Staffers at the Service Employees International Union accused their employer of engaging in “unfair labor practices” in a filing with the government Thursday, intensifying a fight between management and the rank and file inside one of the country’s most powerful labor groups.

The move by SEIU employees could lay the groundwork for a strike at the union’s headquarters in Washington if the two sides can’t settle on a new collective bargaining agreement for the staff. The staffers claim in their filing that the union has not bargained in good faith, an allegation the National Labor Relations Board would now look into.

“It’s a step we tried to avoid,” said David Hoskins, a researcher for SEIU and shop steward for the union representing staffers, the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 2. “We kept hoping they would come to the table and do the right thing.”

A spokeswoman for SEIU, Sahar Wali, said the union was proud of the contract offer it had made to staff and that it had bargained in good faith all along. “We made demonstrable progress at the bargaining table. And then, sticking to our goal of coming to agreement with our staff, we made even more progress toward common ground through mediation,” she said.

The SEIU represents 2 million workers, most of them in health care and service jobs. It has been the prime driver behind the Fight for $15 movement aimed at raising the minimum wage and bringing union representation to fields like fast food.

But as HuffPost reported in March, the negotiations between the SEIU and its own staff union have been acrimonious for months. At the center of the spat are layoff protections for SEIU employees. Management is willing to maintain them for current staff but wants to get rid of them for new hires. The staff union says accepting that arrangement would sell out their future colleagues and shrink their union over time through future job cuts.

The fight comes at a difficult time for organized labor, as some unions trim their budgets to deal with legal setbacks at the Supreme Court and in statehouses. The AFL-CIO, the leading labor federation representing 55 unions, is wrapped up in its own ugly scuffle with staffers in Washington, as management seeks the power to furlough employees.

SEIU management won part of their internal battle last week, when a group of about 30 employees who work for the SEIU’s pension fund voted to approve management’s contract offer. But another group of 55 staffers who work directly for the union voted it down, demanding that the SEIU include the layoff protections for any new colleagues. It appears that group would now continue the contract fight on their own.

The offer accepted by the pension fund employees will grant them retroactive back pay after they went without raises due to a pay freeze. The other employees were told the back pay offer would be taken off the table if they rejected the deal.

“Half the group that was at the table voted to ratify this contract which is being implemented now, and the other half did not,” Wali said.

Under the layoff protection, if a worker has at least five years of service at the SEIU, management cannot eliminate that person’s position without offering another job. It is a strong job guarantee that management claims it can’t afford to continue for new hires, given the attacks on unions and collective bargaining.

Public sector unions like the SEIU suffered a major legal setback last year at the Supreme Court, in a ruling that gave government workers the option to stop paying fees to the unions that represent them.

The staffers had voted to authorize a strike months ago, but a walkout may be more likely now. Because they are alleging unfair labor practices, the staffers could now carry out what’s known as an unfair labor practice strike, a work stoppage that comes with special legal protections. The employer cannot permanently replace workers in such a strike, unlike in a strike over economic issues, like low pay or cuts to health care.

The SEIU itself has often taken advantage of unfair labor practice strikes, as the architect of the Fight for $15 campaign. Workers in fast food and other low-wage industries have gone on rolling one-day strikes while accusing their employers of violating labor law.

Hoskins said job security was important to fight for not just for future colleagues, but for the strength of the staff union itself.

“We want a fair contract that does not demand any concessions about layoff protections,” he said.

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