Secret deals divide union organizers, workers

Unions' Secret Deals to Get Foot in Door at Companies Stir Controversy

Sal Rosselli was bargaining with a company that provides food service workers to a small California hospital several years ago when he threatened to picket on their behalf. To his surprise, officials from Compass USA told Rosselli that his union, the Service Employees International Union, had a secret deal that barred him from picketing.

More than ever unions are making secret deals as a way to get their foot in the door at companies because without such deals they would not make much organizing headway. Boosting their membership numbers, they add, is a matter of survival.

But such backdoor deals are causing an uproar within the unions themselves. Some unionists believe that the pacts take away workers' rights to strike, picket or even exercise their freedom of speech and doubt that unions can grow when their hands are tied. "The fundamental dispute is about some leaders making top down, secret deals that affect workers' future," said Rosselli, head of a 150,000-member SEIU local, which is embroiled in a bitter squabble with the leadership of the 1.7-million national union.

That this dispute is taking place within the SEIU has some special irony. The SEIU has acted as organized labor's maverick, criticizing others for falling behind the times while boasting about its ability to sign up members. It led the drive that broke the AFL-CIO into two federations.

Labor experts and veteran union organizers say secret contracts are becoming more common as unions have seen little, if any, gain from strikes or long-term legal battles. The biggest question unions have to ask themselves, they suggest, is what price they are willing to pay for such accommodations.

"You never want to eliminate the chance that the workers could self-organize," said a veteran union organizer, who asked not to be named. A union drive can quickly evaporate if workers do not feel committed, he added.

Yet some unions seem to have benefited from such pacts. Thanks to a neutrality agreement reached with AT&T Inc. a decade ago the Communications Workers of America have added over 40,000 workers, CWA officials said.

Winning a neutrality agreement is a major victory for a union since it mutes any opposition from the company to its organizing.

So, too, Unite Here's hotel workers division has reached neutrality agreements at certain hotels within the Hilton and Starwood chains that have added union members, said Rick Hurd, a labor expert at Cornell University.

While the CWA is public about its neutrality agreement, officials at the hotel workers union declined to comment.

SEIU in recent years has signed confidential agreements with janitorial firms in Houston and with the California Nursing Home Alliance, said union spokesman Andrew McDonald. Usually companies want the deals kept secret, he explained, out of fear that it will "put them in a competitive disadvantage with anti-union firms."

Hurd added that unions also like to keep a lid on such agreements to avoid embarrassment if they don't succeed. Plus, they are concerned that other unions might want to join the bandwagon if they learn that the company has signed on to a neutrality agreement. And they want to avoid lawsuits from right-to-work groups challenging the agreements, he added.

"These agreements are the proven model for how workers gain a voice," McDonald declared. "There is no other model."

In 2005 the SEIU and the 465,000-member Unite Here reached confidential deals with Sodexho Inc., Compass Group USA, and the Aramark Corp., allowing the unions to organize a limited number of food service, housekeeping and laundry workers. The agreement with Aramark collapsed late last year, union officials said.

In the Sodexho and Compass deals, both the unions and companies made sacrifices, according to a union outline of the agreement obtained by the Tribune. The unions agreed to drop any "comprehensive" campaigns or organizing efforts outside their deal and to block any strikes or public actions until the unions and companies dealt with the issues.

The companies won the right to say where the unions could organize, and the unions also agreed to bargain from one job site to another. That meant wages could vary for similar jobs across the same company.

In Chicago, for example, the starting wage for a food service worker at a Sodexho facility at DePaul University is $8.50 an hour. The same worker at a Sodexho facility at Northwestern University earns $7.40 an hour, according to a copy of the contracts obtained by the Tribune. (The median wage for Chicago area food service workers, from the lowest to the highest paying job, is $8.37 an hour, government figures show.)

As their part of the deal the firms agreed to allow a certain number of workers to join the new union through so-called card checks, a process where workers can join a union if a majority signs the cards. The other option is to take part in a secret election.

The agreement called for up to 11,000 workers at Sodexho and more than 12,500 at Compass to become union members. The unions now have about 15,000 members divided evenly among the three companies, though they no longer have a deal with Aramark, union officials said.

Andrew Kramer, a management attorney in Washington, D.C., said such agreements "raise questions about employees' rights." The union is almost assured an election victory if the company vows not to oppose the union and accepts a card check, he said.

What's important about such deals, said Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here, is that "thousands of low-wage workers are getting unions and they are winning substantially reduced health-care costs. ... They are winning defined benefit plans in almost 100 percent of the contracts."

But officials at United Healthcare West - the local headed by Rosselli - disagree.

A starting food service worker in Californa under the special agreement with Sodexho gets $8.30 an hour, compared with union members who earn between $12 and $13.50 in contracts with hospital chains, according to UHW officials.

Such deals lock workers "into a second class" and becomes an incentive for a business to outsource work to one of the large service companies that signed the deal with the unions, said John Borsos, a vice president with UHW. But the SEIU's McDonald said were it not for their deal with Sodexho those workers would not have a union.

"The real secret deal that needs to be exposed is the deal that union leaders have made not to organize, and to allow non-union workers for the same employer just to protect a business relationship," he said.

Zeev Kvitky, president of SEIU Local 2007, is one of those with complaints about how Service Workers United, the new organization created for workers at the three companies by the two unions, has helped workers.

About 100 food service workers at Santa Clara and Stanford Universities were moved two years ago from an SEIU local to the new Service Workers United, Kvitky said. They were not given the chance to vote on the move, and later didn't know whom to go to for help, he said.

They were told to call an 800 number that would connect them to an official at the new organization's offices back east, he said. "But they didn't get any calls returned," he said, adding that he decided to begin helping them. SEIU officials said that the workers should have been able to rely on one of the locals.

Kvitky disagrees. "I don't like saying it, but they weren't represented."

That's not a problem for Sodexho's food service workers at Northwestern University's Evanston campus, said Rafael Marquez, a shop steward with the Service Workers United local and a cook. The union's telephone number is an option if the workers can't reach him or another union official, he said.

As for his own livelihood, the union contract with Sodexho brought seniority to the job, and has allowed him to move from an $8.50 an hour job to an $11.40 an hour position, the highest paying job for the workers.

"Before the union came, it never seemed possible to sit down with the bigwigs," Marquez said. "And if we talked to managers, they pretty much told us 'we'll see.' "


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