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Overcoming Post-SB5 Fears, Ohio County Clerks Unionize to Fight Serious Health Violations

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More than four years after the passage and eventual rejection of Ohio’s SB5, a draconian anti-labor bill that aimed to stripped collective bargaining rights from state workers, the unionization of Cuyahoga County Clerk’s provides a shining example of why these rights are so vital.  A mini-exposé for the Cleveland Scene explains the horrible work conditions that led to the organizing effort:

Jeff Cardenas never knew what to expect when he fetched files from the “asbestos room” in the parking garage of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center. Among the piles of documents from decades-old asbestos cases and shredded court documents strewed on the floor, he found signs of life: rodent nests, animal feces, a dead bird. When a rat jumped out and bit Cardenas on the leg, he’d had enough.

On his way to the doctor, Cardenas showed the wound to the Human Resources Department at the Cuyahoga County Clerk of Courts, where he works. “It was gushing blood,” he says. “They thought it was funny. They said, ‘It’s like a petting zoo down there.’”

For Cardenas, HR’s indifference was the latest of many workplace grievances. Over the nine years he’d worked at the County Clerk’s office, he’d accumulated concerns about safety, transparency in hiring, and wages that did not keep up with rising cost of living. HR’s reaction to the asbestos room incident a few years ago, Cardenas says, pushed him one step closer to the solution he and other workers have relied on for decades to resolve safety problems and disputes with management: forming a union.

The reality, accpording to Rudy Fichtenbaum, a professor emeritus of economics at Wright State University in Dayton, is that there is little data suggesting unionization adversely affects state budgets:

There is not much evidence that public sector unions raise costs.  It’s about seeing that people are treated fairly with respect to the distribution of wages and benefits that they receive.”

Yet, the reality of SB5 is that even though it didn’t pass, it may have made workers think twice before seeking union representation.  Cardenas admitted as much in his interview, telling the Cleveland Scene:

For three years after SB 5 was defeated, Cardenas hesitated to start a union. The asbestos room had been partially cleaned out, and, more importantly, he worried that union affiliation would jeopardize his job at the Clerk’s office. When it came to unions, the administration of Gerald Fuerst, Cuyahoga’s long-serving Clerk, had “pounded fear into everyone’s heads,” according to Cardenas. Even after a new administration led by Andrea Rocco came in in 2013 follow following Fuerst’s retirement, those fears persisted.

But the slow progress of reforms under the Rocco administration frustrated Cardenas. Sympathetic co-workers at the Clerk’s office encouraged him to go for it. So did friends at the County Sheriff’s office, who were represented by the Communication Workers of America.

Cardenas called Dave Passalacqua, Executive Vice President of CWA Local 4340, in August 2014. What Passalacqua heard about the County Clerk’s office shocked him.

“The treatment there was just ridiculous. They were getting abused. ‘You guys need a union,’” Passalacqua told Cardenas.

Eventually, the county clerk’s office organized and is now represented by a union.  More detail is provided by the Cleveland Scene.


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