Revolt from Above

A family-run union for security guards ousts its members

  Union membership slipped to an all-time low of 12 percent of the workforce last year, despite valiant organizing efforts to stem the tide. Unions lose members when shops go out of business, move away, or—on rare occasions—are voted out by disgruntled workers. The one thing labor unions never do (unless they're stepping aside to allow another union to replace them) is voluntarily abandon their bargaining units.

Well, make that almost never. In a move that goes totally against the grain of what unions are striving to achieve these days, the embattled leaders of a family-run union representing 3,000 metropolitan-area security guards recently went in the opposite direction, dropping members rather than adding them. This addition-by-subtraction approach emerged as the leaders sought to combat a growing group of dissidents who have challenged their control of the union. Their solution? They decided to fire a healthy chunk of their own membership.

The tactic was unveiled in early December at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, one of Long Island's biggest hospitals and employers. Managers there summoned the hospital's 60 security guards to a meeting in the auditorium. At the meeting, hospital chief executive Dennis Dowling announced that their union, the Special and Superior Officers Benevolent Association (SSOBA), had formally notified the medical center that it would no longer represent the security guards.

(L-R) John Cardiello, Tony Martinez, and Tim Cantwell. Photographed in the Long Island Jewish Hospital parking lot.
photo: Filip Kwiatkowski
(L-R) John Cardiello, Tony Martinez, and Tim Cantwell. Photographed in the Long Island Jewish Hospital parking lot.

"He told us, 'We're as shocked as you are,' " says Tim Cantwell, a guard who has worked at the hospital for 15 years and who narrowly lost election as the union's president in 2004. "They said the union hadn't given any reason, only that it didn't want to renew the collective bargaining agreement."

The timing of the announcement was another stunner to the members. Their contract was due to expire at the end of that month, leaving them no power or ability to bargain for a new one.

When guards went to their locker room after the meeting they found a notice from the union had been posted, stating that the members had wasted the union's time by filing "too many grievances." This confused workers even more since no one could recall the union ever taking one of their grievances to arbitration, which is where the biggest costs in the grievance process are encountered.

Several guards phoned the union's headquarters in Babylon, Long Island. Secretaries took their messages. The calls were not returned, according to Cantwell and others.

The silence seemed to confirm what Cantwell, along with other members who had challenged the union's longtime leadership, already suspected: Rather than risk losing their posts in upcoming elections scheduled for later this year, the leaders had decided to drop the entire bargaining unit, thus making Cantwell and others ineligible to run.

"I knew exactly what they were doing when I heard it," said Cantwell. "I was the only one left from the slate that ran against them in 2004. Everyone else had been fired with the union refusing to stick up for them. This way, they can say, 'He's no longer a union member, he's not eligible to run.' There was no other rhyme or reason for it."

One of Cantwell's running mates, John Cardiello, said he also believed the union was simply trying to get rid of its troublemakers. Cardiello was a guard at the hospital for three years until shortly after the contested 2004 election, when he was fired after being accused of being improperly away from his post. "The union said there was nothing they could do for me," said Cardiello. At the time, Cardiello said, he was trying to prevent unauthorized vehicles from blocking the hospital's emergency entrance. "I know why they did it," Cardiello said of the union's abandonment of the unit. "We've been a headache to them and we've been trying to get them to do the right thing. And we were running against them. They just don't want any waves."

The same thing happened to Tony Martinez, another former hospital guard who had decided to challenge the leadership in the last election. "I never had a problem until they knew I was running for office," he said. "Next thing I knew they said I was off-post and I was gone. The union came down but didn't do nothing."

Even federal regulators who monitor union conduct said the union's decision to simply walk away from the members at the hospital was a new one to them. "They just dropped the members and the bargaining agreement. It's my first experience where I saw this happen," said Ralph Gerchak, the longtime director of New York's Office of Labor-Management Standards for the U.S. Department of Labor.

But it wasn't the first time the Labor Department had received complaints about the guards union. Two years ago, the department filed suit against the union after it found that 698 members never even received mail ballots to participate in the 2004 vote. It was the first contested election in the union's 35-year history, one that was held only after members filed complaints with the Labor Department. But in the election's aftermath, investigators found that officials in union headquarters didn't even maintain current addresses for a quarter of the union's members. Cardiello and Cantwell said that during their campaigning in the 2004 election they visited many of the smaller companies where the union has members, many of whom work for low wages, only to find that many employees didn't even know they belonged to the union. "They were paying $25 a month in dues, plus initiations of up to $100, and they were getting nothing from the union," said Cardiello.

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