NORRISTOWN -- While their labor lawyer has tried to keep them at arm's length from efforts to unionize county employees, Montgomery County's three commissioners this week jumped into the fray.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel III criticized a letter, drafted by labor counsel Fred D'Angelo, that was given to county department heads to place on their own stationery and, at their discretion, distribute to their employees.

"I found the tone of that letter objectionable," said Hoeffel.

The letter, referring to organizing efforts by the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), called certain actions "despicable."

The actions listed in the letter include unannounced visits to employees' homes and telephone calls to employees' homes, even to those with unlisted phone numbers.

Other statements in the letter included:

"We understand that the union's actions are motivated by a desire to unionize the county workforce and collect dues from you. We strongly oppose a unionization effort and encourage you and all our employees to say 'No' to any such effort."

"We request that you not take any action to assist a unionization effort. In particular, I urge you not to sign any petition or card that a union representative asks you to sign."

Hoeffel said "This letter, at least to my reading, suggested that the entire effort to organize is despicable," pointing out that the commissioners did not sign off on the letter or even know it was going out.

In addition, Hoeffel said he has been advised by some employees and some of the union organizers that some supervisors are taking a very anti-union approach in their comments to employees.

Hoeffel said the commissioners took an oath to uphold the law when they were sworn into office and that employees, under the law, have a right to join a union.

"Employees have a free choice to make," said Hoeffel. "That choice should be made without any fear of intimidation or reprisals or punishment on the job. The choice to select a union should be made without any undue or improper influence from management."

Commissioners Chairman James R. Matthews called the tone of the draft letter "disconcerting" while Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr. said he believed that the commissioners should have first seen the letter before it was sent to the department heads.

Carolyn T. Carluccio, the county's chief deputy solicitor and acting director of the human resources department, said the letter was the outgrowth of meetings she and D'Angelo had with department heads and managers who cited employee complaints about SEIU organizing tactics.

She said D'Angelo was brought in based on the advice and knowledge of county Solicitor Barry M. Miller.

Carluccio said the purpose of those meetings was three-fold: to assure department heads that the county had not released employees' personal information, such as addresses and phone numbers, to anyone; to explain to department heads and managers their rights and scope of authority regarding the organizing efforts; and to clarify the scope of union organizers' authority.

Some department heads at those meetings asked for a letter that could be distributed to employees to explain their rights, according to Carluccio.

D'Angelo "told me that the county commissioners, by virtue of their position, should not be involved in the determination of the propriety of unions in the county," said Carluccio. "He instructed that this was a matter between managers and employees."

During the discussion of the letter, Matthews made it clear he was opposed to unions in county government.

"Personally, I am totally against unionizing in county government," said Matthews.

When Castor was asked his position on unions, he responded that, when he was district attorney and there was an effort to unionize the office staff, "I counseled it was a bad idea."

Without saying he supported unions, Hoeffel said employees have a right to unionize and unions have a right to try and win representation.

SEIU organizers, who denied any strong-arm tactics in their efforts to organize employees, said they have targeted the county's correctional officers and sheriff's deputies "but we are talking to a lot of other employees, too."

Only one group of county employees -- some 120-plus adult and juvenile probation officers and domestic relations hearing officers -- are unionized.

This group, which voted for a union in February 2002, is represented by District Council 88 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

AFSCME also had represented an approximate 245-member group of non-supervisory employees in court-related offices including the deputies but was voted out in January 2006.

Montgomery County detectives are represented by their own collective bargaining unit in contract negotiations with the county.

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