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July 31, 2013

SEIU Drops Bid to Represent 7000 Home-Care Workers, Clearing Way for AFSCME

SEIU.logoOne of the nation's most powerful labor unions abruptly abandoned its fight to represent 7000 Vermont home-care workers Wednesday afternoon.

The Service Employees International Union, which claims 1.9 million members nationwide, cited the cost, divisiveness and long odds it faced in its battle to represent what will become the the state's largest collective bargaining unit. 

With the SEIU out of the running, its sole opponent — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — is almost certain to prevail in an election scheduled to conclude in early October. AFSCME will then be charged with negotiating state subsidies and benefits for independent contractors who provide in-home care to elderly and disabled Vermonters.

"We were having a difficult time getting our message to be as well-received as we would have liked," explains Matt McDonald, who ran the SEIU's organizing campaign in the state. "You know, I think we were highly disadvantaged by the fact that we don't have members here in Vermont."

AFSCME, which has operated in Vermont since 1953 and represents more than 2000 municipal workers in the state, painted itself throughout the campaign as the local contender. SEIU, which represents 600,000 home-care workers nationwide, argued that it had more experience fighting for similar workers.

But according to McDonald, that message simply did not resonate.

"We can't make up that we're the local guys. It is what it is," he says. "If that's not working, there's not much else to go to."

Carolyn Klinglesmith, AFSCME's Vermont organizing director, agrees.

"I think they — after looking at the ground and the level of support — they made the right decision. It was a decision to not spend resources to oppose each other, but work collaboratively," she says. "I think the providers in Vermont showed they strongly support AFSCME. We're very happy they made the right decision and didn't make us go through the whole process."

According to Vermont Labor Relations Board executive director Timothy Noonan, his organization was preparing to send ballots to the roughly 7000 eligible members of the collective bargaining unit Sept. 9 and count them Oct. 2 and 3. Voters would have chosen between either of the two unions or "neither." If none of those three options received a majority vote, a runoff would have been scheduled.

Polling and focus groups conducted by SEIU found that the union was struggling to force a runoff with AFSCME, McDonald says, and found it "unlikely" SEIU could overcome the deficit in a second election. Given the cost of campaigning in not one, but two elections — potentially to no avail — McDonald says it was a wiser course to pull out now.

"Good decision-making is knowing when to stop spending, and we just decided it's time to stop spending here," he says.

"I'm convinced they wouldn't have forced a runoff," Klinglesmith echoes. "Our support was overwhelming."

Just how much each union invested in the fight is unclear. Both spent tens of thousands of dollars last spring successfully lobbying the legislature to expand collective bargaining rights to home-care workers — and tens of thousands more in campaign donations during last fall's statewide elections. SEIU plowed an additional $200,000 into a pro-single payer advocacy group called Vermont Leads.

Those bills were likely to keep growing, McDonald says. He estimates it would have been "a million dollar operation" to fly 150 to 200 SEIU members to Vermont, rent cars and put them up in hotels as they supported the union's get-out-the-vote efforts this fall. 

"And we'd maybe have to do that twice," he adds.

Both sides say the contest was growing more and more divisive, with each focusing aggressively on a small universe of potential voters. That could poison the well at the national level, where the two organizations occasionally work together.

"The closer we got to the election, it was gonna get more divisive," Klinglesmith says. "We were trying not to have it be that way, but it's really hard to avoid."

One outstanding question is whether SEIU will continue to invest in Vermont Leads, an outfit many Vermont politicos suspected was created to curry favor with Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislative Democrats during SEIU's attempt to establish itself in the state. 

In May, McDonald told Seven Days he did not expect the outcome of the election to be "determinative" of whether the union continued to invest in the group, adding, "By no means do we plan on just walking away."

But now that SEIU has withdrawn from the race, McDonald says, "Obviously I think this raises some questions for Vermont Leads... We have to convene and discuss the implications about this, but no decisions have been made at this point."

According to Noonan, an election will still be held, though voters will have just two choices: yes or no to AFSCME.

On that question, Klinglesmith predicts, AFSCME will prevail.

"I'm completely confident," she says.

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