County employees may splinter off, form second union

The former president of the county’s largest employees association and other members are trying to form a breakaway union, although they are meeting fierce resistance from the existing organization.

A group calling itself the San Luis Obispo General Employees Association is seeking to decertify the San Luis Obispo County Employees Association as representatives of the public services, trades and crafts, supervisory and clerical bargaining units.

SLOCEA’s bargaining units represent about 1,700 of the county’s 2,400 workers. It is a powerful force affecting county government and its costs and effectiveness. Although it is a private organization, its activities ultimately affect all county taxpayers.

SLOGEA has until the end of the month to collect the signatures of 40 percent of the members of each of those units. That would not make SLOGEA the representative union — it would simply trigger an election.

The move apparently was spurred by the resignation of two of the three SLOCEA executive officers who were elected late last year, after those they ousted were restored to positions of power in SLOCEA.

Resigning this month were Michele Whipple, who was elected president in October, defeating Vern Halterman, and Sue Edwards, who defeated Joe Alves for secretary-treasurer.

Deborah Smith-Cooke, who defeated Dan Qualey for vice president, remained with SLOCEA and is now president.

Whipple told The Tribune on Friday that despite being defeated in the union election, both Qualey and Alves were reappointed to the board. As past president, Halterman also remains on the board, so that the nexus of power members sought to replace remains, she said.

“I no longer believed in the direction SLOCEA is going in,” Whipple said.

She said the new group, SLOGEA, wants transparency and member participation. “We’re not going to have closed sessions,” and meetings will be run out in the open, like town hall gatherings, she said.

SLOGEA’s Web site, without going into particulars, says the group wants “honest, effective, communicative and fiscally responsible” leadership and promises “integrity and complete transparency.”

It adds that members, not solely officers, will determine the union’s actions, and SLOGEA will “eliminate wasteful spending of your dues dollars.”

SLOCEA is pushing back, warning members not to sign petitions calling for a vote, charging that the petitions misrepresent the truth, and insisting that SLOCEA is “focused on solving members’ problems and grievances, and we are damn good at it.”

An e-mail to members signed only “your SLOCEA staff,” says the union already provides transparency. The association, according to the e-mail, “saved all jobs that management proposed for layoffs in the 2009-2010 fiscal year” and “protected take-home pay and prevented proposed reductions.”