New Orleans :
City Workers Consider Union

It's up to mayor to call for a vote

By Stephanie Grace
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

A majority of New Orleans city workers has expressed interest in joining a union, and the group seeking to represent them has asked Mayor Marc Morial to schedule an election on the matter before Labor Day.

Avis Russell, Morial's executive counsel, said the mayor will announce within the next 10 to 14 days whether he will approve an election.

At a Thursday afternoon news conference, Wade Rathke, chief organizer for Service Employees International Union Local 100, said that in May he gave Morial's staff copies of more than 1,800 cards signed by workers who wish to be represented, a figure he said includes about 60 percent of the city's employees.

"This is not one of these smoke-and-mirrors things, there's a shoebox somewhere . . ." Rathke said. "They actually have had (the cards) in City Hall for two months."

Although there have been union drives at City Hall before, none has reached this advanced stage in the organizing process.

Russell, who said she just learned of the request Thursday, said she has been asked to examine the city's options and obligations, and to consult with a labor lawyer. Beyond that, she said, she was not prepared to say what the city would do.

Equally vague is what the employees want from a union. Although the city's notoriously low wages are a main concern in the work force, a union would not be able to negotiate wages and items such as pensions and job classifications because those are determined by the Civil Service Commission. It could, however, negotiate benefits and policies that affect worker conditions, such as transfer policies and protection during privatization efforts.

Unlike union drives in the private sector, an election to organize city workers can only take place with Morial's OK, said Louis Robein , a lawyer working with SEIU and the New Orleans Public Employees Council, AFL-CIO.

Even if he determines that the cards are valid, Morial is not legally required to call for a vote. But if he doesn't, workers have the right to "engage in economic action" to force the issue, Robein said. Such action could include a strike.

Rathke refused to discuss what might happen if Morial turns down the request.

"We believe that this is the fair thing to do and the right thing to do, so it hasn't even occurred to us that he'll say no," Rathke said. "I just don't think there's any reason at this time to speculate."

Stephanie Grace can be reached at or (504) 826-3383.

© The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.

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