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County workers go to state in quest for union

Hernando County employees, tired of what they see as favoritism and other indignities on the part of managers, have demanded the right to vote on creating a union.

The request was made Monday in the form of a petition sent to the state Public Employees Relation Commission. The commission must verify the signatures on the petition and broker an agreement between organizers and the county on the number of employees to be included in the prospective union.

Once those hurdles are cleared, a vote is automatic. Union organizers say county employees could be casting ballots within 90 days.

"They want to have a say . . . as employees of the county," said Richard Thetonia of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is helping workers in the effort. "They want to be the voice of reason."

Since August, dozens of county employees _ advised not to speak to the news media for fear of workplace intimidation _ have been visiting the homes of their colleagues at night, urging them to support the union effort, Thetonia said.

Of those identified under state law as potential members of the bargaining unit, as a union is sometimes called, more than 50 percent signed "showing of interest cards," expressing support for a vote, according to Thetonia. Under the law, only 30 percent of potential bargaining unit members need to sign cards to prompt a vote.

There are about 720 county employees. Thetonia said the AFSCME determined that 460 of them, both blue- and white-collar workers, were eligible to form a union under state law.

According to Thetonia, workers are tired of inconsistent enforcement of personnel rules, favoritism in hiring and promotions and fear of reprisal for speaking out over workplace irregularities.

Barbara Dupre, director of the county Human Resources Department, denied that such complaints had any basis.

"I personally think that we have a small number of disgruntled employees," she said. "I have not seen the widespread morale problems that supposedly exist."

Dupre said she did not think that a union was in the best interest of employees, saying it would require them to pay fees for representation of questionable value.

"They just don't have a good reputation in the state," she said of AFSCME.

Commissioner Diane Rowden welcomed the effort, saying that some of the employees' grievances were valid.

"The issue is fairness," Rowden said. "The buddy system, it's alive and well in the county."

Rowden warned that stalling on the part of the county had brought past unionization efforts to a halt and that she did want to see such tactics used again.

"If they did this fair and square, then let them vote," she said. "Union is not a four-letter word."

_ Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.

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