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Union for Allegheny County Jail workers won't be easy, organizers say

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Medical personnel at the Allegheny County Jail trying to unionize should expect a fight, said labor officials who have battled Corizon Correctional Healthcare.

“It's about money for them; it's not about taking care of people,” said Richard Draper, an organizer with the National Union of Health Workers in California, which successfully organized Corizon workers at Santa Rita County correctional facilities in 2013.

Draper said Corizon management sent letters to workers that said they did not need a union to earn benefits employees throughout the company enjoy.

Officials at Corizon, a private company based in Tennessee, declined to comment.

The United Steelworkers petitioned Jan. 9 to organize 84 workers at the Allegheny County Jail. A National Labor Relations Board hearing is set for Thursday in the William S. Moorhead Federal Building on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, to determine who may join the proposed union.

Corizon provides prison health care services to about 381,000 inmates in 28 states, according to its website. It won an $11.4 million contract from Allegheny County and began offering medical services at the jail last summer. Jail health care workers were not unionized under Allegheny Correctional Health Services, a nonprofit the county Health Department established to treat inmates. The nonprofit bid for a new contract but lost.

Health care workers in the jail could benefit from recent unionization drives in other fields, said Karl Petrick, an associate professor of economics at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.

Petrick said strikes by fast-food workers and protests outside Wal-Mart stores on Black Friday point to a potential labor rebirth.

“We may well be talking, not this year but over the next few years, about an increase in the number of unions in private-sector jobs,” Petrick said.

Decline has been the rule among unions nationwide for decades.

Roughly 11.3 percent of U.S. workers — about 14.4 million people — belonged to a union in 2012, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, according to a 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. In 1983, union membership stood at 20.1 percent with 17.7 million workers, the bureau reported.

Public-sector employees had a union membership rate of 35.9 percent in 2012, five times that of private sector workers (6.6 percent).

About 65 percent of petitions result in union elections, according to the NLRB.

The Steelworkers do not file petitions unless certain it has enough support to win an election, said organizer Randa Ruge.

The union successfully petitioned for an election at Duquesne University where adjunct faculty members voted to join the Steelworkers. The university is challenging the election in court.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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