New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has instructed all department directors to allow the union representing City Hall workers to organize at worksites and represent employees in disciplinary matters. The move follows criticism from union organizers and City Council members over allegations that department heads were barring organizers from city offices and other worksites.

“There has been some unfortunate confusion about the City’s obligations and City employee’s rights regarding unions,” Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño wrote in a Monday (March 6) email to directors. “Union-employee interactions should be allowed on City property.”

Montaño’s email comes after years of frustration from workers and organizers about the slow process of reestablishing a union to represent city hall workers, and after weeks of public scrutiny about how the Cantrell administration has contributed to delays.

The union that is supposed to be representing city workers — a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — has alleged that the Cantrell administration had barred union organizers from speaking with workers at worksites and that they had been prohibited from providing representation to employees meeting with their supervisors about potential disciplinary actions. 

That has stopped AFSCME from connecting with workers and convincing them to sign union cards, organizers said. Currently, less than 10% of the eligible city workforce are dues paying members. Their goal is to get to 50% or more, which they hope will give them additional leverage with the city in negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement. That number is exclusive of firefighters and police officers, who already have their own representation. 

Organizers have also said their attempts to start preliminary talks toward an agreement have been stalled by the administration’s refusal to meet with them.

“She’s the only mayor in this state that I haven’t met for the workers we cover,” Lloyd Permaul, the executive director of AFSCME’s Louisiana-based chapter, told Verite last month. 

The City Council called a hearing on the matter last week, where they lambasted the administration for getting in the way of union efforts and demanded they give AFSCME the necessary access to city employees.

Montaño’s Monday email isn’t the only recent win for local union organizers. Last week, after the hearing, Councilwoman Helena Moreno announced that at the urging of workers, she was introducing legislation to codify city employees’ unionization rights. 

As public sector employees, city workers do not operate under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, which investigates allegations of unfair labor practices and helps administer union elections  for private sector workforces. Some cities and states have laws dictating the union recognition process for public employees, but Louisiana and New Orleans are not currently among them.  

The legislation isn’t fully drafted yet, but according to a press release from Moreno’s office, the ordinance would “clearly state that it is the City’s policy that union activities are affirmatively welcomed, that workers have a right to be represented by a union in pay and benefits negotiations and during any disciplinary hearings, and that the administration shall engage with the workers’ duly chosen representatives in a timely fashion.”

“Workers that exercise [collective bargaining] power are more productive and will serve the public more effectively, yet the administration has thrown up a series of strange barriers when engaging with the workers’ representatives at AFSCME,” Moreno said in the press release. “We need to codify an organizing process to ensure future efforts aren’t stymied by administration obstruction.”

A member of Moreno’s staff told Verite that the councilwoman was pleased to see Montaño’s email, but that more action was necessary to cement workers’ organizing rights

“We’re very glad that CAO Montaño has brought some more clarity to this process,” Moreno’s Chief of Staff Andrew Tuozzolo told Verite. “We look forward to codifying the entire process in a forthcoming ordinance.”

The New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee, an ad hoc group of city employees that has been organizing for collective bargaining rights since late 2019, said it was gratified to see the email from Montaño.

“We are glad to finally have this policy that affects union organizing on the record in written form, as we have been seeking clarification ever since our work started,” committee co-chair man Joseph Colón said.

Cantrell’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Confusion led to access problems, administration claims

City workers voted to unionize in 2001 and joined a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union. But in 2018, SEIU handed off the city employees to AFSCME as part of an inter-union deal made at the national level.

After that, the union went dormant. AFSCME has struggled to establish a presence at city hall since taking over representation for City Hall workers. AFSCME representatives largely blame the Cantrell administration for the delays. Some city workers meanwhile, also say that AFSCME is partly to blame for not committing the necessary resources and energy to the fight. 

Some progress was made last summer when AFSCME was finally able to get Cantrell to sign an agreement that recognized that AFSCME had taken over for SEIU. 

The next steps are for AFSCME to negotiate with the Cantrell administration to sign a new collective bargaining agreement. Before sitting down at the negotiating table, Permaul said he wants to launch an “organizing blitz” to increase the number of dues paying union members above 50 percent. In the years of union absence, the official number of union members has fallen below 10 percent of the city workforce. 

But Permaul said that since Cantrell signed the agreement acknowledging AFSCME, little progress has been made. The organizing blitz was put on hold because AFSCME representatives were barred from organizing at some city departments. And they say that Cantrell has never met with the union and that the administration rarely responds when the representatives reaches out.

In his email, Montaño said that part of the confusion was due to the transfer from SEIU to AFSCME, and a lack of clear guidance from the administration on how to handle organizers. 

“Due to … the substitution of AFSCME for SEIU in any new collective bargaining agreement negotiations, some directors were unsure how to respond when AFSCME attempted to interact with City employees on City property,” Montaño’s email said.

First, Montaño clarified in his Monday letter that union organizers and city employees are allowed to meet at worksites during authorized breaks like their lunch hour. But, he added, “directors may impose reasonable restraints on where and how those interactions may occur so that they do not unreasonably disturb the workday.”

He also said that union representatives can represent workers at employees at “disciplinary hearings and in investigatory interviews.” 

Finally, he said that he was planning to meet with AFSCME officials next week to “help clear up any miscommunications or confusion regarding their representation of City employees and union interaction with management.”

There was some indication, however, that the directive could be temporary, and that more guidance could be forthcoming in the near future.

“My office will be requesting a legal opinion from the Law Department to more thoroughly address our responsibilities and obligations concerning union interactions,” Montaño wrote.

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...