City of Minneapolis Public Works employees, including people who plow the streets, patch potholes, repair sewers and collect garbage, voted Tuesday night to reject a proposed city contract, authorizing a future strike if necessary for higher wage increases.

Union leaders representing about 450 public works employees are in mediation with the city after a three-year contract expired in 2020 and has not been renewed, in part because of the pandemic.

With early voting already underway in a highly competitive city election, work stoppage by some of the city's most essential employees could leave leaders in a precarious position.

The city's offer is a 1.5% raise in 2021, 2.5% in 2022 and 2.5% in 2023. But the workers say that's not enough compensation for the unprecedented dangers they faced over the past year and a half.

City officials said in a statement: "The City bargained in good faith and came to a tentative agreement. The parties continue to work toward reaching a new collective bargaining agreement. The City is hopeful that the parties will reach an agreement."

LiUNA Local 363 Business Manager Tony Kelly said employees want respect and acknowledgment of their service to the city.

"These are people who have been coming in to work every single day throughout a pandemic," he said. "They've been plowing the streets, keeping the water on, keeping the sewers flowing, making sure the city functions. Our people have also been front and center at what's going on with George Floyd Square. It's our folks who are working at the behest of city leadership to clean that. Same thing with the protest zone in Uptown. It's our folks who are stepping up to the plate."

State law requires that following at least 45 days of labor mediation, a union can file for intent to strike, which would trigger a 10-day cooling-off period. Afterward, the city workers may go on strike. Union leaders will continue mediating for now, they said.

"They know very well, a lot more of the details of the American Recovery Plan than you'd think," said Kelly, referring to $271 million in federal COVID-19 rescue funds allocated to Minneapolis. "They know that the city is sitting on unallocated cash and they know that it's not coming our direction, and they're justifiably angry about it."

Pandemic restrictions on work and play have taken a significant toll on the city, leaving a $34 million gap between revenue and expenditures in the city's 2022 budget.

To cushion that deficit, Mayor Jacob Frey proposed a 5.45% tax levy increase in addition to using $47 million in federal rescue funds and spending $17 million in city savings.

Susan Du • 612-673-4028