NEW PORT RICHEY — Just days after learning they'll be wrestling with a roughly $18-million deficit this year, Pasco commissioners got this news:
County workers have taken their first step toward unionizing.
On behalf of the Pasco employees, Teamsters Local Union No. 79 on Tuesday filed for an election with the Public Employees Relations Commission, the state organization that oversees public employee unions.
The Teamsters propose that 1,020 white-collar and blue-collar employees of Pasco would be in the union. More than half of that number — 542 — have signed statements requesting an election.
By law, the Teamsters needed only 30 percent of the proposed employee group to request an election.
The Public Employees Relations Committee will decide if the petition meets all the requirements; if it does, the state office would order an election be held.
To form a union would require a majority of the eligible employees who cast votes.
"We're right on schedule," said Randy Pines, a Teamster organizer.
The jobs proposed to be part of the union range from animal services technicians to library assistants, code enforcement officers to electricians, recreation workers to social workers.
Pasco Fire Rescue personnel are already unionized as a local chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The Teamsters, which organized Hernando County employees last year, turned their attention to Pasco employees last summer, holding meetings and knocking on doors.
Last September, Pasco commissioners laid off 98 employees due to a combination of budget cuts and reorganization but ended up rehiring all but 26 in other positions.
Many of those who were rehired, however, took significant pay cuts. And that came on top of another year of frozen wages.
This budget year promises to be even tougher. Commissioners last year raised the tax rate to "buy back" some of their planned cuts, but raising taxes isn't a sure bet this year.
So are pay and job security driving the union push? Pines refused to elaborate, saying workers' issues are "all over the spectrum" and that money wasn't the only issue.
He said unionizing does not have to be a confrontational process with commissioners.
"We will sit across the board from them and talk openly and honestly," he said. "The employees will have a voice on the job once we win."
Teamster monthly dues for government employees are 2.25 times workers' hourly rate, according to the group's Web site. So a $12-an-hour worker, for instance, would owe $27 a month.
Last August, the Teamsters in Tampa held a "boot camp" for potential organizers. The Teamsters' account of that event, which is posted on the group's Web site, quoted two Pasco County employees who attended.
A Pasco Utilities worker, Dan McLean, said unionizing was the way to go because "things are a lot better, not just with wages, but with how you feel about yourself and your job."
Deb Walton, a road and bridges worker for the county, said: "I want that protection, job security and respect."
Some Pasco commissioners said Thursday the news left them with plenty of questions.
"If the bottom line is they're so unhappy working at the county, well, that makes me so sad," said Chairwoman Pat Mulieri.
She said she wondered if there was anxiety among workers about how they fit into the reorganization of Pasco. That makeover is aimed at streamlining operations and attracting higher paying private sector jobs to the county.
"Are we not hearing them? ... Did they not feel valued? Did our HR (human resources) department fail them?"
Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said she understood economic issues that might be at play — worries over job security, low pay — but said she wondered if the Teamsters might be promising workers more than the cash-strapped county can deliver.
"What is it going to accomplish?" she said. "I don't know if it accomplishes their objective."
"I think it's just a sign of the times," said Commissioner Michael Cox. "I certainly support people's rights to be organized. There are realities that we have to face, fiscal realities. I think maybe there's a perception out there that there's money we can use for raises and that's just not the case."
"If they're looking for additional money," said Commissioner Ted Schrader, "I don't know how they're expecting us to do that."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.