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Union of the fake

Winter Park’s blue-collar workers vote on unionization despite the city’s union-busting campaign

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On July 28, the city of Winter Park’s blue-collar workers will vote on whether to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. If the majority vote is yes, Winter Park’s wastewater plant operators, maintenance workers, electricians and other operational services employees will join the city’s policemen and firefighters in their ability to bargain with the city for wages and benefits (but not much else, since strikes by public employees are not legal in Florida).

The vote comes after an extended campaign by Winter Park officials to surreptitiously bust the union effort – and after years of efforts by the city commission to use economic difficulties as an excuse to chip away at public employees’ benefits and compensation.

In October 2010, a city employee contacted AFSCME and petitioned the union to establish a presence in Winter Park, less than a month after commission members voted to more than quadruple their own salaries. (After two commission seats changed hands in March, however, commissioners’ raises were repealed.) The year before, the city cut “merit increases” for its public employees, and in December 2010, when AFSCME was mulling over whether to insert itself into Winter Park, the city eliminated traditional “longevity bonuses” for employees with more than five years seniority with the city.

In March, AFSCME applied to the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission to hold an election in Winter Park. Because more than 30 percent of eligible workers endorsed an election through mail-in authorization cards, the vote was granted.

Since then, the city has put considerable effort into defeating the union bid. On April 25, the Winter Park City Commission voted unanimously to employ labor relations firm Kulture LLC to meet with employees and managers; the firm, which refuses to disclose its corporate headquarters, is regarded by some as a union buster. It charges Winter Park $2,500 per day, and as of July 22, the city owed Kulture more than $10,000, according to city spokeswoman Clarissa Howard. During the past three months, the city also has mandated that employees attend no fewer than three different presentations warning against the perils of unionization: one from the city manager, Randy Knight, one from the human resources manager, Mary Greenwood, and one from a Kulture representative.

The meetings come in addition to the city’s lengthy letters to workers, including a four-page FAQ mailed on May 27. “History has shown that union-represented city employees have not received anything different than non-union employees,” the letter reads.

Organizer Kevin Hill, who has worked for AFSCME for 10 years, is taken aback by Winter Park’s efforts. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen a public employer go to such great lengths,” he says, noting that he also worked on a unionization push by Oklahoma public employees that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “This is a private sector campaign.”

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