There is lots of discussion in the news today about labor unions. Unions played a huge role in the presidential election victory of Barack Obama. They are working hard to impact the runoff election for a Senate seat from the state of Georgia that would give the Democrats one more seat in their quest for 60 Senate seats. 60 is the magic number to avoid having a bill filibustered in the Senate.
You see a lot of press claims that unions will be the main force in restoring the American middle class.
If you are an American citizen, you really should be paying attention to the on-going debate over the Employee Free Choice Act.
So, unions are trendy again. Unions are trying to resurrect themselves to do what they do best: Fight for the Working Man. That is except when maybe they don't?
From the Houston Chronicle, a story about what happens when employees of unions organize and try join a union.
Hamilton Gramajo says he was working seven days a week, often from 9 a.m. to well past midnight, trying to organize the 5,300 janitors for the Service Employees International Union.
It was a grueling schedule — he couldn’t even get a couple of hours off on Sunday to go to church — but when he and others complained to his union bosses, Gramajo said they were ignored.
Gramajo said the stress to “keep up with his numbers” in worker sign-ups resulted in chest pains and a warning from his doctor to rest. His ironic plight — a union worker claiming work rule violations by the union itself — led to a National Labor Relations Board complaint that is still pending.
“There’s no way I can go to the janitors and tell them to fight for their rights if I’m being treated the same way,” he said, referring to the Justice for Janitors campaign in 2006 that led to a three-year contract between five Houston janitorial companies and the SEIU.
Gramajo and his co-workers did what he recommended for the janitors: They joined a union. The SEIU’s own workers reached out to the Federation of Agents and International Representatives, or FAIR, and laid out demands for job protections, limits on working hours and actual food breaks so they didn’t have to eat in their cars between appointments.
But Gramajo said SEIU officials were none too pleased to hear about the other organizing drive going on internally at the office. He said some union organizers received tougher work assignments, others were sent to different locations while some, including Gramajo, were terminated.
The employees, through FAIR, responded with unfair labor practices complaints, alleging that the SEIU refused to communicate, failed to follow seniority rules for layoffs and recalls, and terminated Gramajo for his union-within-a-union work.
The complaint also contends the SEIU reduced its employees’ pay and refused requests to use sick leave and vacation leave.
The charges are pending before a grievance arbitrator, said Norm Yen, the SEIU’s state director for Texas. He added that the SEIU, which has about 40 Texas workers, voluntarily recognized FAIR as the employees’ bargaining agent in 2006, and both sides negotiated an agreement.
But Yen said FAIR refuses to use the grievance process in the agreement. Instead, FAIR has been filing unfair labor practice charges with the labor board.
“This is a ridiculous situation. We can’t seem to reason with this guy,” Yen said, referring to a FAIR official.
In the meantime, the labor board has deferred processing of the charges to permit the grievance arbitration procedure to work, said Martha Kinard, the agency’s regional director in Fort Worth. Yen said the charges refer to complaints from union employees who work for Local 5, which is in San Antonio.
However, Gramajo said many of the disputes, including his own, stem from the SEIU’s Houston office. He added that SEIU officials refuse to respond to certified letters, e-mails and calls requesting that the two sides get together.
This isn’t the first time that the SEIU has run into trouble with its own employees.
HOPE — the Houston Organization of Public Employees, which was formed when SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees combined to represent about 13,000 eligible city employees — was forced to post a notice reminding its own employees they couldn’t be interrogated about their union sympathies, nor could they be fired for joining another labor union.
The National Labor Relations Board required HOPE to post the sign for 60 days after it allegedly fired six employees for their internal union organizing activities. HOPE also agreed to pay them nearly $36,000 in back wages after they tried to join the FAIR union, according to a settlement agreement approved last year.
By signing the agreement, HOPE did not admit violating federal labor law, according to the 2007 accord.
Yen, who is also president of HOPE Local 5-H in Houston, said the union agreed to settle the charges to avoid the cost of going to court.
“We’re a union,” he said. “We like unions.”
He said that while HOPE has recognized FAIR as the bargaining group for its 17 or so employees, they don’t have a contract in place. For more than a year now, both sides haven’t found a time to meet, Yen said.
Unions as employers
“It happens more often than you think when a union as the employer is found to violate the laws,” said Mike Muskat, an employment lawyer with Muskat, Martinez & Mahony in Houston.
When he used to work for a law firm in Washington, D.C., representing labor unions, Muskat said a “fair amount” of the work involved defending his clients against employment claims brought by their employees, including unfair labor practice charges.
“It’s incredible how sympathetic” union management is to the employer’s viewpoint, Muskat recalled.
Houston employment lawyer A. Kevin Troutman says unfair labor practice charges are a hassle, embarrassing and expensive to defend for companies he represents.
“The union may be exactly right and is being unfairly hassled,” said Troutman, who is not involved in the SEIU matter. Or, he said, it could be in the middle of a power struggle.
“I’d say, ‘Welcome to my world,’ ” he said.