Thursday, April 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
- Union split over leader (12-03-2007)
Beyond the Sun
A preliminary U.S. Labor Department investigation has found that one of Nevada’s largest unions violated federal labor law during its most recent officer election, including the use of union funds and membership rosters for internal political purposes.
The findings give new ammunition to critics who argue that the Service Employees International Union leadership gamed the election to produce the results it wanted. The findings also are fueling a rival union’s attempts to poach SEIU members at three local hospitals.
For the past four months, Labor Department officials have been probing last year’s election of union officers at SEIU Nevada, which represents 17,500 health care and public sector workers in the state.
An initial election in June resulted in victories for several candidates opposed to SEIU Nevada Executive Director Jane McAlevey, but those results were overturned because some union fliers had advertised incorrect dates and locations for the election. That led to a second election in September in which McAlevey and other paid union staffers successfully campaigned for favored candidates, who called themselves Members United to Win.
SEIU Nevada President Vicky Hedderman and several candidates who lost in the second election filed a complaint with the Labor Department.
The department’s preliminary probe found four violations, according to an April 7 letter to Hedderman and SEIU International President Andy Stern.
Two violations involve improper use of union resources. The pro-McAlevey slate used union membership lists for campaign purposes and used $5,000 in donations from an SEIU District 1199 solidarity fund, the letter says. SEIU District 1199 represents more than 27,000 health care and social service workers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, and is headed by Dave Regan, a close ally of Stern’s.
Neither the international union nor representatives from District 1199 could explain how the solidarity fund works. A local SEIU spokeswoman and members of the slate that benefited from the donations said membership lists were not used improperly and that no union money was used in the election. A District 1199 spokeswoman said in a statement that the union “believes that there is no basis for the current allegation.”
A third finding involves Sacramento-based political consultant Phil Giarrizzo. The Labor Department says the pro-McAlevey slate improperly benefited from campaign mailings paid for by Giarrizzo’s company.
Giarrizzo is a former SEIU leader in California who sat on the union’s national executive board with Stern. He also has performed work in Nevada, including SEIU mailings opposing Clark County Commissioner Mary Kincaid-Chauncey’s 2004 reelection bid.
Giarrizzo said he did not do any free work for Members United to Win last year. In fact, he said the group still owes him $20,000 for printing and mailing fliers. The group has paid him only $3,000 so far, he said, though it sent a second check for $3,000 that bounced.
“We in no way, shape or form are donating a damn thing and we want our money,” he said Tuesday.
The fourth Labor Department finding says a member of the pro-McAlevey slate was allowed to campaign at St. Rose Hospitals’ Siena campus while a candidate on the opposing slate was denied the same opportunity.
Shauna Hamel, SEIU Nevada’s executive vice president, said that if the opposing candidate was not a nurse at St. Rose, that person might have been restricted from certain areas out of concern for patient safety.
The Labor Department letter emphasizes that the findings are not final. It gives union officials until Friday to provide additional information, though SEIU Nevada spokeswoman Hilary Haycock said that deadline has been extended. The Labor Department would not comment on the investigation — or even confirm that it is conducting one.
The government generally seeks to correct union election violations through voluntary compliance. Possible corrective actions include rerunning all or portions of the disputed election. If challenged, the government could file suit in District Court to have the election set aside and order a rerun under government supervision.
Labor experts are skeptical of the Labor Department’s motivations, given the Bush administration’s pro-business stance and the SEIU’s status as the nation’s largest union. The department’s actions in this case seem uncharacteristically quick, they say.
“My guess is that they are saying, ‘Here is a juicy internal fight and here’s an opportunity for us to say there is some impropriety,’ ” said Janice Fine, a labor expert at Rutgers University.
“They will seize on it because it gives the whole labor movement a black eye.”
Still, union members who have been critical of McAlevey are reveling in the findings, which they say underscore the argument of some SEIU leaders that Stern and his allies are too heavy-handed in local affairs. So is the California Nurses Association, which is fighting to replace the SEIU as the representative of 1,100 nurses at three St. Rose Dominican Hospitals. A representation election is scheduled for next month.
The international SEIU plans to send a representative to Nevada this month to address the rift within the local union, said Andy McDonald, a union spokesman. It will be the international’s second attempt to mediate the dispute.