On July 28, the city of Winter Park’s blue-collar workers will vote on whether to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. If the majority vote is yes, Winter Park’s wastewater plant operators, maintenance workers, electricians and other operational services employees will join the city’s policemen and firefighters in their ability to bargain with the city for wages and benefits (but not much else, since strikes by public employees are not legal in Florida).
The vote comes after an extended campaign by Winter Park officials to surreptitiously bust the union effort – and after years of efforts by the city commission to use economic difficulties as an excuse to chip away at public employees’ benefits and compensation.
In October 2010, a city employee contacted AFSCME and petitioned the union to establish a presence in Winter Park, less than a month after commission members voted to more than quadruple their own salaries. (After two commission seats changed hands in March, however, commissioners’ raises were repealed.) The year before, the city cut “merit increases” for its public employees, and in December 2010, when AFSCME was mulling over whether to insert itself into Winter Park, the city eliminated traditional “longevity bonuses” for employees with more than five years seniority with the city.
In March, AFSCME applied to the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission to hold an election in Winter Park. Because more than 30 percent of eligible workers endorsed an election through mail-in authorization cards, the vote was granted.
Since then, the city has put considerable effort into defeating the union bid. On April 25, the Winter Park City Commission voted unanimously to employ labor relations firm Kulture LLC to meet with employees and managers; the firm, which refuses to disclose its corporate headquarters, is regarded by some as a union buster. It charges Winter Park $2,500 per day, and as of July 22, the city owed Kulture more than $10,000, according to city spokeswoman Clarissa Howard. During the past three months, the city also has mandated that employees attend no fewer than three different presentations warning against the perils of unionization: one from the city manager, Randy Knight, one from the human resources manager, Mary Greenwood, and one from a Kulture representative.
The meetings come in addition to the city’s lengthy letters to workers, including a four-page FAQ mailed on May 27. “History has shown that union-represented city employees have not received anything different than non-union employees,” the letter reads.
Organizer Kevin Hill, who has worked for AFSCME for 10 years, is taken aback by Winter Park’s efforts. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen a public employer go to such great lengths,” he says, noting that he also worked on a unionization push by Oklahoma public employees that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “This is a private sector campaign.”
The city has portrayed its actions as merely informational, implying that its own biases are necessary to correct the spin that workers are receiving from AFSCME. “I don’t see it as a campaign – it’s putting out information to make sure that both sides of the discussion are heard,” says Commissioner Tom McMacken.
One of the city’s talking points is that unions drive an “adversarial wedge” between workers and managers. “We’re a very small city,” Howard told Orlando Weekly in May. “It’s unnecessary for [workers] to unionize in order to have a voice.” (The city has promised workers a 2 percent raise this year, but Howard says the decision has nothing to do with the unionization campaign.)
But Don Nixon, a worker at the city’s Magnolia Water Plant and a union proponent, says that contact with decision makers has been virtually nonexistent until AFSCME’s campaign. “I’ve been at the city four years, and I’ve seen more city management in the past two months than I ever have before,” he says.
In the end, the city of Winter Park holds all the cards: It has the authority to impose a contract upon employees – whether they agree to it or not – which is exactly what it did earlier this year to police officers represented by the Teamsters union. Still, to city wastewater technician Andrew Jordan, the effort is better than doing nothing. “At the end of the day, honestly, this is all about stepping up and taking responsibility for ourselves,” he says.
Below is the four-page Frequently Asked Questions letter mailed to blue-collar employees on May 27, 2011.
Below is an abridged version of a PowerPoint presentation given to employees by Winter Park Human Resources manager Mary Greenwood on July 13, 14, and 15. Greenwood's presentation was split up into three days to accommodate all of the 156 workers eligible to vote in the July 28 election.