Members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 elected Meg Niemi to a three-year term as president in mail ballots counted Aug. 31. Niemi outpolled challenger Patti Harris, a longtime Kaiser Permanente chief steward.
Niemi has been president since May 2009, when she was appointed by the Local 49 Executive Board at the recommendation of predecessor Alice Dale, who left to work for UNI Global Union in Switzerland.
Headquartered in Southeast Portland, Local 49 is a private sector affiliate of SEIU, with about 9,100 members in Oregon and Southwest Washington — principally health care and building service workers such as janitors and security guards. Local 49 also represents about 900 members of Workers United (formerly UNITE) who work at Pendleton Woolen Mills, a Xerox plant in Wilsonville, and several industrial laundries.
President is Local 49’s top elected office. As president, Niemi is responsible for directing a staff of 25. She’ll have her hands full in the coming year. Nearly three quarters of the local’s membership will be in contract negotiations in 2012, and relations are strained with many employers, Niemi said.
“I think the economy being tough is an excuse for a lot of employers to feel insecure and try to take that out on low-wage workers,” Niemi said. Many Local 49 members are in low-wage occupations, Niemi said, and are having to fight back against proposals for cuts. Contracts up for renegotiation include the Portland-area master janitorial contract, the national agreement at Kaiser Permanente, and contracts at Good Samaritan hospitals in Corvallis and Albany.
Niemi, 40, has been with SEIU nearly 20 years as an organizer and director of organizing campaigns. Since she took the lead at Local 49, the union has continued a focus on organizing, and succeeded in unionizing non-union departments at Kaiser Permanente and Legacy Emanuel. Earlier this year, Local 49 celebrated Oregon’s largest private-sector union win in decades when a group of about 600 workers at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend voted to join. In August, 160 workers at Planned Parenthood of the Columbia-Willamette joined. Local 49 is also campaigning to unionize about 900 security guards at four companies.
Niemi grew up in the Northwest and feels lucky to have been raised in a union family. “My stepfather, who was a longshoreman up at Local 21 out of Longview-Kalama, really taught me a lot about the importance of direct action,” Niemi said. Niemi’s grandfather was a union carpenter and shipbuilder in Astoria. Her grandmother, who turned 96 the day of Niemi’s election, is a retired member of the Oregon Education Association.
Niemi ran at the head of a three-member slate, the other members of which were also elected: Kaiser CNA Olivia Devers outpolled Kaiser chief steward Teresa Ynda Winders for the position of secretary-treasurer, and Legacy Good Sam steward Sally Glazier outpolled Kaiser improvement advisor Nicole Norton for a Health Care division Executive Board seat.
Members also chose Aramark custodian Michael Brewster for a Property Services division Executive Board seat, over fellow custodian Lourdes Elizondo.
Turnout in the election was around 10 percent, said Local 49 spokesperson Felisa Hagins.
Other candidates for Local 49 office ran unopposed, and were declared elected earlier this year: Art Lee, Sergeant-at-Arms; Julie Markiewicz, Vice President for the Health Care division; and Renato Quintero, Vice President for the Property Service division. Executive Board candidates elected unopposed were: Gretta Cole, Mid-Willamette Valley; Donna Iverson, Southwest Washington; Michelle Hilpert, North Willamette Valley; Kathy Marsh, Southern Oregon; Colette Rogers, Eastern Oregon/Oregon Gorge; Luis Blancas, Allied; Mark Niemeyer, Laundry; Chris Singrey, Manufacturing; Bryan Leeder, ABM; Mark Vorpahl, Emanuel; Virginia Jordan, GSRMC ; Mary Brooks, Kaiser Permanente; Pat Johnson, Peacehealth; and Nate Yu, PHC.
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