Nursing a Grudge

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

In June 1998 Reckley wrote a letter to Pettitt. "We feel the union has lost focus and developed a sense of complacency when it comes to its core members," he wrote. "Grievances have been filed as far back as 1995 ... and as of 1998, we are still waffling about arbitration. The union continues to allow management to dictate when and how we do things.... Personal agendas appear to be dominating this union."

Still, Reckley contends, the union leaders did not respond. In May 1999 he filed a grievance against Local 1991 with the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) in Tallahassee. Early this year PERC dismissed Reckley's grievance, saying he failed to prove their lack of response.

A list of charges brought against Pettitt and Baker by three Jackson nurses in February 1999 also was rejected. The nurses, who two months earlier had run for union leadership positions and lost, presented their gripes during a fourteen-hour hearing before an officer from the SEIU International in Washington, D.C. Attorney Mark Richard served as Pettitt and Baker's advocate. The nurses alleged several instances of financial mismanagement and accused Pettitt of falsifying statements and using money for activities not approved by the executive board. They complained leadership had denied them copies of checks they requested. And they alleged irregularities in the election. Pettitt and Baker's relationship, the nurses further asserted, "has negatively affected their ability to perform their duties justly and ethically."

In his June 1999 ruling, SEIU International president Andrew Stern rejected every charge as "fabricated, invalid, and fraudulent." He went on: "[The charges] are the product of three members who were defeated in an election and seek to undermine the union at any cost.... It is respectfully requested that ... the charging parties align themselves with the SEIU Local 1991 philosophy and fight for health care workers."

By all accounts Pettitt, whose salary in 1998 was $86,337, is a talented negotiator and charismatic leader. Her critics question how well she has used these qualities to benefit union members. "The minute anyone starts to challenge her is the minute they become useless to her," says a former SEIU employee, who did not want to be named for fear of losing a job. "Once you figure out her scheme, she gets rid of you."

The debate over Pettitt and Baker's use of power has in some cases degenerated into a dispute over the leaders' lifestyle. (In June 1997 they purchased a $410,000 house on Miami Beach.) When executive board member Alecia Bethel criticized the arrangement, she found herself vilified as a gay basher. Bethel swears today she raised the issue not out of homophobia, but because she believed it was a conflict of interest. "They said I was anti-gay," she recounts. "They made me an outcast." In 1995, when elections were held, Bethel was removed from the executive board.

"They really trashed her," agrees a former SEIU staffer who requested anonymity. "Nobody wanted to be a gay basher, so a lot of the board members were too weak to stand up for her even though they felt the same way. If it had been a man and a woman, all hell would have broken loose as far as I'm concerned."

Labor-law experts and other knowledgeable observers, however, say relationships like Pettitt and Baker's are hardly unheard of in union circles. Much more problematic liaisons (such as a union's negotiator married to an employer's manager) have existed. And by now the controversy over the Pettitt-Baker relationship has cooled.

Bruce Nissen, a professor at the Center for Labor Studies at Florida International University, knows Pettitt but is unfamiliar with the current conflicts within the local, and declines to speculate about them. "In general," Nissen cautions, "members tend to believe their leaders are worse than they are. If you polled any union membership you would find something like 30 percent believe [their leaders] are taking money under the table. It does happen with corrupt Mafia types, but it's extremely rare -- probably one percent in terms of what happens. But the perception among members is different."

The dissidents of Local 1991 say they're still deciding whether to form a slate to run against the executive board incumbents in the next elections, which are scheduled for December. To gain whatever advantage they can muster, they're working to publicize their grievances to a rank-and-file membership that never has been very active in union affairs. It remains an uphill battle against firmly entrenched leaders. "Nurses are caring people who work long hours," remarks a long-time union activist and former SEIU employee. "They're not taught to think outside the box, and they're easier to exploit than some other workers. But you need more people to ask questions. What [union organizers] always are taught is above all, don't fuck over the members. Some things you don't do in a position of power, even if it's not illegal."

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