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Union Claims Harassment by Rent Board in Midst of Talks

October 27, 1985|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

A union representing more than half of the city employees who work for the Santa Monica Rent Control Board has accused the agency of harassing union members, who are involved in wage negotiations.

Charles Evans, president of the Employees Action Committee union, said his organization is the victim of a "capricious and vindictive" management that is using the grievance procedure as a form of harassment. He said board administrator Howell Tumlin has created a "dismal" work atmosphere.

Tumlin denied the charge, saying the union's complaints were designed to improve its bargaining position in negotiations over salary increases. He said he was aware of the union's complaints. He conceded that some members are unhappy, but questioned the union's motives for going public with its grievances.

The union is seeking pay raises before its contract expires next year. Tumlin said negotiations have been under way since April. After reaching an impasse recently, the two sides agreed to call in a state mediator. Tumlin refused to discuss the terms of the negotiations, but said he expects to reach an agreement fairly soon.

'Record Number of Grievances'

Evans denied that employee grievances are tied to contract negotiations. He cited what he said were several instances in which the board spent or will spend large sums of money on arbitration hearings involving union members. In each case so far, Evans said the union has triumphed over board management.

"There are now a record number of grievances, terminations and requests for arbitration," said Evans, adding that his job is on the line because of poor performance reviews. "This contributes to poor morale and inefficiency (and) costs the tenants of Santa Monica a considerable amount of money."

Evans said 15 employee grievances are on file with the board. In most instances, union members have challenged the fairness of disciplinary measures taken by board management, Evans said. He estimated that the nine hearings now scheduled for arbitration will cost the board more than $51,000.

Evans said the board has spent $164,500 on past disputes.

"The people who find themselves under the greatest scrutiny from management are those who have been here the longest," Evans said. "I believe the management . . . wants to get the long-time people out of the agency."

'Destructive Management'

At a recent convention of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the organization that started the city's rent control movement, union members handed out flyers attacking management. Among the protesters was Mary Dresser, who was recently fired from her job as the board's public information officer. Dresser said her dismissal will be challenged by the union.

"I will be empathizing with my friends on the staff who must endure this autocratic and manipulative administration," Dresser said in a letter to the union. "I will do everything I can as a citizen to oppose the destructive management I have observed."

Tumlin, a former union organizer, said the employees may be grandstanding in order to gain an upper hand in the stalled negotiations.

"I remember drafting and handing out that kind of literature when I was in the labor movement," Tumlin said. "It sounds very familiar. . . . It's part of the time-honored process of collective bargaining."

The Employees Action Committee represents more than 20 of the board's 40-odd employees. Its members include clerical people, investigators, administrative analysts, petitioners, secretaries and hearing examiners.

The group negotiated a three-year contract in 1983. At that time, some people criticized the board for giving union members higher wages and benefits than those afforded most other city employees. The agreement also allowed union members to negotiate for higher wages before the contract expires.

The administrator agreed that the board and the union have been involved in unusually high number of arbitration hearings. But he attributed the recent rash of complaints to the union's frustration with its wage negotiations.

"Fifteen grievances have been filed since the time . . . the board informed the union that it was basically not agreeable to the union's wage demands," Tumlin said. "If I were a business agent assisting this local union, one thing I might suggest to them is to put on a little more pressure by filing grievances against anything they can find."

Tumlin also denied that the board is anti-union, pointing out that most of the board's five commissioners work for unions or have pro-union backgrounds.

Rent Control Board Chairwoman Eileen Lipson said some employee gripes are legitimate, but predicted that the disagreements will be worked out. Lipson said there is no evidence to support allegations that the board is anti-union.

Board member Wayne Bauer, a long-time activist in the city's rent control movement, said the union members have been given a "model contract." Bauer said the union's current complaints are irresponsible.

"Every commissioner on the board is pro-labor and our goal in part has been to create a good work atmosphere," Bauer said. "We feel we've been fair to the employees. . . . With any agency, there's bound to be some problems. But I don't think they're reflective of abuse by management."

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