation Services takes on huge task
By Ashley Grant
Associated Press
October 3, 2001

ST. PAUL (AP) - The job of trying to resolve differences between the state and its two largest public employee unions has fallen to a tiny state agency that makes a living out of helping people agree.

The state Bureau of Mediation Services is a cabinet-level agency with only 23 employees, including Commissioner Lance Teachworth, a 36-year state employee appointed first by Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994 and reappointed by Gov. Jesse Ventura.

But that small group handles more than 400 local, school, county and state collective bargaining contract mediation cases each year in addition to its many other duties.

Among the disputes it has resolved were the high-profile bus drivers' strike of 1995 and about 150 teacher contract mediations every other year.

The case currently on its plate, though, is the largest ever handled by the agency, Teachworth said. It involves two unions - 19,000 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 6 and another 10,500 members of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.

And both unions are on strike, with more than 22,000 walking the picket lines, making it the largest strike of state employees in Minnesota history.

"These bargaining units are very large," Teachworth said. "I think it adds some complexity because there are a lot of different employee groups."

Many mediation cases involve one group of workers, like teachers. These two unions represent people whose jobs range from janitors and road workers to computer technicians.

Making all those jobs fit into one contract is difficult, Teachworth said, adding that the process for resolving differences is the same.

It's a process that has been refined over 62 years.

In 1939, the Legislature enacted the Minnesota Labor Relations Act as a means of peacefully settling disputes resulting from the growing size and strength of Minnesota's labor movement.

Over the years, the group's name and mission has changed from the Division of Conciliation, an agency that dealt mainly with private-sector mediation, to the Bureau of Mediation Services, which deals almost exclusively with government contracts and disputes.

Whatever mediators are doing is working, said Pat Urquhart, assistant director at AFSCME, who has worked closely with the bureau for about a decade.

"They experiment back and forth," she said. "It gives another perspective. They're not as close to the situation. It's not staring them in the face."

Even though they work for the state, the mediators truly are neutral, Urquhart said.

About half of the bureau's 23 employees are mediators, who also help with determining who should be represented in new unions and labor relations training. Nearly all of the agency's services are free, covered by its roughly $2.5 million annual budget.

But the agency also keeps a roster of more than 40 private arbitrators, who can put together binding decisions, paid for by the two sides in dispute.

Despite spending his working hours amid struggle and controversy, Teachworth said he enjoys his job.

"It was the best decision I made," he said about accepting the position. "I enjoy the hands-on part of the collective bargaining process - assisting parties in solving problems."
For More Information:
Bureau of Mediation Services

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)