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County and union at odds over uniting; Inclusion of sergeants and animal control officers at issue

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Chaves County government could soon have its first-ever employee union, although details such as the specific employees covered by the collective bargaining agreement remain uncertain.

A lawyer for the county told the Chaves County Labor Management Relations Board Tuesday night that the county opposes the inclusion of sergeants and animal control officers in the proposed union of Chaves County Sheriff’s Office deputies.

The attorney for the International Union of Police Association, AFL-CIO told the labor board that sergeants and animal control officers should be included in the collective bargaining unit.

The labor board met Tuesday to elect officers, verify the signatures on union authorization cards signed by Sheriff’s Office deputies, and set a hearing date to consider a petition to form a union for Sheriff’s Office deputies.

Dave Parsons was nominated and elected chairman of the three-member labor board, which meets infrequently, as needed. The need for labor board meetings hasn’t arisen in many years until recently, said Chaves County manager Stanton Riggs, because no county employees are currently represented by a union.

Outside of appointing members to the labor board, the Chaves County commissioners have no other formal role in the possible formation of a county union, pursuant to state labor relations law.

According to the petition filed Sept. 20 with the Chaves County Clerk’s Office, Sheriff’s Office deputies, sergeants, detectives and animal control officers seek the certification of the International Union of Police Association, AFL-CIO, as their exclusive bargaining unit.

The revised petition states 31 Sheriff’s Office employees would be in the proposed union. Thirty percent of affected employees, pursuant to state law, must sign authorization cards to initiate the unionization process.

The labor board, comprised of a management representative, Parsons, a retired business executive and former state legislator; a labor representative, George Mata, a retired firefighter and former union employee; and a neutral representative, Kelly Cassels, a Roswell attorney, on Tuesday night verified the signatures necessary to meet the minimum requirement.

After the necessary number of signatures was verified, the labor board considered a hearing date to consider the petition, and whether to certify the union based on the number of authorization cards, or conduct an election by secret ballot for the deputies to decide if the International Union of Police Association, AFL-CIO should be their exclusive bargaining agent.

Albuquerque labor law attorney Dina E. Holcomb, hired by Chaves County to represent the county in the unionization process, said the county does not agree to certifying the union based on the number of authorization cards.

“We do not agree to a voluntary representation, we do want to have an election,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb also said the county opposes the inclusion of sergeants and animal control officers in the proposed union. She said sergeants shouldn’t be included because they are in supervisory positions, and animal control officers would more appropriately be represented by a blue-collar countywide union.

Holcomb requested time for herself and Carlsbad attorney Tom Martin Jr., who represents the International Union of Police Association, AFL-CIO, to resolve the disagreements and draft a consent election agreement.

“That would include all of the parameters for the election,” Holcomb told the labor board via telephone. “If we are able to reach an agreement, then the board would simply have to meet to approve that consent election agreement. And if we are unable to reach an agreement, then we would ask that the board meet to resolve the issues that we are unable to agree on, such as the positions to include or exclude from the bargaining unit, and any other election matters that we’re unable to agree on.”

Martin said establishing the parameters for a union election can be swift, or protracted.

“We’re going to know very quickly whether we can arrive at an agreement as to who is appropriately in the bargaining unit, or not,” Martin told the labor board, requesting a hearing date if he and Holcomb are unable to soon reach an agreement. “My experience in the past has shown that these things can get terribly long and drawn out. These officers and employees deserve to have the election as quickly as possible and get it resolved.”

Holcomb and Martin agreed to apprise the labor board of the status of negotiations and provide the labor board statements of the issues by Nov. 9. The labor board sat the hearing date for 1:30 p.m. Nov. 16.

A similar effort to form a union at the Roswell Fire Department passed on March 16 when firefighters voted 57-2 in support of forming the Roswell Professional Fire Fighters Association. That unionization process also did not require the approval of elected leaders.

The Roswell Professional Fire Fighters Association, affiliated with the International Association of Fire Fighters, is now the exclusive representative of Roswell firefighters from the rank of lieutenant and below.

The city’s police officers and utility workers are the only other city employees covered by union agreements.

The city’s police officers formed the Roswell Police Officers’ Association in 1995, for sworn police officers from the rank of sergeant down. The Roswell Police Officers’ Association and city have entered into a series of collective bargaining agreements since then, concerning wages, working conditions and job security.

The city’s other collective bargaining unit is the city’s Utility Workers of America Local 51.

Martin said the latest unionization effort is strongly supported by Chaves County Sheriff’s Office deputies. He said a union does not necessarily mean higher employer costs for personnel.

“If you have a union that is representing the employees and you’ve got a collective bargaining agreement in place, management actually has a better management tool from which to work, from which to manage issues, than if you have no collective bargaining agreement,” Martin told the Daily Record after Tuesday night’s meeting.

Martin and Riggs said Chaves County has never had a collective bargaining agreement in place for any county employees.

“The way a collective bargaining agreement generally works in the public sector is the hiring process is still subject to whatever the county’s personnel ordinance says,” Martin said. “The discipline and discharge is generally still subject to whatever the county personnel process would say. The difference is the collective bargaining agreement provides methods of redress and some built-in protections for the employee in the case of discipline or proposed discharge, such as arbitration, such as certain standards that are imposed.”

Editor Jeff Tucker may be contacted at 575-622-7710, ext. 303, or at editor@rdrnews.com.