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Union drive sparks accusations

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Posted on: July 13, 2023

By Joe Murchison

The city of Laurel’s mayor and city council voted unanimously on May 22 to approve collective bargaining for employees of the  Laurel Department of Public Works These city officials are now trading accusations about events leading up to the vote. 

The acrimony involves Mayor Craig Moe, who has announced his retirement, and three councilmembers who are running to replace him — President Brencis Smith (Ward 2), Martin Mitchell (At-Large) and Keith Sydnor (Ward 2). The mayoral election will take place on Nov. 7.

In his June email newsletter to citizens, Moe attacked Mitchell for having been approached by union organizers in December but keeping this a secret from other city officials until the employees showed up en masse at a council meeting Feb. 27. Mitchell had confided earlier in fellow councilmember Carl DeWalt (Ward 1) about the unionization drive, but DeWalt also kept it a secret from other city officials. 

“Why in the world would you withhold this information from your own Council, and not advise the Administration?” Moe wrote. “It is unbelievable that you would undermine members of the Department of Public Works by withholding this information from the decision makers for three months, thus slowing a process that could have been done much earlier had you shared this information. … To me you tried to make this a political issue.”

During the May 22 meeting, Sydnor had made the same complaint. Eliciting from all councilmembers besides DeWalt that they knew nothing of the unionizing efforts before the Feb. 27 meeting, Sydnor said, “To withhold information from the council is a lack of integrity.”

In a July 5 interview, Smith also criticized Mitchell for not sharing the information. “I think it was a poor decision,” he said. “He should have come and told us. … No one person can do anything alone. … We’ve got to communicate.” 

Smith added that Mitchell had accused his fellow councilmembers of dragging their feet on the issue, “but honestly, it was you [Mitchell] who delayed it because you didn’t come to us.”

In an interview July 3, Mitchell said he did not tell the mayor and council of the employees’ unionization efforts because “they [the mayor and his administrators] have never wanted to give them union rights.” Mitchell said he believed the city officials, once they knew, would have initiated union-busting tactics.

Instead, Mitchell said he and DeWalt attended several meetings with employees and an organizer from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, advising them to keep enlisting fellow workers and to show up at a council meeting en masse to push for recognition as a bargaining unit. That is what occurred on Feb. 27.

“I’ve always been pro-union,” Mitchell said. “When I was in college, I worked at UPS” under a union.

Lloyd Holloway, a public works employee who helped lead the unionization drive, said he appreciated Mitchell’s and DeWalt’s help “to have our ducks in a row. … They didn’t do anything wrong in helping us organize.”

Moe denied that he was against unionization. At the May 22 meeting, he noted that he had approved collective bargaining for the police department in 2012, and “we knew that there were certain [other] employees who would want to do that. … I don’t think anybody was opposed to anything.”

Moe said the legislation recognizing the public works collective bargaining rights will take effect on July 11. He said his administration is now working on a new labor code — a set of legal policies and procedures — that could be followed by any other city employee groups, other than police and public works employees, that want to become a bargaining unit in addition to police and public works.

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