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April 19, 2014

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Toxic feud at SEIU’s top ends with resignations

Local’s two ranking leaders reach agreement amid union disorder

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Leila Navidi

Jane McAlevey, executive director of Service Employees International Union Nevada, will resign because of disagreements with the union’s president, Vicky Hedderman, over the direction of the union.

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Shauna Hamel, right, SEIU Nevada's successor to Vicky Hedderman as president, responds to a question during an interview at the Las Vegas Sun in May as Helen Miramontes, a past president of the California Nurses Association, listens.

Beyond the Sun

The terms for the resignations of the top two leaders of one of Nevada’s largest unions were laid out over salad and breadsticks at a Las Vegas Olive Garden on Tuesday night.

Andy Stern, international president of the powerful Service Employees International Union, had sent his personal representative, Larry Fox, to end a deep divide in the Nevada local that jeopardized years of progress.

Over dinner, Vicky Hedderman, the local’s longtime president, told Fox her union had been dysfunctional for the better part of the past year. She attributed the chaos to the vicious daily leadership struggle between her and the local’s hard-charging executive director, Jane McAlevey.

The relationship was toxic. The solution, she said, was simple.

Hedderman offered her resignation on the condition that McAlevey would do the same. The personality conflict — and deep disagreements over the direction of the local — had gotten in the way of the union’s business, she said.

Hedderman said she had made the same offer twice previously — in August to Stern, and in November to Fox. By then, Hedderman had called on the Labor Department to investigate her own union over what she called a rigged election. If her offers to quit seemed like heated rhetoric back then, they now seemed sensible.

In the intervening months, the rival California Nurses Association had nearly succeeded in poaching 1,100 nurses from the SEIU at three St. Rose Dominican hospitals and had begun campaigning at University Medical Center, the SEIU’s flagship hospital.

“Everything was at risk,” Hedderman said. “It got worse and worse as time went on. There was no healing. It got more and more polarized. You just can’t take care of business when you have that going on.”

Hedderman complained that McAlevey ran a top-down shop and stifled member dissent. McAlevey said aggressive tactics were necessary to pull the union out of years of mediocrity. Her bravado (her nickname was “Hurricane Jane”) impressed some members but alienated others, along with key figures in political and labor circles.

The morning after the Olive Garden pact, McAlevey offered her resignation.

The infighting, she had decided in recent weeks, had become an overwhelming distraction to the union’s contract talks and political agenda. The feeling crystallized last month when, in McAlevey’s absence, dissident members led a successful coup of the local’s leadership board. Besides, McAlevey had felt for some time that the brunt of her work as a reformer was complete.

The two leaders, their relationship strained beyond saving, did not speak with each other about their resignation deal, using Fox as an intermediary.

The differences between McAlevey and Hedderman exploded into open warfare after a disputed election last summer in which several Hedderman supporters won seats on the local’s executive board.

That election was tossed out on a technicality and a new one was scheduled.

As tensions mounted Hedderman said she e-mailed Stern. “I said I had no problem stepping down if (he) took her out of Nevada,” she said. “It wasn’t taken very seriously.”

In the run-up to the second election, McAlevey and other paid union staffers — whose job it is to represent all members — successfully campaigned for a favored slate of candidates.

Hedderman retained her position as president, but many of her allies lost.

She and several losing candidates complained to the U.S. Labor Department, which found several violations in a preliminary report, including the use of union funds and membership rosters for internal political purposes.

Stern’s attempts to mediate the discord through Fox in November failed. Meanwhile, McAlevey publicly attributed the problems to a small but vocal group of disgruntled members and highlighted the union’s huge gains, including standard-setting contracts in the health care industry and robust political participation.

The infighting is now taking its toll: the California Nurses Association is threatening to unseat the SEIU at three St. Rose Dominican hospitals.

McAlevey said the local’s chaotic executive board meeting last month caused her to consider Hedderman’s joint-resignation proposal, which she first learned about several weeks earlier.

Several rank-and-file union members aligned with Hedderman complained that the board majority had inappropriately earmarked union money to hire a private detective to find the source of media leaks regarding the local’s botched presidential primary endorsement of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Because the local’s bylaws prevent accused board members from voting, the board minority, generally aligned with Hedderman, had the power to suspend the board majority for three months.

The de facto overthrow occurred while McAlevey was in Puerto Rico for the union’s national convention. Early the next morning she persuaded the international executive board to put the local’s actions on hold.

After that, McAlevey queried the international leadership about a “quick, smart transition” for new leadership.

Stern sent Fox to Nevada again, this time amid reports that the California Nurses Association had sent organizers and literature into University Medical Center, the base for much of SEIU’s expansion in the state.

Then came dinner this week. The international union confirmed Fox’s visit but declined to offer details, except to say that the two leaders’ decisions to resign were their own.

When the resignations take effect July 1, McAlevey will be replaced by Vicky Baca, a former registered nurse, longtime organizer and head of the international union’s public employees division. McAlevey will transfer to SEIU international’s payroll but remain as a consultant to the local for the next four months.

Shauna Hamel, the executive vice president and a McAlevey ally, will succeed Hedderman as president.

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