By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
DULUTH, Minn. — Union members expect their organization to defend their employment, but in the case of 11 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees hired by the Human Development Center in Duluth their would-be protector tried to take their jobs away.
“Employees were coming to our human resources department absolutely panicked,” said Jim Getchell, executive director of Human Development Center. “Here they had landed this brand new job with this great company that’s been here 75 years in their chosen career working in behavioral health and then getting a letter within the first few weeks of employment from their union saying that they’re to be terminated.”
In a startling episode of role reversal, HDC filed an unfair labor practices complaint in August 2013 with the National Labor Relations Board to prevent AFSCME Council 5 from forcing the mental health nonprofit to fire the newly hired employees.
The complaint alleged that on six occasions from mid-March to mid-July 2013 AFSCME asked HDC to “terminate a number of newer unit employees for non-payment of dues or service fees. Some hadn’t been employed long enough to reach a pay period, and some in fact had begun paying,” according to the HDC complaint.
The case offers an unusual inside look at the extraordinary leverage unions wield to essentially fire workers by enforcing provisions in labor contracts.
Ironically, AFSCME warns new employees in a welcome-to-our-union letter when they start with HDC about the ever-present threat to their positions — supposedly from the company, not the union.
“Alone, workers are like fingers poking at bad bosses. United, we fuse our fingers into a mighty fist that is stronger than the bosses who threaten our pensions, our health care, and even our jobs,” said Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5 in the introductory letter.
Except the fist in this instance was AFSCME’s swinging at the very employees supposedly under the protection of the union contract. The reason? Alleged failure to pay union dues, AFSCME documents show.
“Because you have not complied with the contract agreement between AFSCME and Hdc (sic) we understand that you are electing to voluntarily end your employment,” states an AFSCME letter in the NLRB case files. ”Therefore a request for termination of your employment in 30 days will be sent to Hdc within fifteen (15) days from the date of this letter.”
The termination notifications were categorized as the “Threat to Employees Letter” for purposes of the labor board’s proceedings. But there was a catch, according to HDC’s grievance. The AFSCME letters went to workers still in the probationary period of their new jobs, making them ineligible to join the union or obligated to pay union dues.
Moreover, the union never did the math to inform the affected employees how much they supposedly owed in dues, leaving employees to try to figure it out on their own.
“Currently you are in arrears for one (1) month’s fees in the amount of $0.00,” stated one of AFSCME’s notices displaying “termination letter” in the subject line. “If you fail to advise us of your choice to become a Member or Agency Fee Payer, and if you fail to make arrangements for the payment of these funds within fifteen (15) days from the date of this letter, we will seek your discharge from employment.”
“We turn over the list of all of our new hires and all of our terminations to the unions and they know who’s coming and who’s going to our unionized positions and the union takes it from there,” Getchell said. “And what they do and how good they are at administering this is an open question.”
Paperwork filed with the NLRB suggests up to half of the 140 employees in union positions at HDC may not pay dues or fair share fees at all. Dues range from $170 to $620 per year depending on the member’s pay scale, AFSCME documents show. AFSCME officials did not respond to requests for comment.
“Between 25 and 50 percent of those individuals have never signed a union card and therefore we’re not withholding union dues for them,” Getchell said. “It’s the union’s responsibility to get those union cards signed, not ours. And what I’ve been told is this is unusual.”
A January settlement agreement posted by the NLRB ordered AFSCME to stop “threatening to seek employees’ termination without giving them lawful notice of their dues obligations.” In the NLRB-approved settlement posted in the workplace, AFSCME agrees not to “coerce employees into authorizing dues check-off by threatening to discharge them for not paying “zero” in dues.
As for the 11 employees originally targeted for termination by AFSCME? They get to keep their jobs, thanks to a company that stood up to the union that tried to get them fired.
Contact Tom Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org.