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Parent union wins first round in court
Judge puts SEIU local in trusteeship

By Maria Gonzalez, mgonzalez@VenturaCountyStar.com
September 21, 2004

A FEDERAL JUDGE ACCEPTED THE Service Employees International Union's request Monday to place Local 998, the largest government employee union in Ventura County, in a trusteeship, stripping its officers of power.

Members of the international arm plan to take over the Local 998 offices on Eastman Avenue in Ventura early this week, said Sheila Velazco, SEIU deputy trustee of the local.

The international sought the trusteeship because of suspicions of corruption within the local, Velazco said.

"We wanted to make sure we safeguarded the democratic process," she said.

The temporary restraining order, signed Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles, puts control of the local offices, its funds and financial records in the hands of the international arm's trustee. An Oct. 1 hearing will discuss whether the order should be made permanent.

Local 998 represents about 5,200 people who work for county government and the cities of Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Ventura, Santa Paula and Moorpark.

Both sides claim they are acting in the best interests of the membership.

The SEIU claims that the local officials were going to mishandle union funds and had not followed election protocols to appoint officers.

Disaffiliation vote called issue

Local officials, however, say the international arm merely wants to block a potential vote on whether to disaffiliate with the international union. Local union members have grown dissatisfied with the SEIU and have bristled at a proposed dues increase that would change a flat fee of $16.75 every two weeks to 1.5 percent of a member's income, they say.

"I'm confident we have done nothing wrong," said Keith Filegar, president of the local board of directors.

The battle is far from over, said Ron Bamieh, an attorney representing the local. Bamieh also represents the Ventura County Star.

"The whole plan here is to prevent the local from voting to disaffiliate," Bamieh said.

The SEIU originally moved to put the local union in trusteeship on Friday, but local officials refused to recognize the action without the backing of a federal court. SEIU officials showed up at the Local 998 offices with a locksmith and demanded that local officials vacate the premises. Local officials called the police, who said SEIU could not take possession without a court order.

Local union seeks order, too

The local union filed a separate restraining order Monday seeking to stop the SEIU's move. Bamieh said he expected to argue the local union's case at the Oct. 1 hearing.

The board of directors of the local plans a meeting tonight and it should go on as scheduled, said Mark Pachowicz, the Local 998 executive director. The meeting, originally scheduled for Camarillo, has been changed to the Courtyard by Marriott in Oxnard.

News of Friday's attempted takeover came as a surprise to many in Ventura. Gloria Goldman, a union steward, has worked for the county's Planning Division since 1988. She said her dues would nearly triple under the SEIU plan.

Goldman said many of her co-workers would vote to disaffiliate.

"People can't afford this large of an increase in dues," she said. "To me it's just strong-arm tactics on their part."

Officials with the international, however, said any dues increases would first have to go to a local vote.

Some members dissatisfied

Most members were unaware of the SEIU's move to take over local offices. Some said they hope the local branch triumphs for the sake of the workers, while others say they have had enough of the union and want out.

Dan Stowe, a public works mechanic for the city of Port Hueneme, said about 35 city employees, or half of his co-workers, belong to Local 998.

When Stowe joined the union about five years ago, he was a dedicated member, devoting time to recruiting other employees and pushing for an agency shop that would have required employees become union members. Stowe said he is thankful the local agency shop never happened.

"The point of having a union is of being our liaison with management, and it's not working that way," he said.

Over the last couple of years, Stowe said, his backing for the union has dwindled as support from the union representatives has shrunk. Calls for assistance are rarely returned. He has not seen a union representative in at least one year.

"It's like we're a redheaded stepchild," Stowe said. "They won't even talk to us."

Bill Wdowicki works with Stowe and shares his dissatisfaction with the union.

"It just turned out that it's not a whole lot of protection even if you do join," he said. "I just can't see staying with it."

Lynn Angell, a city of Thousand Oaks employee, said people leaving the union is exactly what she feared would happen after the trustee was installed.

"I'm not one for strong-arm tactics, and this looked like strong-arm tactics to me," she said. "If the international wants my vote, they just lost it for doing that."

The fair thing to do is to allow the members to vote on whether to disaffiliate or whether to change how dues are collected, she said.

She plans to attend the meeting tonight.

"I hope we don't lose membership because of this," Angell said. "I hope it doesn't hurt the union. I hope members go to the union meeting and find out what it's all about."

© 2004 Ventura County Star

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