Tensions recently flared up between San Francisco International Airport security workers and their representatives at Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union. Claiming that the union has rolled over in negotiations with the airport's private security contractor, Covenant Aviation Security, several workers have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an open shop.
The signatories, who constitute more than 30 percent of the bargaining unit covered by SEIU's contract with Covenant, requested a "deauthorization" election that would make union dues voluntary. They plan to hold an election that could create one of the largest open shops in existence — 1,100 workers, including everyone from the checkpoint and baggage departments — if the petitioners garner a majority. The SEIU would still represent them, but it would have to rely on voluntary remuneration.
Baggage screener John Marteen, who has worked at the airport since November 2002, said the union has been too conciliatory in accepting Covenant's aggressive budget cuts, most of which sliced into workers' paychecks. Over the past year, Covenant has decreased holiday overtime pay by about 20 percent, raised employees' out-of-pocket expenses for hospital care and withdrawn reimbursements for employees' parking and shoes.
Rather than consulting workers, the SEIU took the liberty of bargaining by itself, Marteen said.
"In one of the meetings in the break room last week, the union said 'We had a choice of this and this, and we took the one that was less of a burden for you guys,'" he recounted.
"I said ... I wouldn't accept either of them," he added. "They never made a counter offer — they just accepted what the company presented."
He added that the union also raised the price of dues to 2.6 percent of each employee's paycheck in January, right after the employees got a 3 percent raise.
Screener Stephen Burke, who is leading the open-shop effort, believes that politicians who have received donations from the SEIU, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Mayor Ed Lee, will step in and put pressure on the labor board if the deauthorization vote passes, ultimately resulting in a lawsuit.
An SEIU spokesman argued that Burke, Marteen and other petitioners are serving as pawns for a right-wing, anti-union organization called the National Right to Work Committee.
"We are confident that the majority of workers do not agree with the actions of the minority who moved this and who are working with right-wing ideologues to weaken workers' collective voice at work," SEIU spokesman Jacob Hay wrote in an email. "Similar attempts in the past by this same group have been overwhelmingly voted down by the majority of workers."
Airport screeners petitioned for an open shop in 2006, but Marteen said that effort failed because it was led by employees in the much smaller baggage department. He and Burke both have higher hopes for the current effort. Burke said he does indeed have backing from the conservative National Right to Work Committee.
No date has yet been set to cast ballots.