Striking Out From Labor Union?

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A group of CUNA Mutual Group employees who are frustrated with the current impasse over a union contract have begun an unusual drive to separate from the Local 39 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union and create their own collective bargaining unit.

The proposed unit would separate out the so-called professional workers at the credit union insurer, like those in the information technology division or business analysts, according to Dennis Krull, an IT worker at the company who is involved in the initiative.

The group has begun petitioning those employees it believes would be eligible for the new unit and will submit their petition to the National Labor Relations Board, which would have the final say on the validity of the proposed unit, as well as which employees are eligible to join, said Krull.

The Federal Labor Relations Act, which authorizes collective bargaining, allows for the separation of professional workers from blue-collar employees, though it has rarely been done, according to several labor experts.

The group has identified about 600 of the OPEIU's 1,400 CMG members as potentially eligible for the new unit. A valid petition must be signed by 30% of the employees determined by the NLRB to be eligible for the new unit.

The group has discussed its separation initiative with the OPEIU, which could represent the new unit, he said.

But John Peterson, office manager for the Local 39, said the unusual separation effort, though legal, is sure to complicate efforts to negotiate a final settlement with CUNA Mutual and even drag out the process longer. He said he believes the company will want to determine whether the breakaway group qualifies for a separate unit before agreeing to a final contract with the current union.

Krull said that separation need not interfere with the current negotiations.

The employees group has hired Madison-based Michael Best & Friedrich, a well-known labor relations firm that represented CUNA CU during the decertification of the same union at that credit union in 2002. The breaking of the Local 39 at CUNA CU caused tremendous bitterness with the union that still lingers, union representatives maintain. The Michael Best partner, Tom Godar, who represented the credit union during that successful union decertification, is representing the CMG Group in its breakaway effort and met last week with OPEIU representatives to discuss the latest initiative.

It was his support for the employee group's efforts that cost CUNA Mutual Group President and CEO Michael Kitchen his job two weeks ago. Kitchen was fired after he told the CUNA Mutual Board he gave an employee $1,000 to hire Michael Best to help them explore options. The money was eventually returned but the offer gave the impression that the company's chief executive was engaged in efforts to split the union.

Peterson said he sees more ominous motives behind the separation move, such as a possible decertification drive similar to what happened at CUNA CU, where he represented the ill-fated union. "I suspect the company is doing this for decertification reasons," he said. "Once they split off a small group, they'll have all these other groups coming in and saying, 'what about us, we want our own bargaining group, too.'"

The union, which is urging employees not to sign the petition for a separate bargaining unit, has filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB over the group's use of the CUNA Mutual e-mail system and website. A CUNA Mutual official said they discontinued allowing the use of internal email and the website once they found out about it.

Meantime, the OPEIU, which has been without a contract since March 31, said it hopes the departure of Kitchen will remove a major impediment to a contract settlement and invited the company back to the negotiating table last week. "We hope that the company wants a new relationship," said Peterson. "Now they have all the reasons in the world to embark on a new road because the former president was engaged in trying to break up the union."

Sydney Lindner, a spokesperson for the company, said they have received the union's invitation and will be responding to it with suggested meeting dates.

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