Group of Workers At CUNA Mutual OK Split

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Frustrated over stalled contract negotiations, a group of white-collar workers at CUNA Mutual Insurance Group voted last week to separate from the company's main employees union and create their own bargaining unit within the union, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 39.

The group, consisting of about 300 workers in CUNA Mutual's IT department, voted overwhelmingly for the rare union split, with 199 voting yes and just 76 voting no--a 79% approval.

"This was a very good turnout," said Dennis Krull, an IT worker spearheading the separation initiative, of the 351 ballots sent out. "Now we have to work with the (OPEIU) International to try to put together a (contract) proposal. We'll want to get some feedback from the group first."

John Peterson, business manager for the Local 39, who has been negotiating with the company the past 10 months on a new contract said they will not challenge the results of the vote, which was agreed upon by both union officials and the IT workers. "The next step is to notify the company and go from there," he said.

CUNA Mutual officials, who have been engaged in an increasingly bitter battle with the union over the stalled contract talks, were unaware of the vote's result last week and stressed they were not involved. "It's an internal matter between the Local 39 and the group," said Sydney Lindner, spokesman for CUNA Mutual.

The vote means the group will separate from the other 1,200 CUNA Mutual workers in Madison represented by the Local 39 and form its own collective bargaining unit and be covered under a separate contract with the company. Additional talks will be required with the union to determine exactly who is eligible to join the new unit, said Krull.

The separation, unusual among unions, was initiated because of widespread disenchantment about the contract negotiations, according to Krull. "We were frustrated with the way things were going. We felt we weren't being heard and the group of about 350 or so just wanted to be listened to," he said.

The internal vote, which was set by agreement between the union and the workers, will avoid a ballot that would have been overseen by federal labor authorities and could have entailed an initial vote to decertify the Local 39, then reconstitute it in separate units. Union officials believe the separation agreement is fueled by efforts to break the union, citing the involvement on behalf of the group seeking separation of Madison-based union busting law firm Michael Best & Friedrich, which represented CUNA CU during a successful employee vote to decertify the same union, in November 2002. But throughout the rare union separation drive Krull and his colleagues have denied that, insisting they believe the 'professional' workers at CUNA Mutual have separate and sometimes different interests than the company's other members of the Local 39.

The main question is whether the development of a new separate bargaining unit will facilitate or stall even more the negotiations between the company and its main employees union. "Hopefully, the company will recognize it needs to bargain in good faith with both units," said Peterson.

Peterson said initiatives to separate unions into different bargaining units, distinguishing white-collar workers from blue-collar workers, is more common in the initial stages of forming a union and more unusual after a union has been constituted. "This is more common in the initial organizing stages when the professionals have an opportunity to decide who they want to represent them," he said.

The Local 39 was constituted in 1941 at the behest of CUNA Mutual management, according to Peterson.

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