The Times-Picayune



August 1, 1998

It has a name, a logo and a budding public-relations campaign, but, technically, New Orleans Municipal Employees Laborers Union Local No. 661 does not exist.

For weeks, dozens of city employees have been working behind the scenes to change that by preaching to their colleagues about the benefits of union representation. Unless a majority of the city's workers embrace the union, it legally cannot negotiate or act on behalf of any of them.

The leaders of the unionization effort - along with a local representative of the Laborers International Union of North America, which would represent the workers if they decide to organize - have refused to discuss specifics of how the drive is doing, saying it could be detrimental to their efforts.

Their goal is to have 60 percent of the roughly 5,000 city workers eligible for representation sign cards recognizing the union by this month, "and we're tracking very well," Peter A. Fosco, the local representative, said this week. "The cards keep coming in every single day. When we get a lot closer to our (target) numbers, I'll start disclosing our numbers."

He said he hopes to have the union in place - either by putting it to a vote of the workers or by getting the City Council to recognize it - by this fall.

The unionization effort began in earnest about the same time workers began holding demonstrations in May to draw attention to their low wages. More than 200 attended an organizing meeting in June, and about two dozen - many from the city's Finance Department - are actively involved in the campaign.

The campaign will become more visible next week when an open letter from the unionization leaders is published in local papers.

The letter expresses city workers' "need for living wages, fair promotions, and better working conditions through a union contract" and cites statistics from the Civil Service Department showing that more than a third of city workers earn near or below poverty-level wages.

The letter ends with a telephone number for workers to call to sign up for union representation and another number for citizens who want to help out.

It's part of what organizer Elias Cottrell III, an administrative analyst in the Finance Department, calls a "mass education process for citizens." He said public support is necessary for the union drive and for gaining pay raises, since Mayor Marc Morial has suggested a voter-approved tax hike may be necessary to pay for any wage increases.

While Morial has said he supports raises for all city workers and has endorsed union organizing campaigns at local hotels and Avondale Industries, he has a different attitude toward the effort to organize city workers.

"I don't have any intentions, right now, of sitting down with (Fosco) because he's just an organizer," Morial said this week. "He hasn't been designated to represent anybody."

He said he thinks Fosco has misled city workers by implying that the union can negotiate on their behalf for higher wages. Under the Louisiana Constitution, he said, the authority to set salaries rests solely with the city's Civil Service Commission.

Morial also said he's angry that union leaders chose not to meet with him, Chief Administrative Officer Marlin Gusman or City Council members before launching their effort.

"They didn't do that, and that's disappointing," he said. Fosco "began creating confusion, stirring up confrontation, all in an effort to get people to sign up and pay dues."


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