The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which is already locked in a bitter battle to represent 2,300 District prison system employes, is also seeking the right to bargain for 2,500 blue-collar workers of the D.C. Board of Education.
The Teamster election campaigns, which are being vigorously contested by the two incumbent unions, are part of a nationwide effort by the 1.9-million-member union to expand its base among public employes, an effort that often pits the Teamsters against AFL-CIO-affiliated unions.
In both the District election drives, Teamster representatives said that city employes are dissatisfied with their current unions because they have not been aggressive enough in their dealings with the Barry administration -- a characterization both unions dispute.
Victories by the Teamsters would make the union a major force in the District government's labor relations, which have lately been a troublesome concern for Mayor Marion Barry. The mayor has been strongly criticized for trying to overturn an arbitration award increasing pay for the Fraternal Order of Police, and public employe unions have accused Barry of misleading them about the city's financial condition during last year's citywide bargaining.
At the D.C. Department of Corrections, where frustration about working conditions has run high among corrections officers, the Teamsters won an apparent victory March 19 in balloting against the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, by a 764-to-761 margin.
But the results were overturned last month by the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board because ineligible supervisors were allowed to vote. PERB plans to schedule a new election among corrections workers, and the Teamsters have now asked PERB to also hold an election among nonteaching school employes.
"There is a lot of dissatisfaction . . . . They were very upset with their current representation and these workers came to us," said Phillip Feaster, president of the 6,000-member Teamsters Local 639, based in Northeast, which is seeking to represent the school system's cafeteria, custodial, warehouse and transportation workers.
More than 1,400 school employes who are currently represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, have signed authorization cards for an election on joining the Teamsters, Feaster said.
Feaster said the Teamsters' ability to get signatures from more than half the blue-collar work force shows they have been unhappy with AFSCME's handling of complaints about working conditions, unfair disciplinary actions, and other work place issues.
"They've had grievances, threats of discharge and harassment, and nothing gets done," said Feaster. He said many employes believe the Teamsters will provide better representation because the union uses full-time "outside" staffers to handle grievances with employers, rather than AFSCME's method of using coworkers, who Feaster said are less aggressive because they are often reluctant to alienate their supervisors.
But AFSCME's top local official, George Bispham, executive director of Council 20, which represents more than 10,000 city workers, said, "I have not heard of any dissatisfaction from the membership, and I am confident that if this comes to an election, we will prevail."
The PERB is currently reviewing the validity of the cards to determine whether the union has the necessary 30 percent to qualify for an election, according to Board Chairman Addis Taylor.
Bispham called the Teamsters staffing claims a "campaign ploy" and said that AFSCME uses a combination of full-time union staffers and school employes to handle union matters. "We are just as effective," he said.
Bispham noted that more than 1,000 unionized D.C. teachers had petitioned earlier this year to join the National Education Association, but by the time of a city-supervised election last month, teachers voted by a substantial margin to retain membership in the American Federation of Teachers. "Workers sometimes like to juggle you" by petitioning for a new union, he said, "But they often come around" to realizing the benefits of their current union.
Pay scales for service employes in D.C. schools start at roughly $6 per hour and $4 for several hundred part-time workers. The blue-collar workers received raises totaling roughly 20 percent under a three-year contract with AFSCME that expired in May. The contract has been automatically renewed, pending the outcome of negotiations, a school spokesman said.
The spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said relations with AFSCME "have not always been harmonious, nor should they be harmonious. The union doesn't roll over and play dead, and we don't roll over for them. We don't all sing together."
A major source of frustration among nonteaching school employes, according to union officials, is that new federal regulations have prevented them from collecting unemployment benefits during the summer months. Teamster supporters said AFSCME should have been more assertive in demanding compensation for this loss, but Bispham said, "We have tried . . . but there was not much that could be done."
In the rerun election at the Department of Corrections, David Kushner, AFGE's director of organizing, said the union is confident of defeating the Teamsters. "We have gotten a number of Teamster supporters coming back to the AFGE" since the March election because AFGE has improved its services, he said.
AFGE Local 1550 has represented officers at D.C. Jail and Lorton Reformatory for 30 years, but the District-based national union was forced last year to place the local into receivership because of serious leadership problems. Those problems, Kushner said, had encouraged many members to seek to join Teamsters Local 246, based in Fairfax.
Officials of Local 246, who were not available for comment, have filed unfair labor practice charges against the city because the Teamsters have been denied access to corrections facilities since the March election and cannot campaign for the yet-unscheduled rerun election. The city customarily allows competing unions to electioneer in the work place. PERB is considering the Teamster complaint.