Public works employees

City of Nogales public works employees work on installing a fountain in thei file photo from 2013. Recently, some employees in the Public Works Department have been discussing joining the Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs (AZCOPS), an organization that represents workers including city police officers.

After a union that represents City of Nogales workers lost more than half of its members this summer, union representatives are crying foul.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) is the authorized union for city employees who aren’t police officers or firefighters. But CWA only has 34 members left in Nogales after 37 dropped their membership during this year’s “drop period” at the end of June, according to city Human Resources Director Carmen Fuentes.

At the same time, some employees in the Public Works Department have been discussing joining the Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs (AZCOPS), an organization that represents workers including Nogales police officers.

Now, the president of CWA Local 7000 is calling for an investigation into what she described as “union-busting” and “intimidation” by the employees supporting AZCOPS.

Linda Hatfield laid out her allegations during the call to the public at a city council meeting earlier this month.

“What we’re asking is for a thorough and unbiased investigation to be done. Discipline if necessary,” she said at the Sept. 10 meeting.

“We have been told by numerous union members that they were approached by their supervisors and basically they tried to talk them into dropping the union,” Hatfield said this week during a follow-up conversation with the NI. “And the reason it’s a violation is it was done on city time, city property… working time.”

City rules prohibit conducting union-related business during working hours, except for specific activities such as grievance meetings.

Acting City Manager John Kissinger said the city is planning to hire an external investigator to look into the claims, but he suggested that Hatfield was primarily “looking for political support” as part of a battle against AZCOPS.

Labor fight

Kissinger said city officials are trying to stay out of what he described as “two fighting unions that want to drag city management and the mayor and council into their fight.”

AZCOPS, while not technically a union, also charges membership dues and can legally provide collective bargaining representation to members.

But for now, CWA is the only labor organization that’s authorized to negotiate on behalf of Nogales city employees other than police officers and firefighters, who have their own unions.

Workers can choose to switch the organization that represents them through a majority vote.

And, according to a 2008 city ordinance, the city will stop recognizing any employee organization if its membership falls to less than 15 percent of eligible employees.

City staff did not immediately respond to an email asking how many employees are eligible for the CWA union.

Victor Hetherington, a Nogales Police Department officer and the vice president of AZCOPS, did not respond to an email asking how many employees had joined AZCOPS.

Hatfield named Hetherington, as well as two employees in the public works department, in her statement to the city council.

She said that Hetherington had participated in a meeting at Fleischer Park about AZCOPS while on duty, and alleged that supervisors in public works had been distributing petitions to drop CWA membership during work hours.

Speaking to the council, Hatfield suggested that the city use security cameras to investigate the claims related to the Public Works Department.

The NI contacted Hetherington, who downplayed the Fleischer Park incident.

“I was on duty. I stopped by the park and I handed them the flyer and I answered whatever questions they might have about AZCOPS,” he said. “But it was just a benefit flyer, it wasn’t applications or it wasn’t anything like that, there was just a flyer that showed the benefits.”

Hatfield said the problem wasn’t the employees’ actions, but the timing. “They can do it after work … but they can’t do it on city time,” she said.

‘Looking the other way’

While saying that the city supports an investigation into Hatfield’s claims, Kissinger implied that it would be tough to look into the allegations.

“There are rules that employees shouldn’t engage in any union talk or activity without permission from their directors during work hours,” he said. “But… that’s tough to handle. When is on duty? Is it during lunch? Is it during coffee breaks? Is it while they’re sitting at the water cooler? It’s going to drive us crazy getting into the weeds on this. However, I’m not opposed to hiring an outside company to independently look at her claims.”

But Hatfield said the city hasn’t had any trouble reprimanding union employees for alleged violations of the rule.

“Our vice president, who is Frank Lopez, on a fairly regular basis over the years, has been pulled in and they have said, ‘Oh, you’re doing union business on city time and you can’t do that,’ and he’s been scolded and threatened with discipline for that. That has gone on for years,” she said.

When Hatfield spoke to the council on Sept. 10, she said city management hadn’t been helpful when she raised concerns: “Right now, we feel like the city’s looking the other way.”

Speaking to the NI, Kissinger said he was surprised by Hatfield’s comments.

“I didn’t know any of this was happening at that call to the public, I was blindsided a little bit by it,” he said.

Hatfield said Kissinger was among the city officials that she talked to about the issues before the Sept. 10 meeting.

“He can say what he wants to say, but no, I did talk to him,” she said.

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