Roy Exum: Mayor Berke, SEIU Sign Pact

Sunday, March 23, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When the workers at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen assembly plant voted down representation by disreputable United Auto Workers union a month ago, there was a marked sense of relief among the many who remember when organized labor once almost ruined Chattanooga. Some believe that had the union’s grip not been broken in the 70s and 80s, there would be little if any manufacturing today and Chattanooga might well have resembled a modern-day Detroit.

As a result of the union’s sordid past, a heavy anti-union sentiment is quite prevalent throughout the South so imagine the shock that will come as it is revealed that just two days before the UAW was thwarted by a 712-626 vote closely watched across the country, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke very quietly signed a 22-page “Memorandum of Understanding” with the local officials of the now-dreaded Service Employees International Union.

The surprising document makes the SEIU “the authorized representative of all general government employees” of the City of Chattanooga and many city employees are mystified how this all came to be. There was no public announcement, no official notification of any sort, and -- most puzzling -- no voting by any city employees to either accept or deny the union’s presence.

Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga Mayor who is now a U.S. Senator, was an adamant opponent of the UAW’s effort to organize VW, which allegedly cost $5 million, telling a Murfreesboro group this week, “This was going to be something harmful to our state, our economy, our jobs,” he said but, my goodness, what is going to happen when the senator and other community leaders learn Andy has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the SEIU?

Mayor Berke, a Democrat who has represented organized labor as an attorney, and SEIU entered the agreement “to effectively carry out the personnel policy and administration of the City of Chattanooga Charter,” according to the document, but under state law in Tennessee there is a rigid belief is that “no enforceable agreement” between any municipality and a labor union can be made except to certain transit workers and schoolteachers.

Nonetheless, the pact was signed by Berke and Doug Collier, the president of SEIU Local 205, on Feb. 12, 2014, and while municipalities in Tennessee are also prohibited by law from entering into collective bargaining practices with unions, there is a carefully-worded clause in the new agreement that states “if” laws were to change, the parties would “promptly meet and negotiate new written documents.”

The SEIU will apparently represent all city employees except those in the Mayor’s office, the city’s legal department and the human resources department. The city agreed to recognize union stewards in the representation of employees, according to the memorandum, and the union is free to use bulletin boards, conduct worksite meetings, and even hold a 15-minute meeting once a month during working hours (at taxpayer expense.)

Further, the city has agreed to make no personnel policy changes without first providing notice to the SEIU and the union has 14 days to meet and discuss such changes. Should a city employee “receive an oral reprimand, written reprimand, suspension, demotion or termination, the union will be permitted to meet with the manager or decision-maker.”

The union will be allocated 600 hours of “release time” with pay per year (taxpayer money) for stewards to attend union meetings and conduct union business and the Memorandum of Understanding will stay in effect until it expires on Dec. 31, 2016.

Under state law, municipal employee strikes are illegal in Tennessee, as is the picketing of municipal offices. With state laws making such agreements unenforceable, some type of collision seems inevitable.

The SEIU has 1.9 million members and one source claims its main goals are “to stand up for working families to help bring economic relief to millions across the country, fix the nation's ‘broken health care system,’ and fight to guarantee workers' rights on the job.”

But there is a compelling alternate view. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Senator, stated it succinctly this week when he remarked, “I would particularly say that there’s been one union that’s run the state of Illinois called the SEIU, a particularly corrupt union. The SEIU -- it’s no mistake that Rod Blagojevich wanted to leave his job as governor and go work for them. It’s because he saw the SEIU as more powerful than the state of Illinois.”

The Service Employees International Union has also faced recent scrutiny in California where Tyrone Freeman, president of SEIU Local 6434 who represented about 190,000 homecare workers, was sentenced to 33 months in prison last October after being convicted of massive mail fraud and embezzlement. He was facing up to 180 years in prison on a myriad of charges that include bigamy and sexual affairs with union staff members.

In Michigan last week the SEIU agreed to pay the second-largest fine in state history, consenting to a $200,000 penalty for failing to properly disclose donors and file timely campaign reports. At the same time, in California union officials have admitted the use of the Fair Healthcare Pricing Act “to encourage -- read, blackmail -- hospitals into accepting conditions that strongly boost SEIU chances of adding to the 90,000 members it already has at California hospitals,” according to an article in UT-San Diego.

The SEIU spent $28 million supporting Barack Obama in 2008, enabling officials to boast it was “the organization that spent the most to help Barack Obama get elected president," and in the president’s 2012 reelection campaign, according to news sources, the union paid its members $11.00 an hour to campaign against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Ironically, there are persistent rumors that the Chattanooga Mayor – the most reclusive city leader in recent memory – may not finish his first term. If Federal Judge Curtis Collier should retire anytime soon, it is believed Present Obama may appoint Berke as the respected Collier’s successor. Berke, who distinguished himself as a senator in the state legislature, has brought a noticeable business-like approach to city government.

The first-term mayor, who pledged “jobs over politics,” has also earned high acclaim for his Violence Reduction Initiative but the Memorandum of Understanding with the Service Employees International Union could cast him and his administration in a different light. Chattanooga is no longer a union-friendly town and many city employees are understandably concerned with their new dance partner.

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