Group may force a union vote

A breakaway county employee union says it has gathered enough signatures to force an election that could decertify the county’s main member association as representative for one group of county employees.

SLOGEA — the San Luis Obispo General Employees Association — said it has turned in signatures from more than 40 percent of the 180 members of the Trades Services unit.

The signatures, if verified, would be one of several steps that could trigger an election to determine whether these workers will be represented by SLOGEA or their current representative, the San Luis Obispo County Employees Association (SLOCEA), in negotiations with county management over wages and benefits.

A SLOGEA effort to gather sufficient signatures failed in three other bargaining units — public services, supervisory and clerical bargaining units.

The county Human Resources Department is charged with authenticating the signatures. Human Resources Director Tami Douglas-Schatz says she will “determine the validity” of the SLOGEA petition today.

“If we determine that SLOGEA has submitted a valid petition for employee recognition,” Douglas-Schatz wrote in an e-mail, “the Employee Relations Policy requires a 30-day open period for the filing of challenging petitions.

“After that period is closed, a secret ballot election will be held. All employee organizations that submitted valid petitions shall be included on the ballot along with the choice of “No Organization.” The employee organization receiving the majority vote becomes the recognized employee organization,” she wrote.

The Trades Services contract does not expire until June 2011, she said.

While in one sense this is an internal union matter, in another it is in the public purview.

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.

The breakaway 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 in January 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 has said that despite being defeated in the union election, both Qualey and Alves were reappointed to the board.

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

The nascent movement has taken on the bare-knuckle characteristics of a national political campaign.

Challengers have accused SLOCEA employees and officers of underhanded behavior that disregarded the general membership and of acting as though new board members had not been elected.

Some SLOCEA members have accused SLOGEA of seeking to avenge the firing of former field representative Christine Brown last summer.