The United Auto Workers, the parent union for Santa Monica Rent Control Board employees, is sending a top official to the city, citing a "critical need" to improve relations between staff and management caught in a bitter contract stalemate.
The visit by Jim Braude, an official from the UAW's New York office, was prompted by a letter from rent board administrator Howell Tumlin. Braude is expected to seek solutions to the nine-month negotiating standoff when he meets with both sides in the coming weeks. At issue are wage increases and other benefits.
Braude would not elaborate on the talks in a brief interview this week.
Tumlin, however, confirmed the Braude visit. He said he wrote to the UAW late last year to complain that the Employees Action Committee, the local union that represents about 30 of the board's 40 employees, was "abusing the (board's) grievance procedure" by requesting arbitration hearings on every disciplinary action taken by management since the dispute.
Arbitration is a costly procedure that involves hiring a third party to render a decision in disagreements between staff and management. Tumlin charged that the union was seeking the arbitrations in a bad-faith effort to force management to make more concessions at the bargaining table.
"The union had requested to take about a dozen matters to arbitration," Tumlin said. "My objection was that it would have been an extraordinary expense . . . and I saw it as part of their collective bargaining strategy." Charles Evans, the president of the local union, denied that the arbitration requests were tied to the negotiations. He said the union asked for arbitration because management was treating some employees unfairly.
"There's a pattern of behavior here that goes back a long way," Evans said. "We have gotten people's jobs back because they (management) were violating the process. It's important that people are treated fairly."
Evans said he was grateful that Braude had agreed to come to Santa Monica. By observing both sides, Evans said, Braude might gain a better understanding of the union's grievances and help to find a solution.
'This ... Is Crazy'
"The door is wide open," Evans said. "I want Braude to see how frustrated we are. I want the New York office to see this and understand it. . . . This whole thing is crazy."
Tumlin said he also welcomed Braude's visit.
"I'd be happy to meet with him," Tumlin said. "We remain at an impasse on collective bargaining over wages . . . and I'm interested to see how Braude might be able to assist us."
The union started negotiating changes in its contract last April, and relations between the two sides have steadily deteriorated since. When talks stalled in October, Evans accused Tumlin of "capricious and vindictive" behavior toward union employees. Tumlin denied the charges, but conceded that feelings had soured during the talks.
The gulf widened in November when the union alleged that the agency had misspent public money, harassed staff members and withheld important information from the public. In a widely distributed flyer, the union refered to the board's commissioners as "five blind mice" and called for an investigation of Tumlin's management practices.
Tumlin again denied the allegations and maintained that the union was acting out of frustration over nearly eight months of unsuccessful contract talks. Board chairwoman Eileen Lipson called the union "embittered."
Contributed to Fund
In December, Evans announced that employees had rejected management's final wage offer. In anticipation of a walkout, Evans said employees had started contributing to a national UAW strike fund that qualified them for benefits.
Union members have stayed on the job, but talks remain stalled over two issues: pay raises and the board's policy of using outsiders as hearing examiners in some instances. The board will not grant more than $100,000 in retroactive pay raises demanded by the union. Tumlin said the board also will not abide by the union's request to hire two additional hearing examiners.
The union's three-year contract expires this summer. Tumlin said talks on the new contract are scheduled to begin in April. He said lingering issues over pay and jobs could be resolved then. With that in mind, Tumlin said he is hoping that the UAW's Braude will bring the two sides closer together.