Las Vegas Sun

November 1, 2014

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UNION SPLIT OVER LEADER

Union leaders commonly use the tactic against their foes.

But on Oct. 30, Jane McAlevey, executive director of the Service Employees International Union Nevada, found herself on the receiving end as her own union members shouted and clapped, disrupting an executive board meeting at the union hall on Sunset Road.

The group was protesting a recent union election, which they say was fixed.

The commotion effectively shut down the meeting, leaving McAlevey and most board members no choice but to retreat to a side office called the "War Room." On that night, however, it was civil war.

"They used the tactic she used on all the managers," one member said after the meeting. "It works."

The boisterous meeting is perhaps the most visible sign yet of upheaval in SEIU Nevada. The union represents about 17,500 hospital and public sector workers and has been seen as one of the state's most powerful labor groups - tightly knit, growing and politically powerful.

But an increasingly vocal group of members say McAlevey has essentially hijacked the union. They say she has rigged internal elections, botched the union's legislative efforts in Carson City, spent union dues inappropriately and quashed dissent.

They have sent a complaint to the federal Department of Labor and the international union, whose president, Andy Stern, has sent a personal representative to Nevada to mediate the dispute.

In short, it's probably premature to say the union is unraveling, but some threads are being tugged.

McAlevey didn't return calls from the Sun.

Her spokeswoman, Hilary Haycock, dismissed the protesters as a few disgruntled election losers.

"There isn't division in the union," she said. "The union is united, highly functional and highly successful."

The Sun spoke with more than a dozen SEIU members, stewards, executive board members and former staffers displeased with McAlevey's leadership. They say there are many others who share their views.

But even members who don't subscribe to either faction acknowledge the gravity of the situation.

"It's pretty nasty," said Lisa Ladd, the union's longtime election committee chairwoman until September, when after 12 years she gave up the post because of the strife.

She recalls when the international union took control of the local because of divisions among rival leaders in the late 1980s and early '90s. The executive board was fired and the local was restructured, she said.

"It's pretty scary," she said. "I am afraid that might happen again."

By all accounts, the local SEIU has experienced tremendous change since McAlevey took over in 2004. Since then, the union has doubled the number of workers it represents.

McAlevey was put in place by SEIU leadership in Washington, D.C., a group that includes Stern and his powerful deputy, Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger.

The SEIU has become known as a powerful and growing labor force that also is influential in progressive politics. But the dispute in Nevada would seem to show the risks of its hard-charging tactics, which can apparently alienate workers, as well as legislators, in the hinterlands.

Some of the internal problems first surfaced in Carson City this spring. McAlevey can be given to open contempt of elected officials - a tactic that as bravado is no doubt attractive to SEIU members but is ineffective when lobbying legislators. Her nickname in Nevada political and labor circles is "Hurricane Jane."

A chief SEIU priority was a "heavy lifting" bill to regulate workplace safety at hospitals, where nurses can be injured by having to lift obese patients.

According to lobbyists and legislators, the SEIU's lobbyist, Renee Ruiz, who was new to Carson City, diligently created a coalition to get the bill passed.

The legislation would have tracked workplace injuries and created a labor-management committee at hospitals to develop a system for safe patient lifting.

Ruiz signed off on the legislation, according to a person involved in the negotiation. But McAlevey didn't think the legislation went far enough to ensure safe lifting of patients.

She scuttled the deal and said Ruiz had no authority to negotiate. McAlevey went to Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, who had become something of an ally, and had him intercede to have the bill tabled while negotiations continued.

That alienated Democratic legislators and their allies, while irritating the hospitals, which thought they had a deal.

Late in the session, the union sent Sally Johnson, a nurse at UMC, and others to Carson City to lobby legislators on the bill.

Johnson said she was stunned when two labor-friendly Democratic legislators disparaged McAlevey. One even said he or she would support the bill only if Johnson could promise that McAlevey would never set foot in the legislature again, Johnson said.

"My whole experience up there was eye-opening," she said.

In the end, legislators and lobbyists involved in the legislation killed it in frustration. The whole imbroglio was a blow to McAlevey's credibility.

While the heavy lifting bill was dying an ugly death, another piece of legislation that could increase the out-of-pocket costs of medical benefits for local government retirees sailed through.

Members have expressed their disappointment. Ruiz was fired.

McAlevey and her leadership were questioned again during two disputed internal elections for the union's 44-member executive board this summer.

The first took place in June. Matt Stafford, then an SEIU staffer and organizer at University Medical Center, said that in the run-up to that contest, McAlevey personally asked him to recruit workers and help them run against candidates with whom she clashed, including Vicky Hedderman, the union's president. He also was instructed to report back to McAlevey on Hedderman's activities, according to a letter he wrote to International SEIU President Andy Stern after leaving the union in August to attend law school.

"Essentially, I was a spy," he wrote.

McAlevey's tactics included cutting off supporters of her opponents from leadership development and speaking engagements, he said.

"Jane's actions and influence are detrimental to the local," he wrote. "Her exploitation of staff and workers has led to a larger rift in the organization and is inexcusable."

Stafford said he never heard back from Stern.

Still, anti-McAlevey forces won a significant number of seats. The election, however, was tossed out. Union staff had distributed an informational flier to some shops with incorrect voting locations and times. A local election committee recommended the election be overturned because some workers may not have had an equal opportunity to vote because of the flier.

The recommendation angered many members, some of whom accused McAlevey of approving the inaccurate flier so that she could get the vote overturned if she didn't like the results. McAlevey has said it was an honest mistake.

The international union approved the election committee's recommendation and played a significant role in organizing the rerun, even setting the date for Sept. 4 and 5, said Ladd, the former election committee chairwoman.

"Nobody spoke to us about scheduling the (second) election. SEIU International wanted a rerun right away," she said. "I thought they would be there more for guidance, but they stepped in and took over... I was surprised."

The second election has been even more controversial than the first.

McAlevey's preferred slate of candidates was supported by a series of glossy mailers to members. Staff members, who have traditionally stayed neutral during elections, used vacation time or were given time off to campaign in favor of the pro-McAlevey slate. Staffers phone banked from McAlevey's home and rented vans to transport workers to the voting sites. McAlevey's favored slate won most seats.

Complaints poured in, some even before voting began. Some members claimed that the pro-McAlevey campaign was using union phone lists after receiving campaign calls to their unlisted numbers. They questioned how the mailers had been funded, and they say staff paid with union dues - including McAlevey - had no business pitting one member against another.

The union's election committee reviewed the complaints, but found no violations. Staffers are allowed to campaign in internal elections as long as they are members of the SEIU and are on their own time, the committee found, and there was not enough evidence to substantiate allegations that union-generated phone lists were used or that mailers were paid for improperly.

Shauna Hamel, the union's executive vice president, said SEIU members from other states contributed to the campaign, but that no union dues or political action committee money was used. The participation of staff and outside members in the election may be new, but that doesn't make it wrong, she said.

The election committee's decision, announced Oct. 30, spawned the protest at the union hall that temporarily shut down the meeting. There, members raised concerns about McAlevey's spending decisions as well.

Tom Maroney, the union's former treasurer, said McAlevey has inappropriately spent money on parties and gym memberships for staffers without board approval.

He said McAlevey approached the union's finance committee about gym memberships about a year ago, but that the committee did not approve the request. McAlevey used member dues to pay for the memberships anyway, he said.

Hamel, however, tells a different version. She said the memberships were included in a staff benefits package that the executive board approved. She also said parties for staffers are not uncommon, but that the executive board is considering how to better regulate such spending.

Since the October executive board meeting, members of the dissenting group have filed election appeals with the international union, but some are skeptical that they will be handled properly because of McAlevey's close ties to international leadership. They've also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Stern, the international president, has since suspended the appeals and last week sent a personal representative, Larry Fox, to Nevada to mediate the dispute.

"We want to mediate this thing and get it settled so they can continue the tremendous work they're doing," said Steve Trossman, the international's director of communications.

The SEIU canceled a Sun interview with Stern, citing his schedule.

The mediation is going to be tough. Anti-McAlevey representatives say they told Fox last Thursday that only two things will heal the division: firing McAlevey and reinstating the results of the first election. Those in attendance said Fox told the group he didn't have the power to do those things, but that he would take their concerns back to Stern.

The size of the rift is difficult to determine. But then, so are some basic facts about the union. Unlike other unions, the local SEIU won't release its membership numbers.

McAlevey told the Sun in December last year that Nevada SEIU's membership had grown from 9,000 to 15,000 since her arrival in spring 2004. But the union's filing with U.S. Labor Department shows it had 9,124 members at the end of last year.

Meanwhile, information from individual employers shows that some workers have been dropping their SEIU memberships since the disputed elections. Membership in Clark County government dropped from 3,147 in June to 2,935 in November.

Ashlee Seymour, spokeswoman for Sunrise Hospital and Sunrise Children's Hospital, said 57 members have revoked membership since Sept. 4 and 113 have stopped voluntary paycheck deductions to the union's political action committee.

Seymour emphasized that "Sunrise and the SEIU have a positive relationship wherein we share a common goal of high-quality patient care."

Union executive board members acknowledged in a Sun interview that the dissension had created slight bumps in membership and PAC revocations, but said in the grand scheme of things, they amounted to nothing, especially given membership gains in other areas.

Those gains are due, in part, to a new, aggressive style of labor leadership that has been a hallmark of the national SEIU movement - a style that McAlevey embodies.

"I think we acknowledge there are certain growing pains," said Craig McNair, a steward at Clark County. "That makes us nothing but stronger."

Sun reporter Michael Mishak contributed to this report.

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