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Unions fight to represent BUSD service employees

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Saturday April 13, 2002

Ding! Ding! 

It’s round two in the fight to oust Local 1, the Martinez-based union that represents the Berkeley Unified School District’s classified employees, and both sides are swinging. 

Last year Local 39, an AFL-CIO affiliate with offices in San Francisco, attempted to pry away Local 1’s operations and support unit, which represents maintenance workers, food service workers and bus drivers among others. But the effort stalled in a squabble over the expiration date for the current contract. 

This year Local 39 is back, hoping to win representation of the operations unit. A second union, the Council of Classified Employees, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO, is attempting to take control of Local 1’s other Berkeley units – the paraprofessional and clerical outfits. 

Local 39 and CCE have both collected enough signatures from Local 1 members to force elections. The Public Employment Relations Board, an independent state body, will send out ballots to union members in the operations unit Monday, and will count the votes May 7.  

Jerilyn Gelt, labor relations specialist for the board, said she expects elections for the other two units to be complete by the end of the school year in June. 

Dissatisfied workers and union organizers for Local 39 and CCE say Local 1 has not provided adequate service. Phone calls go unreturned, they say, and grievances go unfiled. 


“Local 1 has taken people’s dues money and not provided them what they’re supposed to provide – service and representation,” said Stephanie Allan, business representative for Local 39. 

Pat Robertson, a district storekeeper and president of the operations unit, acknowledges that it often takes a few days for “overworked” business agents in the Local 1 Martinez office to return calls.  

Still Robertson, who works in the district and provides day-to-day support for union members, said he is very responsive. 

“I return any call,” he said, noting that he provides union members with his home phone number and pager. 

But Allan said the Local 1 structure, which gives heavy responsibility to full-time district employees like Robertson, limits the quality of representation. If the operations employees choose Local 39, Allan said, she will serve as a full-time, effective representative. 

But Roberston said he spends three to four hours on union business every night and argued that he has been very effective, winning tens of thousands of dollars in back pay for employees. 

Rick Spaid, acting president of the clerical unit, argued that the current crop of Local 1 union leaders have significant experience and are better qualified to represent union members. 

“These people are going to be really new, and not know anything about the district,” Spaid said, referring to CCE, which is attempting to wrest control of his unit. 

But Frank Oppedisano, who is organizing the CCE campaign, said the American Federation of Teachers and AFL-CIO, who back the CCE, bring a wide range of experience, expertise and political clout to the table that will serve union members well. 

Walter Mitchell, an instructional aide at Berkeley High School who participated in an American Federation training in Washington, D.C. last week, said he has been impressed by the group’s professionalism and political strength. 

But Spaid is not convinced. He said the AFL-CIO’s top leadership will be distant and unresponsive, and argued that CCE and Local 39 should not be targeting workers who are already organized. 

“I’m kind of appalled by these other unions,” he said. “They should really being going out trying to organize new workers.” 

“We go after people who need to be represented,” Oppedisano replied. “We were called in here by classified employees.” 

Several employees interviewed by the Planet said they are ready to make the switch to CCE or Local 39. 

“I do not feel represented by Local 1,” said Samuel Scott, a general maintenance worker for the district, who added that training programs offered by Local 39 make that union an attractive alternative to Local 1. 

But Robertson said the battle for control of the operations unit is a toss-up at this point. Maintenance workers are in the Local 39 camp, Robertson acknowledged, and Local 1 will need the bus drivers and food service workers if it is to win. Custodians, he said, may be the swing vote. 

Safety officers, who almost uniformly support Local 39, are currently in the operations unit and will have an opportunity to vote in the coming weeks. But a Local 1 claim that the officers actually belong in the paraprofessional unit may lead to a challenge of the election, complicating the situation. 

Oppedisano and Spaid both say they are confident of victory in the battle for the paraprofessional and clerical units.