When Bradley Fredericks became unhappy with his labor union at Adell Plastics Inc., he began looking for another union to represent the 75 workers at the Anne Arundel County plastics recycler.
But when the Teamsters agreed to step forward to take over the Adell local of the Seafarers union, the AFL-CIO national labor federation threatened it with sanctions for "raiding" members of another union.
"That doesn't matter. We're going ahead with the vote," said Mr. Fredericks, who has served nine years as president of the Adell local. "We're fed up. They [Seafarers] don't come here to represent us on problems, and they won't get us a contract."
In response to a petition signed by some 70 Adell employees, the National Labor Relations Board will hold an election today and tomorrow for workers to decide whether they want to stay with the Seafarers, join Teamsters Local 557 or have no union represent them.
The interunion battle in Maryland is one of hundreds being played out across the country as affiliates of the AFL-CIO intensively compete for members, even as the overall number of union members has not grown over the past few years.
In the last two years, some 184 disputes over member units have come before the AFL-CIO for mediation or arbitration. Since the labor body enacted its constitutional Article 20 ban on raiding members of other AFL-CIO affiliates in 1961, more than half the complaints have been settled by mediation.
In only several dozen instances have unions outright defied the federation and had sanctions formally imposed. But the only sanction for the violation is to declare the offending union open for raiding by other unions, a measure that has not had much effect except to increase animosities within the labor movement.
A number of the Article 20 cases involve the Teamsters, the only national union now under AFL-CIO sanctions.
Since returning to the AFL-CIO fold in 1987, the Teamsters have certainly lost members, even though at 1.5 million workers the organization remains the largest private-sector labor union in the United States. But the Teamsters have not lost significant members to raids by fellow AFL-CIO unions; their most potent challenge is from the Flight Attendants union, which is campaigning to replace the Teamsters at Northwest Airlines.
"There are actually fewer instances of this type of dispute now, possibly because of the legal difficulty and resources required to challenge an existing union," said Candace Johnson of the national AFL-CIO. Most complaints are being resolved at the initial stage, she added.
Meanwhile, the NLRB will go ahead with the representation vote at Adell, regardless of the internal AFL-CIO decision favoring the Seafarers, and the Teamsters pledge to continue the fight. "We're an aggressive union, and we don't back down," said Philip DelCostello, president of Teamsters Local 557, which has 1,800 members in Baltimore.
"They came to us and asked for our help. We not going to let them down," he said of the Adell workers.
"It's a sore thing for unions to be fighting, but I believe that people have the right to choose which union they want."
Mr. DelCostello noted that the AFL-CIO has twice decided against his local in representing Baltimore-area truck drivers. One decision went to the Auto Workers, the other in favor of the Machinists.
"The employers made them [employees] join the other union in order to get the job," he said. "They were denied a chance to exercise their rights."
His local has been trying to get an NLRB election at those two employers, although one of them recently went out of business.
The Seafarers union, through its United Industrial Workers arm, has represented workers at Adell since the 1960s. It blames Teamsters interference for blocking its efforts to bargain a new contract and resolve grievances with management.
"It's a clear violation of [the AFL-CIO's] Article 20 against raiding," said Jessica Smith, a Seafarers spokeswoman. "It has hindered our representation and held up constructive contract negotiations."
Mr. Fredericks said the Adell workers, who earn about $7.50 an hour, have been disgusted with an alleged lack of support from the Seafarers in fighting management attempts to change shifts, reduce the paid workweek and shift jobs to non-union employees. They tried nine years ago to switch unions, but the Teamsters backed off from the Adell workers, he said.
When the old contract expired Aug. 15, he and others petitioned the NLRB to hold the election for a new union.
The company is encouraging employees to vote for no union, Mr. Fredericks said. "I think we're going to win anyway, because people here are ready for a union that will back them up and not ignore their needs," he said.