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Union's Leader Is Dismissed

November 21, 2002|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

The largest government employee union in Ventura County has fired Executive Director Barry Hammitt, a taciturn and acid-tongued advocate for workers for 28 years.

Governing board members voted by a two-thirds majority to dismiss Hammitt during a tumultuous five-hour meeting late Tuesday, officials said.

A motion to fire the 58-year-old Hammitt came up abruptly after a lengthy discussion of "ongoing internal problems" that have caused friction within the union for months, said Keith Filegar, spokesman for Service Employees International Union, Local 998.

The union represents 6,500 workers employed by county government, South Coast Area Transit and the cities of Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Paula and Port Hueneme.

"Once the motion was made, there wasn't a lot of discussion," Filegar said, declining to elaborate.

Hammitt, reached at home Wednesday, said he is considering contesting the board's action on the grounds, he said, the board did not follow proper procedures. His $112,000 annual contract allows for disputes to be settled by binding arbitration, Hammitt said.

According to Hammitt, one of the major differences centered on his desire to increase the union's clout by expanding its dues-paying membership. The union collects $32.50 each month from members' paychecks, and some members had voiced discontent over recent increases, Hammitt said.

"You have to have large numbers of members to drive a program," he said. "They wanted to charge the least amount of money you have to pay. There is always that struggle."

Hammitt acknowledged his sometimes-arrogant personal style may have alienated newer board members who are not familiar with him. "I'm not a person who puts up with a lot of nonsense," he said. "Maybe I wore out my welcome."

Over three decades, Hammitt has occasionally faced challenges to his leadership but was always able to fend them off.

In March, however, it became clear his power was slipping when the governing board fell two votes short of removing him. At that time, dissenting union members laid out their list of concerns and asked Hammitt to respond, Filegar said.

"We didn't feel we were making progress," he said.

Hammitt joined the union local in 1974, when membership was less than 2,000. At that time maternity benefits were not included in county government's health plan, he said.

Over the years he has won a number of concessions for county workers, including fully paid health insurance benefits, coverage for domestic partners, binding arbitration rights and textbook and tuition programs.

He led county government employees through a six-day strike last year in an effort to win retroactive pension increases. Although that effort failed, the county agreed to add a 2% cost-of-living adjustment to pension checks beginning last July. And the 4,200 librarians, social workers, accountants and clerks who make up the union won raises averaging 13% over four years. But many workers were bitter they were unable to secure the retroactive pension increases.

John Flynn, chairman of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, said he was shocked by the firing.

"Barry is a very professional labor leader. He has done a very good job," Flynn said. "I didn't expect it to come to this."

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