High Official of Service Employees Runs a Problem-Plagued Local

When Paul Policicchio became president of Local 79 of the Service Employees International Union in 1988, many activists saw it as a welcome change. His predecessor, Richard Cordtz, was a kindred spirit to the old guard Teamster officials he associated with. Cordtz was a highly paid, white, male official with multiple salaries, presiding over a local full of low wage people of color who had little say in the running of their union.

But although the Detroit-based local may be somewhat more activist now than in Cordtz' day, the underlying situation has not changed that much. The well-paid Policicchio runs a highly autocratic local, with many members working under contracts that give them scant protection from the employers. And Local 79 seems to have a much-too-cozy relationship with a company that provides low-wage employees for one of Detroit's most prominent employers.

What makes Local 79 of more than usual interest is that Policicchio is one of the top five international officials of 1.2 million member SEIU, a union that holds itself up as a model for the future of the labor movement. Andy Stern, who fought off a challenge by Cordtz to become SEIU president in 1996, made Policicchio his candidate for executive vice president, a position he still holds in addition to the presidency of Local 79.

Local 79 has nearly 15,000 members. The membership includes health-care aides and nurses, janitors, maintenance workers, retail service employees, road and construction workers, groundskeepers, security guards, and many others. The membership is about 85 percent African American, while the rest is largely white with a small number of Latinos and other people of color.

ARENA OPERATORS

The most striking example of Local 79's cozy relationship with an employer involves several companies, including Arena Operators and Theater Operators, which were started by a man named James P. Foran. These companies provide service and maintenance workers, who are members of Local 79, for entertainment venues owned by the Mike Illitch family. The Illitches own the Little Caesar's pizza chain, along with the Detroit Tigers baseball team and the Detroit Red Wings hockey team.

Local 79 members at Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings play, are employees of Arena Operators, Ltd. At Detroit’s Fox Theater, another Illitch property, Local 79 members work for Theater Operators, Ltd.

According to state records, James P. Foran started Arena Operators in 1979 and Theater Operators in 1988. Foran is now an attorney for the company, according to the State Bar of Michigan.

But James P. Foran also works for Local 79. He earned over $50,000 last year in salary and expenses for a position listed simply as “H&W” in the local’s financial records.

James P. Foran's father, Jack, is president of Arena Operators and Theater Operators.

Policicchio personally negotiates the contracts with the Foran companies; they do not seem to be many steps above the "sweetheart" level.

The 11-page contract covering workers at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, which hosts the Red Wings games, concerts, and other events, gives workers little more than the minimum wage and makes it difficult for them to even join the union.

According to the contract, “event-based” workers are the ticket agents, ushers, porters, and maintenance workers who work during events. They earn between $34.00 and $36.00 per event for a maximum of six hours' work. They may earn eight dollars more for performing additional cleaning duties.

PERPETUAL PROBATION

They become union members only after working a probationary period of 100 events in a 12-month period. If a worker cannot work 100 events in twelve months, she must start over again. Although the arena holds about 150 events a year, many workers still do not make the minimum. Overlapping show schedules and simultaneous events make it difficult.

“The workers end up perpetually on probation,” said Elena Herrada, a former Local 79 business agent. “That means that while they’re on probation they are not full-fledged union members, and have no access to the grievance process and no protection under the contract.”

There is also no definition in the contract of what constitutes an “event.” This can make the wage and probation provisions very flexible in the hands of the employer.

Job titles do not mean much either. The contract gives the employer the right to assign any worker to any job at any site at any time, regardless of the worker’s job title. The employer can also assign a worker to as many duties as it would like, even if all the duties are during the same event. (Workers do get the higher rate if they work two differently-paid classifications in the same shift.)

The ten-page Theater Operators contract gives workers a 180-event probation. Ushers covered by that contract earn between $5.15 and $5.25 an hour. Head ushers earn up to $12.20.

The contract also allows the employer “the right to pay any employee a higher rate of pay than specified herein based upon evidence of prior experience, or other special attributes.”

“That’s a merit pay provision,” said Herrada. “Why have a union if that’s going to be in there? The minimum wage is set by law. But here, the president of the union negotiated a minimum wage contract, and then let the employer decide who gets a raise.”

GIVE BACKS

Ike Townsend, who resigned in March as the director of Local 79's Building Services Division, said there were other problematic contracts.

Townsend spent 15 years as a janitor before joining the SEIU staff seven years ago. He recalls one incident in which Policicchio changed a contract he had negotiated.

“We had negotiated a contract with some pretty good language in it,” Townsend said. “But everything we got for the people, he went in and gave back. We were a 30-person bargaining team, and he sent us away and talked to the boss. He went in and gave back everything we negotiated.”

Contracts are not the only problem for Local 79 members. According the members and staffers, workers who want to assert their rights sometimes find themselves very much alone.

Dorothy Martin, a former dietary aide and union steward at the Franklin Care Center nursing home in Detroit, said the union was not supportive of members at her workplace.

“The union asked me to be a union steward,” she said. “When one of my people got in trouble, I represented them. But the union didn’t. I was doing my job as a steward, and the union wouldn’t do anything."

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Workers at the Franklin Care Center eventually found an alternative.

“The company had, like, a go-between, who would straighten out problems, so you didn’t have to go to the union," Martin said. "The members were going to her.”

TORRE & BRUGLIO

Local 79 staffers say that it was common for business agents to undermine or ignore workers.

“Grievances were put on the shelf, and the people who filed them were called complainers and whiners,” said Herrada.

Townsend said that the culture of Local 79 kept the staff from taking care of workers. “We were told,” he said, “‘We want people to stand up and take initiative,’ but when you do stand up, they slap your hand.”

Townsend and Herrada point to one case in particular. Until last April, 20 seasonal workers had jobs cleaning and maintaining Detroit’s Hart Plaza, an outdoor venue for concerts and festivals. These Local 79 members had worked for a company under contract with Detroit’s city government. When a new contractor, Torre & Bruglio, won the contract, the workers lost their jobs.

“These were seasonal workers who had once been homeless, or in rehab, or had a criminal record,” explained Townsend. “Most of them were just trying to start over. They were dues-paying members.

“We wanted Torre & Bruglio to pick them up because there was a successor clause in their contract," he added, "but Torre & Bruglio wouldn’t honor it.”

At that point, Townsend organized demonstrations at Hart Plaza to protest the displacement of the Local 79 members. The campaign was meant to force Torre & Bruglio to hire the original workers and recognize their union. That failing, Townsend also had plans to organize the workers Torre & Bruglio brought on to do the work. But the local leadership stopped it.

“Paul told us to hold off,” said Townsend.

Herrada says that a coordinator at Local 79 told her that the leadership had been ordered to leave Torre & Bruglio alone. At that time, Local 79 was awaiting passage of a state bill that would give raises to 7,000 nursing-home workers.

“I was told that [the legislator who sponsored the bill] would trash the bill if we didn’t lay off Torre & Bruglio,” said Herrada. “When it became clear that the union was going to do nothing, I took action.”

Herrada went on a radio show and two cable-access shows to talk about what Torre & Bruglio had done. She also approached the Michigan Citizen, a local newspaper, which ran a story.
UNUSUAL SPENDING

Herrada believes that local’s handling of such issues reflect the leadership’s inability to relate to the members.

“You have white males making decisions that affect the lives of poor people of color,” she said. “The president does not represent the majority of the people whose lifestyles are so far removed from his.”

Policicchio’s 27-year career has been spent mostly on the SEIU staff. He has been an officer of Local 79 since 1984. Last year, the international union paid him $143,502, while the local paid him just over $8000 in salary and expenses.

Herrada, a Latina, was laid off in March and replaced with
a white woman. She believes that it was because of her involvement with the Torre & Bruglio fight.

With Herrada’s layoff came several others. Feeling his own dismissal was imminent, Townsend resigned.

One SEIU staffer whose job has remained intact is Michon Policicchio, Paul wife. Local 79 paid her $29,000 last year, roughly the same as most full-time staffers in her job category. Both former and current Local 79 staffers, however, say that Michon Policicchio works part-time.

Many staffers thought that the local was cutting back due to financial problems. Although Local 79’s 1998 financial records do not indicate any deficit, Townsend says that Local 79 officers and staff had meetings about the local’s money problems.

Whatever money problems there were may have resulted, at least in part, from some unusual expenditures. New furniture for Michon Policicchio’s office and others at the local, a video surveillance system in the local’s offices, the lease on Paul Policicchio’s car, catered meals, and an apartment in one of downtown Detroit’s high-rent high-rises are among the items former staffers say the local has spent its money on.

“It was just the mismanagement of funds,” said one. “You put in all these cameras and renovations, and buy all this catering, then months later you’ve got to lay people off. But Michon got to stay on.”

Paul Policicchio did not return repeated telephone calls.

“He will not be commenting,” said SEIU Local 79 spokesperson Laura Johnstone, who also would not respond to questions. Nor would the international union.

Several Local 79 staffers, former staffers, stewards, and members of Local 79 also declined to comment or be interviewed. Some former staffers were afraid that speaking out would cause them to lose their jobs, or have difficulty getting other jobs. Rank and file workers feared that the union would allow their employers to fire them. Stewards were concerned that the union would negotiate worse contracts for them.

“Even though the truth is the truth, you can’t always say what you want to say,” said one steward.