County employees meet with union representatives

Mohave County government employees, apparently upset over the lack of raises, higher health insurance costs and fearful of layoffs, met with union representatives Monday evening.

County employees vented their frustrations to Ray Valenzuela, executive director of the Arizona Public Employees Association, and he in turn told them what how union membership could help them.

About 45 county employees attended the 90-minute meeting with Valenzuela and other union representatives at the Kingman Police Department.

"The power to change things is sitting in this room," Valenzuela said.

He said the parent union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has a research staff that can analyze the county budget to determine whether there is money available for raises.

The union also can try to get a layoff policy and other "employee friendly" policies adopted by the county supervisors.

Valenzuela, based in Phoenix, came to Kingman on short notice.

Helen Hutchins, an Arizona Department of Economic Security employee in Kingman who heads Local 3186, said she arranged his appearance after talking with a county employee who attended a union meeting a week ago.

Few of the county employees who attended the meeting on Monday agreed to have their names published, fearing reprisals from their bosses.

An estimated 700 county employees – whose salaries are derived from the general fund – have not received a raise since the 1999-2000 fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2000.

Employees also are paying more for health benefits, and some fear continuing budget cuts may cost some their jobs.

One employee who agreed to speak on the record, Linda La Porte, an office assistant in the Public Works Department, said she attended to find out what support exists for the county employees.

She said she was active for eight years with the American Postal Workers Union in West Covina, Calif., and in northern Virginia.

"I very much believe in the union," La Porte said.

"My father (Ed La Porte) was a Teamster.

Because of my previous (union) involvement, I think I can be helpful.

I hope to help" organize the union.

La Porte was among 15 people in attendance who signed up to serve on a committee, which will examine the needs and issues of concern for the 1,200 county employees.

Asked for his reaction on the turnout, Valenzuela said, "I don't get excited about first meetings because I see them dwindle to nothing." He said the next step is for him to arrange separate meetings with the three county supervisors.

Reached at home, District 1 County Supervisor Pete Byers said he was aware of the meeting and of the concerns of the county employees, and indicated that he was willing to meet with a union representative.

Byers also expressed fears of a backlash.

"I think what will happen that if they organize it will turn the taxpayers against them," Byers said.

"And I would hope it doesn't."

While it is harder to organize to rural areas, the union is not going to go away, Valenzuela told the gathering.

"You are going to be seeing more activity from this union," he said.

The union also will get involved in local elections, such as for school districts.

"What I am going to be doing is look at your board (of supervisors)," he said.

While higher pay creates a "positive environment," money is not necessarily the main concern, Valenzuela said.

The main concern is treating employees with respect.

Valenzuela said working in a right-to-work state, such as Arizona, means that union membership is voluntary.