International-Appointed Trustee Appeals Election Defeat- Philadelphia Service Employees’ Local Elections Become Battleground f
In Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy, a local union is embroiled in a battle over its own democratic processes.
On December 13, 2003, Local 36 of the Service Employees International Union held its first elections since 2000, and Denys Everingham of the reform slate-dubbed “The Philly Home Team”-won the local presidency with 60 percent of the vote.
Everingham, who had been the local’s vice president, defeated Wyatt Closs, who was appointed local trustee by the SEIU International in 2002.
Everingham’s supporters will have to wait, however, for their votes to be made official. Closs and his slate have filed charges with an independent election officer alleging election improprieties and demanding a revote.
A LOCAL IN TURMOIL
Closs was appointed trustee in 2002, after serving as special assistant to Anna Burger, Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU International.
The local’s president, Mike Russo, had left suddenly for an extended medical leave of absence and a power struggle over the local leadership ensued, causing the International to step in.
According to Everingham, when Closs took over, most Local 36 members “believed that the International would enforce democracy in the local.” However, “members became disenchanted when Closs told them he wanted to move to a plush new office that would cost the union a lot of money.”
Elba Mercado, a janitor who took unpaid leave time to campaign for Everingham, is one of the many members who were not happy with Closs’s plan. “Is that why our union dues go up every year, so they can have yuppie offices?” she remembers asking.
Members were also unhappy that Closs drove a union-funded sport utility vehicle, lived in a union-paid condominium, and that his 2003 salary reportedly rose from more than $85,000 in 2002 to over $100,000.
Amendu Evans, a shop steward who campaigned for the trustee, disagrees with Mercado’s take on Closs. Before Closs arrived, Evans says, “members were kept in the dark… [Closs] tried to make the union more member-based. He opened things up.”
Evans points out that in the past, information had not gotten out to all members because union materials were only printed in English.
“We have a diverse local,” says Evans. “People speak Polish, Spanish, all different languages Wyatt started printing information in different languages so that members could read it.”
Evans also notes that in years past, members were not involved in contract negotiations.
Under Closs, according to Evans, “members were invited to meetings… He let us speak to the board directly, to let them know what was important to us.”
FUROR OVER CONTRACT
However, Everingham believes that “the straw that broke the camel’s back” was Closs’s handling of contract negotiations with Philadelphia’s Building Operators Labor Relations, Inc. (BOLR), the umbrella organization that represents Philadelphia’s building owners and managers. The BOLR master agreement covers 2,200 janitors and engineers in Local 36.
Negotiations resulted in substantial cuts in benefits: co-pays jumped from 50 cents to $5, $10, and $25 per prescription; family health coverage, which had previously been free, went to a $20 per week deductible; and emergency room visits (which had also been free), jumped to $75 per visit.
Beyond the content of the deal, Local 36 members were unhappy with how Closs represented them during negotiations. According to several accounts, at one point when management got particularly aggressive, Closs simply broke down.
Mercado, who attended most of the negotiating meetings, believes that “[Closs] being so weak made management think we were weak.”
According to Mercado and Delbert Franklin, another Local 36 member, members were not allowed to vote on the contract without first seeing a video and presentation put together by Closs and his staff.
Everingham remembers that “most members didn’t even know about the ratification meeting; many members complained that the notice…came to their house after the ratification meeting.”
Less than 150 of the 2,200 members covered by the contract ended up voting, and the agreement was ratified.
Closs did not respond to repeated calls for comment, but his New Unity Team slate put out a press release that illustrates how they intend to fight Everingham.
This press release, credited to Closs and Aquel Brisbane, the New Unity candidate for Secretary-Treasurer who was defeated by rank-and-file building engineer Wayne McManiman, (who ran as an independent candidate), claims that Everingham and McManiman ran racist campaigns. One section reads:
“Everingham and her partner McManiman, both white, carefully went after immigrant, white and Latino members with the subtle message that an African American could not win for them. With many Americans predisposed to embrace racist beliefs, few words were needed to get the message across. The whites came out by the dozens.”
Janitor Yvette Spence, an immigrant from Trinidad who supported Everingham, hotly denies these charges of racism. “The best thing about Everingham’s campaign,” she contends, “is that it reached out to all the members. Blacks, Latinos, immigrants from all over the place… Wyatt’s just upset that he lost, and he’s trying to turn the Black members against Denys I don’t think it will work.”
Mercado agreed, adding, “Closs has nothing to say because he never did anything for us. He got us a bad contract that cost us money, the union pays for his car and his rent, he raised our dues, and he thinks we’re going to vote for him because he calls Denys racist. It’s a bunch of bull.”
For now, Local 36’s members are waiting to see how the election officer, Hank Murray, rules on Closs’s challenges to the election results.
Murray, who has worked on a number of elections for SEIU-including last year’s vote to merge many SEIU locals from Massachusetts and Rhode Island-says Closs’s charges “are nothing out of the ordinary for a local election.” He hopes to have a ruling ready by January 26.
In the meantime, members are prepared for either outcome. “His (Closs’s) people are calling people up,” says Mercado, “asking them who they voted for, putting pressure on. Enough is enough.”
“No matter who’s in charge,” says Evans, “we need to work together to make sure this union works properly. I campaigned and voted for Wyatt, but if Everingham wins I’m going to have to find a way to work with her. What’s important is that the union work properly.”
Evans continues: “[This election] woke a lot of people up to the fact that people have to get involved. You can’t just sit back and cry about things…the members are the union, and we all need to be involved in the union.”
Mercado adds, “We’ll do what we have to do. Everybody is willing to take off weeks to make sure our votes are honored.
“It’s not like this just started now-we’ve been preparing for a year, and we’ve got more work to do. We’re not tired; we’re ready to fight. That’s how everybody feels.”