Workers at Baltimore's Maryland Zoo who decided to join a union only three years ago voted it out yesterday.
Zoo workers decided in a 47-to-28 vote to stop being represented by the United Steelworkers of America.
The vote was not the first time the union's presence at the 161-acre zoo in Druid Hill Park came under re-examination. Two years ago, workers voted to keep the union by a 51-to-33 vote.
"I'm disappointed that it was voted out," said Tammy Chaney, president of the zoo's union and a zookeeper who has worked there for eight years. "It benefited all the bargaining members more than they understood."
The union has seven days to challenge the election, said Jim Strong, sub-district director of the United Steelworkers in Baltimore. The union, whose contract expires Sept. 30, represents about 99 employees at the zoo.
Workers at the country's third-oldest zoo voted to unionize in February 2003, a challenging time for the struggling institution.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the October 2002 sniper shootings in the Washington area and fickle weather had hurt attendance. The state also had cut financing to the zoo.
Kerry Graves, the zoo's vice president of marketing, said the union is no longer viable.
"Since 2003, just about the entire management team has changed, so management is different from what was then," he said. "The fact is that management and workers do so well together and have a cohesive group, it wasn't needed."
But Chaney said zoo workers still need their union, which she credited with helping to secure wage increases and to maintain benefits, while serving as a support system for workers.
Strong added, "If you were looking at this from a business standpoint, it was a losing proposition for us. We spent a lot of resources in legal fees, organizing and contract negotiations.
"It was money spent that we knew would take us many, many years to recoup in union dues. That was never the issue for us, because the issue for us is about representing workers and trying to improve their standard of living."
However, the union was weakened by employee turnover in past years. Membership also was hurt by the union being unable to win higher wages for seasonal, part-time workers, Strong said.
Strong said union leaders would meet next week to decide whether there are grounds to challenge the results.