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Winter Park’s employees move to unionize; city hires “union buster” in response

May 6, 2011
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Though Winter Park’s dog park drama is finally over and done with, the city is already embroiled in another conflict that may get just as emotional.

On March 18, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) filed a petition with the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission requesting that employees in the Winter Park public works, parks, fleet maintenance and water utilities departments—numbering approximately 150 people–be allowed to vote on unionization. The workers in favor of joining the AFSCME union point to several eliminations–cost of living adjustments in 2008, “merit increases” in 2009, “longevity bonuses” last December–as justification for the move. “There’s a lot of people unhappy with the way things are going right now,” says Don Nixon, who works in the city’s water utilities department. “All we want is a seat at the table to help decide our future.”

Because more than the minimum of 30 percent of affected employees expressed an interest in union representation (the number was 65 percent, according to AFSCME organizer Kevin Hill), an election is expected in June or July.

The city of Winter Park has not reacted kindly to the news. On April 25, the City Commission voted to employ “labor relations consulting firm” Kulture, LLC, at the rate of $2,500 per day, to persuade the city’s employees to vote against unionization.  In addition, Winter Park has issued a letter to employees warning against unionization (attached below), ordered department directors to meet with their employees, and hired a local labor attorney for $350 per hour. “We’re a very small city,” says spokeswoman Clarissa Howard. “It’s unnecessary for [workers] to unionize in order to have a voice.”

Howard says Kulture was hired to advise the city on what it “can and can’t do” in its campaign. “The union business is not our specialty,” Howard says. “When we have an area that’s not our expertise, we look for outside assistance.”

A 2004 profile of Kulture in Fortune Small Business–subtitled “Worried that your employees will join a union? Perhaps these gentlemen can help”–describes the firm’s founder and president, Peter List, as having a “strongly pro-capitalist, antigovernment ideology.”

List also runs the online merchandiser capitalismgear.com, which offers this bit of history on its About Us page:

“Fighting collectivists and those that strive to take freedom from others is something that I’ve been doing professionally for over a decade,” says Peter List, Founder & CEO of Capitalismgear.com. “About 13 years ago, I began reading books by the author Ayn Rand—most notably Atlas Shrugged and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. These books, as well as several others, blew away my ill-conceived notions about socio-economics and convinced me that there are too few defenders of freedom and free-market capitalism.”

List offers no phone number on Kulture’s webpage, nor any address, ostensibly for safety reasons. According to Fortune Small Business, List works “somewhere in the northeastern U.S.”

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