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Zoo workers vote to stay in Steelworkers union

Workers at the Baltimore Zoo, who have been down a bumpy road during the past year through layoffs and negotiation of their first collective bargaining contract, voted yesterday to keep their new union in place.

Zoo workers voted 51 to 33 to continue being represented by the United Steelworkers of America.

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The vote over the future of the fledgling union at the 161-acre attraction in Druid Hill Park came a week after members voted overwhelmingly to accept a new contract. That 91-1 vote followed tentative approval of the pact by the union leadership and zoo management.

Nevertheless, one-third of the zoo's bargaining unit had petitioned for a vote to decertify the union - before that prospect was rejected yesterday.

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"I'm definitely for the union," Tammy Chaney, a mammal keeper who has been working at the zoo for six years, said before going to cast her vote yesterday.

Zoo President Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb said yesterday that she was pleased with the zoo's labor agreement and said the zoo would have honored the contract even if the union had been dissolved.

"This has been very hard in the sense that it has divided the zoo employees," Grieb said. "It's been very polarizing, and I just hope that now that this issue is behind us and we have a contract that everyone is comfortable with, that we can come back together as a group."

Workers at the third-oldest zoo in the country voted to unionize in February last year. The action was certified a month later by the National Labor Relations Board.

As the two sides negotiated, labor strife surfaced after zoo officials announced late last year that they would have to lay off 20 workers, remove about 400 reptiles and lend out the elephants, Dolly and Anna. Fund-raising efforts have since enabled the zoo to keep its elephants.

The zoo became squeezed financially after several events in recent years slowed attendance: the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the October 2002 sniper attacks, a harsh winter and a wet summer. Also, the state cut its contribution to the zoo by $620,000 in 2001 and by an additional $80,000 in 2002. The cumulative effect was a $200,000 deficit. But zoo workers said yesterday they felt relieved and pleased with the contract, though they added there is room for improvement.

"It was a very difficult contract to get," said Chaney, the mammal keeper. "Overall I'm happy with it, but things could be changed. Everything could always be better."

"This is our career," said Julie Elder, an elephant keeper and secretary of the zoo's union. "All we want to do is just stay here, and each year it's just harder and harder to stay."

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The one-year agreement reached between the zoo and the union says that zoo workers will pay 20 percent of increases on health-care premiums for the year. Previously, zoo workers paid all of the increases in their premiums, the union said.

The union said the contract includes a 5 percent wage increase for all full-time and part-time workers, which was given to them during negotiations. Grieb, however, stressed that those raises were given to workers before they had a contract.

The new contract also allows workers to carry over from one year to the next five of their paid days off, the union said. Grieb said that policy was in place and was not negotiated by the union.

Full-time workers were given three paid bereavement days to use for funerals of immediate family members, including domestic partners. Also under the new contract, new hires and part-time workers are required to join the union, while current full-time workers will join only if they so choose.

Zoo employees will be protected from layoffs by seniority, the union said. So if the zoo were to lay off workers, it would be required to let the newest workers go first.

Grieb said that when the zoo last laid off workers, it was done by seniority.

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Jim Strong, subdistrict director of the United Steelworkers, said the union's contract puts the zoo workers on a new level, giving them a legal agreement that protects their wages, benefits and working conditions.

"The employees, for a second time, sent a clear message to zoo management that in order for them to be treated fairly and equally, they realized they needed to join a union, and that's what they did for the second time," Strong said.

Steven Schweiger, an elephant keeper, said keeping the union seemed a logical step for workers who had lost benefits in recent years.

"We just want to maintain what we already have, so they just can't take away our benefits without us saying, 'Hey, that's not fair,'" he said.


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