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By Raillan Brooks
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, oron rare occasionsare 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Special and Superior Officers Benevolent Association (SSOBA), had formally notified the medical center that it would no longer represent the security guards.
"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.
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.
"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 afterPizzulli 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.
"They don't belong in this arena. They are not a security union," said Pizzulli.
Spokesmen for Local 32BJ declined to comment about what's happening at Pizzulli's union, but the local is currently challenging the SSOBA for representation of 380 workers employed by a security firm working at John F. Kennedy International Airport who are now earning just over minimum wage.
Pizzulli said the low wages imposed on many of his members were the fault of the industry, not his union. "We try to get the members more money, but it's hard," he said. "This is a nickel-and-dime business and the security companies always fight amongst each other for the contracts and want to pay just the minimum. But we're a fighting union, a security union. We go out and get the votes, and the raises and the benefits. These other young kids," he added, returning to the opponents within his own union, "the ones that are out there who want my job or the other jobs here? They don't want to start from the beginning, do all this hard work. They want to start from the top."