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.

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."

kathy.glasgow@miaminewtimes.com

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