Growing up, longtime Hennepin County chief labor negotiator Bill Peters worked three summers with his uncle at the now-closed Coca-Cola bottling plant in northeast Minneapolis.

The work was unremarkable. He did what needed to be done, lifting and loading and other factory work. What got his attention was his uncle’s work as a shop steward for the union and the chatter among the workers.

“The breakroom was just on fire with what the employer was offering,” Peters said of what he heard being discussed.

Peters, 64, exudes an Olympian calm and a poker face under his gray mustache, but even now, as he eases into retirement, he summons the same excited realization he felt as a youngster listening to those conversations.

“The dynamics of the whole process was unbelievably interesting,” he said in an interview last week.

His career as a public-sector labor negotiator grew directly from those breakroom sessions as he first gravitated toward a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in labor relations from the University of Minnesota.

He still speaks reverently of his first labor relations professor, Mario Bognanno, who further stoked his ambitions.

Many others speak with the same respect for Peters, who for the past 15 years has been Hennepin County’s lead labor negotiator with 17 bargaining units that represent 5,400 employees and 11 umbrella unions, including the heart of the county’s work in corrections, health, social work and law enforcement.

Commissioner Mike Opat was County Board chairman for the majority of that time. “Bill has been a living, breathing calm in the eye of the storm here for many years,” Opat said. “His wisdom and counsel have personally helped many, many people. Myself included.”

Nearly every board member heaped praise on Peters during his recent retirement ceremony. The theme was that despite being involved in the negotiation of more than 200 contracts, he always had the respect of everyone.

Given the opportunity to dispel that notion, Peters’ chief counterpart for the unions, ASFCSME Council 5 Executive Director Eliot Seide, instead confirmed it.

He recalled a time when some 750 union workers lined a hallway to wave signs and generally heckle management heading into negotiations. “Bill came down in a real nice suit and shoes and walked that gantlet and he took what we threw at him,” Seide said.

He called Peters a consummate professional, a straight shooter and person of integrity who respected the position of management but also respected the collective bargaining process and workers.

Seeking middle ground

Peters graduated from college in 1974, when collective bargaining for public employees was new.

He started with the county in 1980 and, except for a four-year break, has been there since. Only in his first year, when he wasn’t the lead negotiator, did a union strike, Peters noted.

The draw of the intense job was his belief from an early age that he could see the middle ground and help reach agreement. “The key here is to treat people respectfully and listen,” Peters said. “In most situations, there is an ability to get to yes.”

Both he and Seide affirm Opat’s assessment that he’s been calm under fire. “I really don’t feel a lot of stress in the work that I do,” Peters said. “I’m very comfortable at the table. I’m not focused on me or who’s angry; I’m focused on the deal and treating people respectfully.”

Peters and his wife, Nancy Peters, a communications specialist for Hennepin County District Court, have worked in the same building for years and often are together in the skyways. The couple have a 5-month-old grandson who is the namesake of his grandfather.

Peters hopes to become an authorized arbitrator in retirement, and is also continuing to work at the county part-time for now. During his days off, “I’m going to try to get better at golf,” he said.

Succeeding him as the county’s director of labor relations is Kathy Megarry, who formerly worked in similar positions at Macy’s, St. Paul and the state Department of Employee Relations.