In December 2005, Yvonna Smith lost her job.
An office employee, she was laid off despite a long and clean work record. Worse yet, she said, it was all office politics. A new leadership team came in and gave Smith’s job to someone else.
“I had 19 years in, but I was gone,” she said.
Now Smith is back. And she has unionized along with her co-workers Nancy Yoke and Sherri Hunley. They’ve gained a contract, complete with collective bargaining and grievance procedures.
What makes their case unusual is where they work — Teamsters Local 41 in Kansas City. People who work at unions need unions, too.
Union representation is commonplace among office employees at the national headquarters of most unions, according to the Office and Professional Employees International Union, which represents many of them.
It’s much sketchier among union locals that are smaller and typically have few direct employees. No one seems to track how widespread union representation is among those who work for union locals.
But representation helps because those few employees often lack job security. Labor observers say newly elected local leaders can and sometimes do clear out prior leaders’ office staff.
“These women were smart to get that protection,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s almost a textbook case here of when unionism is necessary.”
Vic Terranella, Local 41 president, supported his office’s effort to organize. He’s seen those jobs disrupted by a change in management.
“They shouldn’t be part of our politics,” Terranella said.
Winning protection, however, meant turning to a different union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.Going union
Unions have long recognized their employees’ interest in and benefit from representation. The debate has centered more on how to deliver it.
Some have argued variously for a separate union for unions’ workers, or that no union was needed, or that the union where they work could handle it, said Judy Ancel, director of Worker Education and Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“You find all kinds of arrangements,” she said.
Early organizing efforts emerged in the 1960s, and Lichtenstein said they continued into the 1970s when some national organizations had begun to see their first need to cut back staff.
Some labor leaders, he said, did not appreciate being cast as “management” or want a formalized relationship or welcome the involvement of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency overseeing union elections and enforcing labor laws.
Others see a continuing need for representation.
In a 2009 interview, the founder of the Association for Union Democracy, Herman Benson, cited the potential for staff to become unwilling tools of leadership in a contested election or otherwise subjected to abuse.
“In any event, staff unionism is a recognition of the principle that the vast powers of the top leadership are legitimately subject to limitations imposed on any employer,” he said.
As part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 41 represents thousands of drivers, dock workers and others in contract negotiations, work grievances and other issues with companies. For example, its members were among the Teamsters who recently rejected a contract offer from Overland Park-based YRC Worldwide Inc. but then accepted one negotiated through the international union.
Hunley joined the local office in 2011, leaving her job at a trucking company whose workers Local 41 represents. If she should lose her office job with the union, she would be able to return to the trucking company protected by the Teamsters-negotiated contract there.
That’s not true for Smith or Yoke, who have worked for the Teamsters union at various posts off and on since the late 1980s. Although they voted in Local 41 leadership elections, they were not covered by any labor contract.
“We paid dues to Local 41, but it didn’t really mean anything,” Yoke said. “We wanted to feel like our jobs were secure.”Not this union
It was clear to the three women that Local 41 couldn’t represent them. Terranella would end up negotiating their contract with himself.
They searched for another Teamsters local to represent them and found a willing unit in Springfield, Mo.
“We’ve been Teamsters forever, and we wanted to stay Teamsters,” said Hunley, who handles dues at Local 41.
Not so fast, came word from the Teamsters headquarters in a letter signed by James Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
“Moreover, the NLRB will not recognize a Local Union as the certified collective bargaining representative of another Local Union affiliated with the same international union,” Hoffa wrote.
Armed even with a negotiated contract, the affiliated local would have no grounds to bring charges to the NLRB on behalf of the workers they represented.
At some point, a disagreement would reach high enough levels within the international union that those called on to make a decision would have interests on both sides. A strike by a local, for example, has to be approved at the international level.
“If there are locals of the Teamsters representing employees of other locals, we would tell them to knock it off,” said Pete Perez, assistant to the regional NLRB director in St. Louis.New sisters
In November, the three women at Teamsters Local 41’s office signed union cards with Local 124 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
They had shopped around and picked the IBEW because it was “financially in good shape” and shared many of their political views, Yoke said.
Local 124 itself has a long history of unionized employees. Its office staff has been represented by OPEIU for several decades, said Ralph Oropeza, the three women’s business representative at 124.
The contract that all sides worked out essentially put the women’s current jobs and pay into writing. They’ll get the same raises they would have expected, but now it will be by contract. And if the business agents at Local 41 get a bigger raise, so will the office staff.
Importantly, the office employees have representation and a grievance procedure if problems arise. For the first time, their jobs and the jobs of those who follow them are secure.
“This sets us equal with our membership,” Yoke said.