Bates College campus in Lewiston. The college is being accused by union representatives of violating its own health policies as it encourages staff to meet with a union expert ahead of an organizational vote this month. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

LEWISTON – The union hoping to organize about 630 Bates College employees accused the college Tuesday of endangering public health by urging hourly workers to meet with its handpicked expert on union issues.

It’s an assertion that Bates called “the very essence of misinformation designed to confuse and distract our employees and community,” according to a written statement provided in response to the union’s allegation.

Pro-union Bates employees hope that a majority of the college’s eligible workers will agree this month to affiliate with the Maine Service Employees Association, part of the Service Employees International Union. It would include nontenured or tenure-track faculty, as well as most of the college’s support staff, which would mark the first time a union at a private college combined any of the teaching staff with other workers.

Bates is still challenging the validity of the arrangement.

The college said in its response to Tuesday’s charges by the union that it has sought from the start to “support all of its employees by ensuring that they have complete and accurate information to inform their decision-making,” including this week’s “voluntary information sessions” aimed at answering questions from employees.

The union disagrees.

“Anti-union meetings with an out-of-state consultant should be off the table” at a time when visitors are barred from entering college buildings in a bid to thwart the spread of COVID-19, Julia Panepinto, an assistant softball coach who is pushing for a union, said in a written statement.

The union said in a news release that having in-person meetings to expose employees “to anti-union talking points” violates the college’s own public health policy and endangers its workers, students and the community.

Bates’ policy allows vendors, contractors and others to enter its buildings without violating COVID-19 protocols. In its statement, the college said any in-person talks with employees follow health and safety policies.

Bates is not requiring anyone to meet with the expert, Katie Lev, but in an email this week from its assistant vice president of human resources, Hope Burnell, the college “strongly encouraged” employees to come and talk to her on campus.

It said in its response that the session are “strictly voluntary” and that it is “disappointing that the union now wishes to deny the employees another opportunity to learn more about unionization.”

The federal National Labor Relations Board, which is overseeing the union vote, plans to mail ballots at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. They will likely be counted at month’s end.

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