Nursing a Grudge

The Jackson Memorial nurses' union is troubled by controversy about everything from bad accounting to homophobia

Richard Reckley, a registered nurse at the Turner Guilford Knight Detention Center medical clinic, says he waited three years before he got angry. Then he did something that might be considered traitorous: He started a fight with his labor union, the organization formed to protect his employment interests that survives on the loyalty and solidarity of its members.

Reckley is a soft-spoken, teddy-bearish man who has become one of the most persistent of a handful of dissidents at Local 1991 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "The [leadership] doesn't support the members," he complains. "You get blackballed once your eyes are open and you find they don't care about the members. When you challenge them, they retaliate against you like you're a villain."

In the past two years, Reckley and at least seven other union members and employees have filed formal complaints against Local 1991. That's only the beginning of what they hope will be a reform movement. The local was established nine years ago, in the wake of a successful drive by nurses at Jackson Memorial Hospital, one of the nation's largest and most respected public hospitals. By 1996 dues-paying SEIU members included other medical professionals employed by the Miami-Dade Public Health Trust (PHT), which governs Jackson and several county-run medical facilities.

Today Local 1991 represents more than 2000 nurses and about 900 pharmacists, social workers, medical technicians, physicians, and employees in other medical professions. They are among the most skilled and highly paid workers in their respective fields. The union local collected dues totaling more than $730,000 in 1998, the most recent year for which financial records are available. But now disaffected members allege that political manipulation, infighting, and financial mismanagement have rendered the local ineffectual and unresponsive to the needs of the rank and file. Among the issues the dissidents decry:

•The union officers allowed the workers' contract with PHT to expire this past October.

•Although employees at Lock Towns Community Mental Health Center, a privately owned social-service agency, voted in 1998 to be represented by SEIU, they still have no contract.

•There are numerous cases of Local 1991 refusing to support or advocate for members appealing firings or discipline; one uncontested termination was a case of mistaken identity, according to Reckley.

•Financial record keeping has been inaccurate. Payments into the pension fund were recorded on financial forms, even though no contributions were actually made for months at a time. Workers compensation insurance covering union staff also was allowed to expire in 1998. An employee allegedly discovered the lack of insurance when she was injured on the job and found she couldn't receive benefits.

•Three staffers claim executive director Sheryl Pettitt unjustly laid them off this past February in retaliation for organizing their own union. They have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board and the county Equal Opportunity Board, both of which have not yet ruled on the charges.

One other controversy rankles some members. A romantic relationship between the local's two most powerful officers is a conflict of interest, say several dissidents. The group contends Pettitt and president Martha Baker have usurped the authority granted by union bylaws to the local's executive board.

Union leaders didn't respond to multiple phone messages left over the course of five days. Then at press time, Baker and labor attorney Mark Richard, who handles most legal matters for the union, vehemently refuted the dissidents' claims. "These are bogus complaints by a little group of people who are just trying to look under a rock and find something wrong," Baker protests. The union made a minor mistake in letting the workers comp insurance lapse briefly, and it's true the pension fund is in arrears, Richard concedes, "but not one person's benefits were affected, and not one pension benefit was threatened or impaired. If they have something legitimate to complain about, that would be worth writing about." The local simply asked permission from the international to use pension payments for organizing drives, Richard explains, and made arrangements to pay it back in time. Moreover Reckley's contention the local ignored his case is false, Richard says. "Labor managers had many meetings [about short staffing] with people from the [PHT]. The trust never owned up that there was a problem. We finally decided it wasn't a contract violation. We apprised him of that." As for the ex-staffers' retaliation charges, Richard says they are absurd. The local's management endorsed the union the employees were organizing, Richard insists, so there could not have been retaliation. "They're angry because they've gone to a lot of places and come up empty-handed," he concludes. Further Richard explains the trio was laid off owing to budgetary reasons.

Some of the controversies date to 1996, when Reckley, a union steward, first complained to PHT management about staffing shortages at county jails. Several medical crises at correctional facilities, including at least three inmate deaths, had been blamed in part on nursing personnel. Reckley and twelve of his cohorts requested that the PHT immediately hire more nurses. Management never responded, according to Reckley, so he called the union. He asked the local to arrange meetings with the trust to address jail staffing and other concerns. Although the union was in fact taking action to force the county to upgrade working conditions, including the addition of workers, Reckley says his concerns were not directly addressed.

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