3/25/08

Right To Work state suffers SEIU break-in

With the prospect of no raises and probable layoffs, Pima County's newest labor union will face some tough challenges when its representatives take their seats at the bargaining table for the first time next month. Last week, the county and members of the Service Employees International Union agreed on a "meet-and-confer" process that gives the union an advisory role in setting workplace policies, grievance procedures, pay and benefits.

The first meeting should take a place in a few weeks, just before County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry releases a recommended budget that is expected to include no raises and that may include layoffs in some departments.

Huckelberry also has proposed privatizing the home-care workers who make up more than a quarter of card-carrying union members, though the plan was delayed after workers and clients objected.

Union President David Mitchell, a social worker in the Public Defender's Office, said the union recognizes that the county is facing difficult times.

"The economy, more likely than not, is in a recession, and that will impact our negotiations," he said. "We could still go in and demand exorbitant raises, but that doesn't make any sense. What we have to do is sit down and work as closely as possible in a number of areas related to the fiscal issues."

Despite the constraints, Mitchell said the meet-and-confer agreement is historic in giving county employees a formal voice in a right-to-work state.

A rival union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had a similar agreement with the county for years, but meetings tended to be called as needed, rather than following a set process.

Gwyn Hatcher, Pima County's human-resources director, said county officials don't know what effect the new process will have.

In January 2007, the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance authorizing the creation of a meet-and-confer process, and in April, county workers voted to make the Service Employees International Union their authorized representative.

The arrangement is not exclusive — individual workers and other unions still can meet with management — but the meet-and-confer process creates an official channel for workers to raise grievances, lobby for policy changes and ask for better pay and benefits.

The agreement calls for a group of five employee and five management representatives to meet regularly. The meetings will be subject to Open Meeting Law, and minutes from each session will be available to the public and will reveal who supported any recommendations approved by the committee.

Those recommendations will have to be approved by the county administrator and ratified by the union membership before going to the Board of Supervisors for a vote.

County workers can't engage in collective bargaining under Arizona law, nor can they strike.

Mitchell said union members want to use the meet-and-confer process to suggest ways to make county services more effective and efficient, as well as to address "bread-and-butter" issues.

"We have a commitment to participating in innovation and quality," Mitchell said. "This gives us the ability to sit down with management and talk about how to provide better services and do the best job possible."

(azstarnet.com)

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