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June 10, 2006

Two unions pursue unity
Rivals ready to join to represent city employees
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

THE TWO BITTER union rivals fighting to win the hearts and minds of 13,000 City Hall employees have a tentative agreement to join forces.

Officials from the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are brokering a deal to create a new union - the Houston Organization for Public Employees, or HOPE.

After months of trading accusations, the two sides began meeting at both the local and national level to avoid what was becoming an increasingly nasty battle.

While officials from both unions say they're still working out the details, the partnership is expected to be announced next week during a news conference with Mayor Bill White.

"We're finding that the more we discuss and get to know the other, they have the same goals as us," said Greg Powell, business manager of AFSCME Local 1550. "We're on the same page, and we can get some things done together."

And, Powell added, 50 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.

"The goal is to bring employees together so everyone is standing together," said SEIU spokesman Chris Coil, who said the talks were progressing well. "The goal is to focus on the issues in the city."

For nearly six decades, AFSCME has represented workers at City Hall. But because state law did not allow them to bargain collectively, AFSCME mustered only meager support.

A lengthy battle

The situation changed last year when the state granted Houston city workers collective bargaining rights. But before AFSCME could even mount a recruitment drive, it found itself in a lengthy battle with SEIU, which had split with the AFL-CIO over whether the huge labor federation was devoting enough resources to organizing.

"It strikes me as a victory for SEIU," said John Collins, a longtime employment lawyer who specializes in labor/management issues at Seyfarth Shaw in Houston.

Before this started, AFSCME was the representative, he said. As a result of the combination, SEIU has gained a solid foothold among the employees and is going to function as a bargaining representative.

The coalition, while unusual, isn't the first time competing unions have decided to work together, said Richard Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University.

It's fairly common in higher education, Hurd said. For example, in New York, SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers have joined to represent professional workers.

While he wasn't aware of a similar coalition on a municipal level, it makes sense if the city already agreed to recognize a union and both unions claim to have majority support.

"I think each union would prefer to represent the workers on their own, but there are times when it's not appropriate to fight it out," Hurd said.

One detail still under debate is who would run the new union.

One proposal under discussion is for the board to have five members, three from SEIU and two from AFSCME. Another proposal is for AFSCME to have three seats and SEIU to have two, said Powell, who called the discussions a "sticking point."

There have also been suggestions about two members from each union and a fifth member as a neutral, said Powell, as well as a six-member board with an equal number of representatives from each union.

One thing that appears certain, however, is that the new labor group will have to go out and get signatures of at least half of the city's 13,000 employees to prove to the city that they want HOPE to represent them.

The Texas statute that permits city employees to bargain collectively requires the labor organization to have dues-paying members, said Connie Acosta, division chief for labor for the city's legal department who met with representatives of SEIU and AFSCME earlier this week.

'Old wounds'

Mike Muskat, an employment lawyer with Muskat, Martinez & Mahony, questioned whether city employees will become cynical about the new coalition.

"Here you have two unions that have been very critical of each other on a local and national level and claim to have very different views on how best to represent workers," he said. "Yet now they are prepared to jointly manage a very large labor organization and to represent workers at the bargaining table?"

Some city employees may wonder whether these unions care more about numbers and dues than effective representation, Muskat said.

"It has the chance to run about as smoothly at the end of the Civil War when the Yankees and the Confederates were supposed to get along the next day," said E. Dale Wortham, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO. "Old wounds take a long time to heal. Nasty things were said between the two unions."


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