Thursday, February 28, 2002

Union will abide by boycott of Cincinnati

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A union representing 37,000 state workers has told city officials it will not hold its 2005 convention in Cincinnati because of the city's “poor treatment of African-Americans and other minorities.”

        The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the largest union representing state employees, told Mayor Charlie Luken in a letter that the group will honor the 7-month-old boycott of Cincinnati.

        The decision is a victory for the Black United Front and the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, the two groups that called for a boycott last year in the aftermath of the deadly police shooting of an African-American man.

        Until now, the boycott had claimed performers like Bill Cosby and Smokey Robinson, both of whom canceled shows. But city officials have always been more concerned about the economic impact of conventions.

        City and convention officials were quick to point out that the union had never formally scheduled a 2005 convention. But the union has rotated its four-day statewide meeting among Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati for more than 20 years, and Cincinnati's turn is due in 2005.

        About 700 union members attend each convention.

        The union has no specific demands, but will decide to return to Cincinnati “when and if the boycott is lifted,” said the union's executive director, Irwin M. Scharfeld.

        Boycott leaders said Wednesday they were unaware of the union's decision, and weren't even sure whether they ever contacted the organization. The Black United Front sent many convention groups a controversial letter last year calling police officers rapists and murderers.

        “The fact that they're from Ohio, that shows that they are intimately aware of the issues and the concerns,” said Juleana Frierson, the boycott group's chief of staff. “It sounds like we're picking up steam, and we expect it to get stronger and stronger. We hear from people across the nation, and we're looking at bigger and bigger fish.”

        Mr. Scharfeld said the union's board of directors made the decision last week after a recommendation from its Committee on Minority and Community Affairs. The union is about 18 percent minority, he said, and 2,000 of the union's members live in Cincinnati.

        “I'm sure they did not take this lightly. We've always had good conventions in the city and hope we could in the future,” he said.

        In his letter to the mayor, Mr. Scharfeld wrote: “We do not feel at this time that holding our convention in a city that has done little to address the issues of its treatment of minorities is in the best interest of OCSEA and its diverse membership.”

        City officials said it was unfair for the union to make a decision without listening to anti-boycott leaders such as Vice Mayor Alicia Reece. They say the city has made great strides on police issues, and is nearing an accord with the U.S. Justice Department and a settlement with the plaintiffs in a racial profiling lawsuit.

        A frustrated Mr. Luken had some choice words for the Columbus-based union Wednesday.

        “I think sometimes when people disparage a city like Cincinnati, they ought to look at their own city,” Mr. Luken said. “Suffice it to say we all have our issues. I think some of the one-liners in this letter are patently unfair.”

        Councilman Pat DeWine called on the union representing 2,500 city employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Ohio Council 8, to denounce their sister union's move. The state union is AFSCME Local 11.

        “If our local workers, paid for with city tax dollars, are at all associated with this group, I would hope they would repudiate it,” he said.

        Bob Turner, regional director of AFSCME Council 8, said the state local's decision was a surprise to him. He said he would urge the union to discuss the boycott with city officials before making a final decision.

        “It seems to me that when you're talking about a convention in 2005, that's pretty far out, so there could still be time to work this out,” he said.

        Mr. Scharfeld said the union's site selection committee will pick another southern Ohio city for the 2005 convention in three to six months — giving the city that long to give in to the boycott group's demands before the union's decision becomes irreversible.


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