Turf War

Two unions squabble over Pima County employees

When tapped on the shoulder after a Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting, AFSCME administrator Alan Lee whirled around and said he thought for a moment that I, the tapper, might be affiliated with SEIU.

He jokingly implied that the unions' members need to keep their distance to avoid a brawl.

However, Lee was deadly serious in a sermon-like speech before the board on Tuesday, Jan. 17. He and nearly 40 members of AFSCME, or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, urged board members to reject a petition for recognition made by Service Employees International Union.

"We have worked hard to cultivate relationships with employees, with employers (and) with politicians to make them understand the value of unions," Lee later said over the phone. "And now that we have set the table, so to speak, SEIU has come in and tried to undermine the hard work of AFSCME."

SEIU's drive to sign up Pima County employees has upset AFSCME, which has been active here for 40 years. AFSCME currently counts 200 members among county employees, and about 2,000 members in all of Pima County.

The hard feelings started after SEIU's withdrawal from the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization of which AFSCME remains a part, in July 2005. SEIU's membership drive in Pima County began at around the same time as the split, and AFSCME has interpreted SEIU's push as an encroachment on their territory.

"If they were still part of the AFL-CIO, they wouldn't be doing this. Their interest is not in protecting the labor movement or advancing our common position, but in fattening their own pockets," Lee said. "From our estimate, they have no roots and no history in the state of Arizona.

"The hallmark of the labor movement is solidarity. When they organized (in) Tempe and Chandler, we ran no interference and did not seek to block or otherwise impede their effort. It's just plain wrong."

Arlene Muniz, AFSCME Pima Community College chairwoman, has been affiliated with the union for 24 years. She said SEIU is aggressively pursuing members in Pima County to get back at AFSCME's leadership following the split.

"It's a backlash," she said. "(SEIU is saying), 'We're here; we're stronger, and we're going to blow our way through."

Lee accused SEIU of using deceptive language and coercion to get 1,800 county employees to sign the petition. He also alleged that SEIU hid that employees would be committed to being represented by them for at least a year, even if they don't produce results. (However, copies of the petition obtained by the Weekly from both unions did not mention this.)

Lee said several hundred employees have since signed letters to revoke their signatures, claiming "they really didn't understand the impact of that petition."

SEIU member Tom Wills, who helped collect signatures, called AFSCME's accusations "bunk."

"Individuals who were passing the petition were trained in how to handle the petition," said Wills, who had been a member of AFSCME for 20 years until quitting five years ago. He joined SEIU in June and said there is "tremendous dissatisfaction" among county workers with AFSCME's inaction over the years.

SEIU organizing committee member John Edwards, who spoke at the meeting as some ASFCME supporters pointed and sneered, later said that SEIU has always been straightforward in its dealings--at least with him.

"The only thing I can say is that since I have been with the SEIU, I have attended their meetings, and they've been very honest with me," said Edwards, who moved from New York City to take a job with Pima County four years ago. "I've seen a lot of integrity, and that's kept me involved with this."

He said the purpose of the petition was to demonstrate support among county workers for SEIU, as well as show support for having SEIU as the employees' sole voice in talks with management. Since December, he said an additional 200 county employees have expressed an interest in becoming SEIU members.

Edwards said the petition asks for a vote among county employees on who would represent them if and when the board grants SEIU "consult and confer" status. This designation, which AFSCME currently has, is an acknowledgement by the board that the union is acting on behalf of employees who have voluntarily signed up with them.

However, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told the Weekly there wouldn't be a vote among county workers on giving either union exclusive rights to represent them. Having a vote, he said, would run afoul of Arizona's "right-to-work" laws prohibiting unions from requiring employee membership. It would, in effect, recognize one union over another.

"We're not going to have one of those elections, because we're not going to have exclusive or designated representatives," he said.

According to Huckelberry, the argument between the two unions "doesn't make much difference to the board." If SEIU is recognized by the board, the impact on AFSCME would depend on "which group employees feel represents them better.

"Management really has nothing to do with it, other than to say, 'We'll talk to everybody, even unaffiliated (employees).' In our view, they're all equal," Huckelberry said.

Of course, there could also be a financial impact if dues-paying AFSCME members defect to SEIU. There are currently 161 county workers who have funds deducted from each paycheck for AFSCME, according to figures provided by Huckelberry's office.

Supervisor Richard Elias, who said he has "worked and sweated and stood by" people from both unions, tried to stay above the fray. He described the fracas as a regrettable but "natural function of this type of labor dispute."

"It's terrible to see labor fighting against each other for me, but it's not new--it's nothing unheard of," he said. "This is a matter that's really up to the rank-and-file workers here in Pima County, and who they would like to have represent them as a union. It's not about what I decide, but rather about what they decide. I truly believe in unions, but I really think folks need to make up their minds themselves without a lot of unnecessary hyperbole from their leaders."

AFSCME member Muniz also lamented the friction with SEIU.

"It's really, really sad," she said, "because they're a union. We should be friends, working together. Unions should never be fighting against each other."

Still, when asked whether she thought AFSCME and SEIU could co-exist in Pima County, Muniz didn't miss a beat: "No, we won't be able to."