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From Joe Hill to both Jimmy Hoffas, unions were built on the backs of colorful characters unafraid to champion unpopular causes. But even in labor’s strange pantheon, the men — and motives — behind a would-be union aiming to represent San Francisco Airport security workers seem somewhat unconventional. And not just because they’re working to eliminate a landmark San Francisco law that union lawyers worked for years to pass. The founders of United Screeners Association Local 1 include a veteran organizer whose last union took out a restraining order against him, a law-school graduate who failed the bar but still authored a rambling federal complaint against the City of San Francisco, and a handful of dot-com refugees. Their attorney is best known for suing over a sign-language-fluent gorilla’s alleged nipple fetish. Together, they’re on a mission to repeal a city law that unions love. And livid union lawyers say they could succeed. Local 1′s founders say so, too, and say they have no plans to stop in San Francisco. Bizarrely, banning labor’s most important organizing tactic would help United Screeners Association Local 1 in its struggle against an established union. The tactic is the neutrality agreement, in which an employer agrees to recognize a union if a majority of workers sign union cards. The arrangement — also known as a card-check agreement — is the goal of most current union organizing campaigns. Card checks let unions organize without a federally sanctioned election. Such elections are hard fought and can be hung up indefinitely in court — as eventually happened in this case. In 2000, San Francisco passed a law to prevent labor disputes at the airport. It requires employers to agree to card-check arrangements in exchange for unions to give up their right to strike. But last year, Local 1 founders testified in Congress in favor of a bill that would prohibit neutrality deals, mandating elections to unionize a workplace. Then in January, Local 1 filed suit in federal court against San Francisco, aiming to strike down the city’s card-check law, which had passed in 2000 with strong labor support. Local 1 Director George Valdes says he’s fighting the law to bring accountability to a morally bankrupt labor movement. He’s also jockeying for power with a branch of the Service Employees International Union — the country’s largest union — that is trying to re-establish itself as the screeners’ union. Labor lawyers blast Valdes and Local 1 co-founders Stephen Burke and Jeff Michaelson for supporting the federal legislation. They say Local 1 is threatening the future of union organizing to further their own narrow interests. “Anybody who would support legislation like that is just hostile to the labor movement,” said Matthew Ross, a partner with the Oakland union-side firm Leonard Carder. He points out that the 1,000-plus screeners will likely generate at least $300,000 in union dues once they’re organized. “I suspect these guys are looking for a cash cow for themselves,” he said. Burke disagrees. “We’re kind of like a little reform union,” he said. “We want to clean up labor.” CAST OF CHARACTERS A newborn union is an unlikely foe for the airport’s neutrality law — most obviously because union lawyers vehemently supported and defended that ordinance. But Local 1′s founding fathers are an unlikely bunch. The union’s founder and president, Jeff Michaelson, graduated Golden Gate University School of Law but didn’t pass the bar and ended up working at SFO as a screener and an SEIU member. He butted heads with union leaders over negotiation styles and other issues, until he saw the opportunity to form his own union. When a majority of SEIU members at the airport were laid off, Michaelson got the SEIU removed as the designated union for SFO screeners and began working to put Local 1 in its place. Eventually, he hooked up with Burke, a former tech consultant, and other dot-com refugees. “After 9/11, Silicon Valley went dead,” said Burke, Local 1′s political director. “Most people here, they just saw the opportunity. Jeff didn’t pass the bar. It’s funny how we all gravitated to each other.” Michaelson tried several paths to opposing the SEIU, including contacting a Teamsters local also vying to represent airport employees. Before he and the Teamsters fell out, they introduced him to Valdes, a former organizer for a troubled San Mateo hotel workers local. Management problems at that local led the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International to take it over in 2003. Valdes had left in 2002 under unfriendly circumstances. What is clear is that the local and several of its employees got a civil restraining order against Valdes after he left, allegedly because he was harassing them. “They accused me of a lot of things I didn’t do,” Valdes countered. “I was fighting a corrupt organization.” Michaelson said his small group of Local 1 activists has spent between $20,000 and $30,000 to fight the SEIU, all from the pockets of workers making about $35,000 a year. Their actions include dozens of unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board — Michaelson says about 30, while Valdes puts the number closer to 100 — and the suit in federal court. Michaelson wrote that lengthy complaint before hiring a lawyer. Their current counsel is Stephen Sommers, a former union organizer and now a San Francisco solo. Sommers is best known for a suit he filed earlier this year on behalf of several women who claim that the Woodside caretakers of Koko — the signing gorilla — told them that the ape wanted them to take their shirts off. AVOIDING THE BOARD Local 1 says it isn’t trying to hobble the labor movement — it just looks that way. Burke said the effort to strike down the airport card-check law is aimed at bringing accountability to the labor movement by forcing NLRB elections. This drives union-side lawyers to apoplexy. They say Local 1′s argument — that federal law pre-empts local labor regulations — is the same one made by employers and anti-union groups. Should these and other suits challenging neutrality agreements succeed, union lawyers say it’ll devastate the labor movement because NLRB ballot rules are skewed in favor of employers. An example of how much they want to avoid elections: A talk at last week’s AFL-CIO national lawyers’ conference was entitled “Avoiding the Board” and focused on threats to neutrality. Neutrality agreements became a key nationwide labor tool after a San Francisco case in which Ross went to federal court in the 1980s to enforce a neutrality agreement between a union and the downtown San Francisco Marriott. But Valdes and the other Local 1 organizers say neutrality agreements are inherently corrupt and allow big unions to harass employees into signing union cards rather than campaigning to win employee votes in a secret ballot election. “They go to people’s houses; they bug them while they’re in the bathroom,” Burke said. “Card check is a lazy way to organize a union.” “It’s been a benefit to unions who want to use it in a corrupt manner,” Sommers said. “It’s not good for working people.” Most union-side lawyers disagree vehemently. “The problem with the board mechanism is not that it’s a secret ballot,” Ross said. “It’s that a skilled — or even unskilled — management attorney can delay an election certification for years.” Ross and other union attorneys say elections also give employers a chance to bring in “union avoidance consultants” — they call them union busters — to intimidate employees into voting against a union. Local 1′s suit seems so out of character for a union that many lawyers speculate they are being helped by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund, an organization with a nationwide campaign to outlaw neutrality agreements. Michaelson said he’s contacted the organization and shared some information, but has not received any legal or financial assistance. And Sommers said he told his clients that he would not represent them if they were affiliated with Right to Work. THE CITY STANDS BACK The City of San Francisco says the whole argument is irrelevant. Neither union has filed card-check papers with the city, says deputy city attorney Jonathan Rolnick, so Local 1 doesn’t have standing to object to the law. He says the real problem is between Local 1 and the company that hires the screeners, Covenant Aviation Security. “The card-check ordinance is not a fact at issue in this lawsuit,” Rolnick said. “This is a dispute between Local 1 and Covenant.” He added that a motion to dismiss on the grounds that Local 1 lacks standing will be heard Monday. In the meantime, Valdes and Michaelson say they’ll continue to advocate for local and national laws anathema to the rest of the labor movement, all to keep unions honest. “Unions are doing double, double, double talk,” Michaelson said. “People don’t like unions because all they do is cry like babies.”

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