Revolt from Above

A family-run union for security guards ousts its members

After the Labor Department filed its lawsuit it agreed to settle the matter if the union submitted to federal supervision of its next election. That deal was in the works when the Labor Department heard about the union's decision to disown its members working at Long Island Jewish hospital. Court filings show that government attorneys asked the court at that point to put the settlement agreement on hold. Labor agency officials said they will still oversee the next election, but noted that the most likely rival candidates are unlikely to be on the ballot. "Unfortunately, these guys are not going to be able to run," said one official.

That's not the worst thing in the world according to James Pizzulli, the 72-year-old founder and current president of the Special and Superior Officers Benevolent Association.

(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.

"Let's put it this way," Pizzulli said when the Voice asked him why his union had abandoned 60 dues-paying members at the hospital. "A union is only as strong as its membership. So if the membership is weak at a certain location, it is like a cancer. It spreads. They start to spread rumors, things that are untrue. And before you know it, you weaken the foundation of the house you are trying to build."

Pizzulli didn't mention his union being overworked by too many grievance demands. Instead, he said he'd simply had enough with the crew out at Long Island Jewish. "I said if they don't follow the leadership of the union on what we direct and how we do things, then I will drop youse as a group. I won't renew the contract. I will just go there and say, 'I don't want youse no more. You take your group and if it makes you happy, go form your own little union."

Still, the union president adamantly denied he had dropped the unit to avoid the risk of losing the upcoming election. "No such thing," he insisted. "But listen. You want to be the leader? First be a follower before you try to become a leader. You know what I'm talking about? First you serve the people. Then you'll be served later."

Actually, one of the main gripes voiced by the dissidents is that the leadership of the union has long been concentrated in the hands of a small group of family members. For most of the union's 35 years it has been run by Pizzulli or his wife, Mae, who is since deceased. For years the husband and wife ran the union collectively, with Mae serving as a $61,000-a-year assistant to her husband who now earns $129,500 a year as president.

Joseph Sciascia, a former security guard who is married to Pizzulli's daughter, currently serves as the $81,000-a-year executive vice president and handles much of the union's day-to-day affairs. Sciascia said he didn't feel comfortable talking about what had happened at Long Island Jewish. "This unit didn't want to follow the leadership of the union as to the decisions and the future," said Sciascia. "It was an executive board decision."

A few weeks after Pizzulli pulled his union out of Long Island Jewish, Cantwell and other guards asked lawyers at the Garden City law firm of Colleran, O'Hara & Mills, which had represented them in their challenge to the 2004 election, to see if they had any legal standing to challenge the withdrawal. Two attorneys there, Carol O'Rourke Pennington and Erin Doherty, agreed to represent the members, filing a lawsuit in federal court that accused the leaders of the union of "unjustifiably abandoning" an entire bargaining unit.

"It wasn't your typical type of discipline against members," said Pennington. "It was pretty creative. We normally defend unions, but we couldn't come up with a good reason for what they did, other than to suppress dissent and get rid of the candidate who was potentially going to run against them. To us this is one of the most outrageous exhibitions of oppression we've seen." The union, Pennington said, had essentially expelled all of its members at the hospital. "And they got expelled for political reasons, not for lawful reasons under the act," she said. The lawsuit, filed in March, asks the court to rule that the union violated its own constitution and the members' rights under federal labor laws.

Attorneys for the Special and Superior Officers Benevolent Association have countered that the union was well within its own rights to do what it did. Pizzulli certainly thinks so. "I done nothing that I can't do, or am not allowed to do," he told the Voice.

Pizzulli said his bigger concern these days isn't the pesky dissidents but his ongoing battles with powerful Local 32BJ, a division of the Service Employees International Union that has launched a massive organizing drive seeking to bring many of the 60,000 security guards in the metro area under one union roof in an effort to use that critical mass to win higher wages and benefits.

The organizing is part of a national push by the local's parent union, aimed at winning better working conditions for guards who remain, even in the security-conscious post-9/11 era, low-wage workers receiving little to no medical coverage. Local 32BJ, which already represents 79,000 building maintenance workers and doormen in New York and New Jersey, has so far succeeded in organizing 3,000 guards and is taking aim at the rest of the industry, a strategy that is making smaller, independent security guard unions like Pizzulli's nervous.

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