BROOKSVILLE — Just moments into the ballot counting, it was obvious that this effort to unionize county workers was going to succeed where others had failed over the years.
As two state officials piled yes ballots to their left and no ballots to their right Wednesday night, the left pile grew much plumper, prompting some in the audience to exchange smiles and gestures of approval.
At one point, Dan Oliver, a county employee central to the unionizing effort, gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to fellow workers across the room.
Once the yeses were counted but not yet announced, Teamster business agent John Sholtes held up a legal pad for the approximately 30 employees and organizers sitting behind him. On the pad he had scrawled, "We Won.''
By a 3-1 ratio, a vote mirroring the number of employees who applied to be Teamsters members, Teamsters Local 79 won the right to bargain the first contract ever for more than 500 county employees.
The election drew a high level of interest from workers, with 85 percent of the eligible general employees and 50 percent of the eligible professional employees casting ballots.
Now, all parties say, the real work begins.
The next step for the Teamsters is to prepare an employee survey to learn about the issues that workers are interested in seeing resolved through the first contract. The union then will request bargaining dates from the county, Sholtes said Thursday.
The margin of victory should strengthen the union's position at the bargaining table, he said. "The better the vote count, the better the contract.''
Teamster representatives already know the hot button issues for workers. Union organizer Steve Mosley noted the most recent unionizing effort grew out of a meeting a year ago with a handful of interested people.
Home visits, rallies and one-on-one conversations followed and a common theme emerged, said Mosley, a 37-year Teamster member from Clearwater.
"It wasn't money,'' he said. "It was that they wanted a little bit of dignity and respect.''
With the county's current revenue shortfall and budget crisis, "people were getting tossed out even if they had been here for years,'' Mosley said.
Sholtes said he thought that the strong vote for the union was an indicator of "the way the workers were treated under the past administration'' and the general economic downturn that has everyone concerned about their financial situation.
"It's really about a preservation of what they have,'' he said. "They look all over the state and they see people losing their jobs and losing their benefits. This is about self-preservation.''
Sholtes said the rhetorical battle has already begun, citing comments from unnamed county officials that workers may lose what they already have. While they don't have a contract, he said, they do have their salaries, seniority and working conditions, and a contract will take build on those.
Once the union vote is certified, which comes if there is no challenge from either side in the 15 days after the vote, the Teamsters will also assemble their bargaining team from the various county job classifications.
"I want the workers to be involved,'' Sholtes said.
"We congratulate Teamsters Local 79 on their determined efforts and look forward to working with them in the continued spirit of mutual respect and cooperation in serving the citizens of Hernando County,'' said County Administrator David Hamilton after the vote count.
Hamilton said he wasn't surprised by the outcome and agreed that the economic downturn had everyone anxious.
He also noted that the county has remained neutral on the unionizing issue and that he had told employees months ago that he would work with them directly or with them through their union representation once the issue was settled.
The county's initial bargaining team will comprise Hamilton, county Human Resources Director Cheryl Marsden and assistant county attorney Jon Jouben, Hamilton said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.