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Duluth Mayor Don Ness on ban from union hall: It was a misunderstanding

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Duluth Mayor Don Ness and local labor leaders are still feuding, nearly a month after Ness was "banned for life" from the Duluth labor temple for cross in an informational picket line at a local hotel.

Ness, who is a strong supporter of organized labor, calls the incident a misunderstanding. The union leaders say the ban is justified.

Pickets at the Duluth Radisson

Union members were holding an informational picket outside the Radisson in downtown Duluth in early September. The owners are giving the hotel a $4 million facelift and have hired nonunion workers for most of the project.

Ness had a lunch appointment in the hotel's restaurant that day. Union leaders who were there said Ness walked right past the demonstrators without much acknowledgement, according to the Northland News Center.

But Ness tells the story differently. He said he stopped and talked with some of the picketers, "got their prospective and expressed my concern and headed went to lunch," Ness told the Northland News Center.

So a week and a half later, when he was reading the weekly Labor World newspaper, Ness said he was shocked to read that the Duluth AFL-CIO Central Labor Body had voted unanimously to ban him from the labor temple for life. It's the first time that action has been taken, Labor World noted.

Is an informational picket still a picket?

Ness took to Facebook to explain his side of the incident. He noted that the restaurant, called JJ Astor, is a union workplace, and its union employees crossed the same informational picket line to get to work. He also said the picket is not directed at the restaurant, just the hotel.

"Union employees were crossing this picket line because the leaders themselves acknowledge the difference between the hotel and the restaurant AND between an informational picket and a strike! If this was a strike, I absolutely would NOT have crossed the line," Ness said on Facebook.

But union leaders disagree with Ness's argument.

"An informational picket is still a primary picket," said Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, to the Duluth News Tribune. "A picket is a picket."

Olson added that Ness's decision to cross the line was disrespectful and "a slap in labor's face," according to the News Tribune.

However, the mayor's Facebook post was "liked" by more than 5,000 people, and many comments came from union members who said they disagreed with the actions of the labor council.

Resolution possible?

Ness clearly would like to resolve the situation, calling the ban "personally painful" since he began his career in politics by working on the campaign of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, the News Tribune notes.

"I'm heartbroken that this petty situation will tarnish my last months in office - and working relationships that I had valued are now damaged," Ness wrote in a followup post on Facebook.

Ness is serving the final weeks of his term as mayor. He announced earlier this year he wouldn't seek re-election to a third term.

Both Ness and Dan O'Neill, president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Body, told the Star Tribune they expect some resolution of the conflict will be forthcoming.

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