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 strewn 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.
In Ohio, union membership among public-sector workers like Cardenas has been growing, even as the rate of unionization has fallen in the private sector, where management has effectively blocked these organizations.
For three years after the public sector labor reform bill 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 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.
Cardenas and Passalacqua set out to convince clerk workers, most of whom had never been in a union, that joining one now was worth the perceived risk of reprisal. At first, colleagues like Marsita Ferguson, a legal account clerk, weren't convinced.
"I didn't want to make management think that I was against them," says Ferguson. But she also wanted to see changes around the office, like more transparent hiring practices and more collaboration between staff and management. "A lot of people are afraid to speak up," she says. "Management needs to focus on building a better relationship with employees."
The four colleagues who attended the first meeting Cardenas held in 2014 formed the core group of the internal organizing effort. "They were really committed to getting this off the ground. They talked to everyone and brought friends to the meetings," says Cardenas. Seven people attended the next meeting, then 11, and then 19. Cardenas' idea had momentum.
"[Cardenas and Passalacqua] were trying to give us an explanation ... that we did not have to be afraid," says Ferguson. "Once they started explaining that stuff, I was kind of hooked."
At lunchtime on a crisp fall day in 2014, Cardenas and Passalacqua sat near the bar in the Marriot hotel on St. Clair Avenue. Stacks of unsigned union interest cards lay on the table nearby. The men needed signatures from Cardenas and 29 of his colleagues to trigger a formal vote for unionization. They were prepared to collect cards for weeks, though they hoped to net a few this day.
The core supporters came in first, removing their jackets after walking from their offices. Next came other colleagues who, like Ferguson, had been skeptical at first.
"They just kept coming," Passalacqua says.
Twenty-three workers signed cards that first day, and by the end of the year Passalacqua had enough signatures to file a petition for a representation election to the State Employee Relations Board, the Ohio agency that regulates unions.
In April 2015, four months after county executive Armond Budish replaced Rocco with Nailah Byrd, employees of the County Clerk of Courts voted in a secret mail ballot on whether or not to join the CWA. The measure passed, 57 to 9, with 20 abstentions. "It was great. People were really excited," says Cardenas with a slight grin.
Baylor Myers, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity, does not share Cardenas' enthusiasm. While AFP supports the idea of unionization, it objects to current laws that require all workers in the county clerk's office to join the union — even workers who voted against the union or abstained from voting in the election.
"If unions are forcing people to join, then they shouldn't exist," Myers says.
AFP and many of their allies in the fight against SB 5 in 2011 would rather see Ohio adopt laws that allow workers to opt out of joining a union and paying union dues, even if a union is bargaining on their behalf. Michigan, Indiana, and 23 other states have adopted similar laws, known as Right to Work, though efforts to do so in Ohio seem politically unviable today.
Cardenas hopes it stays that way. He understands if people don't want to pay dues to a union. But if a worker benefits from a collective bargaining contract through a union, but doesn't have to pay dues, collective bargaining, will unravel completely, he says.
The CWA and Cuyahoga County representatives entered negotiations in August 2015. Passalacqua expects county clerk employees to have their first union contract within the next few months.
"Cuyahoga County has a long and respectful relationship with the CWA," says Mary Louise Madigan, director of communications for Cuyahoga County, while offering no comment on the ongoing negotiations. "We hope the parties come to a mutually acceptable outcome."
Ferguson and Cardenas hope the contract will jumpstart a more productive relationship between clerk's office workers and management, now led by Byrd. According to Cardenas, union affiliation has already helped workers feel more supported at work. When a manager at the clerk's office told her supervisees to remain seated, despite their protests, during a fire alarm earlier this month, workers turned to Cardenas for recourse. "People are a little less stressed because at least they know they have some backup," he says.
And he's encouraged by what he and his colleagues have accomplished. "I was amazed at how far the clerk of courts has come," he says. "A lot of people finally were fed up and did something about it."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.