Monterey County Herald: County workers mull split from SEIU

NewsApril 4, 2009

By LARRY PARSONS, Herald Staff Writer

A growing battle between labor giant Service Employees International Union and a new union that broke away from the SEIU fold will be played out among thousands of Monterey County’s government employees.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers, an Oakland union formed in January by leaders who split from the SEIU, filed petitions this week for an election to decide whether employees in two bargaining units for county government workers will switch from SEIU Local 521 to the new union.

Supporters of the new union estimate about 2,600 health care and general government workers are in the two bargaining units.

About 20 supporters of the new union, including consultant Sergio Sanchez, a former SEIU organizer, held a rally at midday Friday at Natividad Medical Center. They expressed frustration over what they say is poor service and representation by the SEIU since a merger of union locals a few years ago.

Linda Nall, a child support-services worker, said, “We’re asking for local representation.”

Often, Nall said, local workers trying to talk to an SEIU representative are routed through a telephone call center in Pasadena.

But SEIU officials, who watched from the sidelines as their critics talked to media representatives, said they still have a Salinas office and that a recent survey of members showed overwhelming satisfaction with services.

They predicted the petitions — which must be signed by at least 30 percent of the employees in a bargaining unit — would fall short of requiring an election. They said some workers were deceived into signing after supporters of the new union gave them misinformation.

“They’ve been told they would lose their (pension) and health care,” said SEIU consultant Debbie Silva.

Maria Castillo, vice president of the SEIU local, blamed the union decertification campaign on “sour grapes” stemming from a December election where a reform slate of officers ousted former entrenched officers.

But Malia Esteban, a children’s services worker, said the merger “has not worked for us.” SEIU officials haven’t kept employees apprised of possible ramifications of the county’s budget crisis, she said.

“We’re not getting the support,” said Justin Light, a water maintenance worker.

Castillo countered, “I believe we have a done a good job.”

The county has 30 days to verify the petition signatures, a task being done by the county elections department, Sanchez said. He said he was confident enough signatures were collected to trigger an election.

The petitions were signed by about 35 percent of the employees in each bargaining unit, Sanchez said.

“They are good signatures,” he said.

The new union claims it has gathered signatures from about 95,000 SEIU-represented workers in California who want to leave the union.

The battle started last year, when the 2 million-member SEIU wanted to place the United Healthcare Workers, which represents about 150,000 health care workers, under a single SEIU local. Several people from the health care workers group spun off to form the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

The SEIU represents employees with several local government agencies and has about 4,500 members in Monterey County, consultant David Diaz said.

Source: Monterey County Herald