A decision announced this week by the West Hollywood City Council could force the city's 55 employees to vote whether they want to unionize or remain unaffiliated.
Despite hopes by pro-union city workers that the council would recognize their recent organizing efforts, the council has ordered the city's middle-level managers and financial department employees--two of the city's three worker bargaining units--to vote June 20 on their representation.
And although the City Council agreed to recognize a third bargaining unit of general employees (the largest unit of the three, covering about 35 workers), if a pending state verification shows two-thirds approval, city workers' dissatisfaction with the two-thirds requirement may force an election for that unit as well.
The unionization attempt has taken on significance because of West Hollywood's frequent attempts to portray itself as a progressive, atypical community. Top city officials and pro-union workers alike have insisted that they intend to create a unique, harmonious working environment at City Hall.
But the council's action took place last week against a backdrop of rising intra-office tension at City Hall over the effort by city workers to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Competition between pro-union workers and top city supervisors for the loyalty of uncommitted workers has intensified.
Even the council's decision, reached during a closed session last Thursday, came after intense discussions, according to several council members present. "I think everyone will be relieved when this is over," Councilman Alan Viterbi said.
The organizing effort picked up steam three weeks ago, when 70% of the city's work force signed authorization cards in favor of unionizing. The movement was spurred, city workers said, by dissatisfaction over what they claim are unfulfilled promises by city officials and vague employment and personnel policies.
As a result of last week's City Council decision, elections will be held at City Hall for middle-level managerial workers (9 or 10 supervisors will be in this category, depending on continuing negotiations) and financial department employees (about eight workers, called "confidential employees" because of their work with the city's financial figures).
"There are a sizable number of people in both those units, pretty close to half, who have indicated they haven't made a final decision," City Manager Paul Brotzman said.
It is in those two units that tension has been highest, city officials said, not only between pro-union workers and top supervisors, but also between pro-union and anti-union employees.
Last Thursday, according to City Hall workers, several anti-union employees circulated a petition asking for elections. The move angered pro-union workers, who said the petition was circulated secretly and at the behest of top management.
According to city workers and top city officials, 13 employees signed the anti-union petition. At last week's council session, two of them spoke against the organizing effort, raising the specter of a "closed shop," a situation in which the union would represent all workers whether they wanted representation or not.
Brotzman, too, has raised that concern. "An agency (closed) shop is obviously a potential," he said. "It's one of the first things a union asks for."
Abby Baker, a city rent control staffer and a member of the steering committee spearheading the organizing effort, downplayed that possibility, saying management officials are using the fear of an agency shop to frighten potential union supporters.
Baker also charged that top management officials attempted to influence some wavering middle-level supervisors by re-negotiating their salary ranges. "We've been told some salary sweeteners were discussed," she said.
Brotzman said no sweeteners have been offered. "There have been none discussed," he said, adding that the only conversations about salaries started months ago and have been continuing since.
Salary Discussions Halted
Nevertheless, the council, in its policy session Thursday, ordered a halt to any salary discussions between management and employees. The council also forbade further union discussions within City Hall.
Unlike the two smaller bargaining units, there has been little tension among the city's general employees, according to city officials. Even Brotzman concedes that the 35 general employees (mostly clerical and other non-specialized employees) appear eager to support the union move.
But the council has insisted that authorization cards that the general employees signed three weeks ago in favor of union representation must be sent next week to the state Conciliation Board for verification. If the board finds that more than two-thirds of general employees approve unionization, the organizing effort would be approved without an election.
But Baker said pro-union workers feel the two-thirds requirement is too high and could set a precedent for future vote requirements. "We feel it should be the standard majority-plus-one vote that we would have in a regular union election," she said.
Because of the council's imposition of the two-thirds requirement, Baker said the steering committee will ask for elections for all three bargaining units.
The day before the elections, the council is expected to vote on an employer-employee resolution, which would set in place a series of rules governing the city's collective bargaining process. An earlier version of the resolution was tabled in January, after the pro-union city workers criticized a number of its provisions.
Several council members said they expect the final version to appear similar to the earlier version, but they said they expect some debate over its most controversial provisions. "I suspect there's going to be some pretty intense discussions," Mayor Stephen Schulte said.