Three hundred Brown University workers voted Tuesday, August 26, to leave the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and join a new independent union. About 100 Brown food service workers, however, voted to stay with the one million-member national SEIU union.
Brown facilities and maintenance workers voted, 107 to 95, and Brown library workers voted, 63 to six, to join the United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island (USAWRI). Brown food service workers, however, voted, 106 to four, to stay with SEIU. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducted the elections.
The votes are the first step by some of the 750 members of SEIU, Local 134, to form a new union rather than merging with a much larger Boston local. In mid-September, 75 employees of Massachusetts-based UNICCO Service Company that work at Providence College and the old Fleet Bank building in downtown Providence will vote on whether to join the upstart union or stay with SEIU. The NLRB has yet to schedule another vote, by the 10 maintenance workers at the Providence Public Library.
Karen McAninch, Local 134’s former business agent, and secretary-treasurer Charles Wood are backing USAWRI. The dispute with SEIU began in 1993 when the national union decided that a Boston-based SEIU local would represent the approximately 300 newly organized UNICCO employees who clean downtown buildings.
That decision made organizing non-union janitors difficult for Local 134, McAninch and Wood say. While its members who work for UNICCO at the Fleet building make $11-to-$13 per hour, plus full benefits, they say, those represented by Boston’s Local 615 — who work in nearby buildings — earn only $6.95, most without benefits.
The problem festered until 2002, when the national union ordered Local 134 to merge with Boston’s much larger Local 615. Responding to protests from Local 134, the national union relented, but then it transferred the Fleet building and Providence College cleaners to Local 615 in March. Those workers now fear wage and benefit cuts when Local 615 negotiates a master contract covering all UNICCO workers.
The national union also angered Local 134 by barring it from organizing food service workers at Providence College, arguing that they belong in the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders Union.
In addition, McAninch and Wood worry that 50 Local 134 members who work for the Jamestown public works department and the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority will be transferred to an SEIU local that represents only public workers. "They’re going to dismantle the local piece by piece," predicts Wood. To stay together, the members decided to form an independent union, he says.
Although uncommon, forming an independent union is possible. In 1998, 3500 Rhode Island health care workers left the American Federation of Teachers, forming the independent United Nurses and Allied Professionals to ensure that their union focused on health-care issues, rather than education.
SEIU international representative Ray Dzialo, who took control of Local 134 after the national union fired McAninch and Wood, warns, "A small independent union has very little resources" to fight difficult employers. But McAninch and Wood say they never received much help from Washington when they were part of SEIU.
Issue Date: August 29 - September 4, 2003
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