Tyrone Freeman seems to be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg at the Service Employees International Union these days.
Freeman, if you remember, was the target of an LA Times investigation early this month that found the SEIU Local 6434 president had used hundreds of thousands of dollars in union member dues to pay for questionable services that made his relatives a little richer. He also spent funds on fancy meals and an exclusive, Beverly Hills cigar club.
Freeman, in other words, was living the high life while his members were, and still are, getting paid $9 to $10 per hour working as home care workers. The controversy is especially galling when you read the union leader's last blog entry on the local's web site. Freeman argues that soon he and his members will be eating "Ramen Noodles" because times are so hard.
But now members of Local 6434 are peeved at national SEIU president Andy Stern, who first appointed Freeman. On Monday evening, a dozen or so home care workers gathered for a press conference in front of the union's Los Angeles branch office on Wilshire Boulevard, only a few blocks west of MacArthur Park. The local members had two big beefs with the national leadership: they want an independent investigation of Freeman's financial dealings, and they want the right to elect their own leaders. Stern had appointed John Ronches, an insider from SEIU's headquarters in Washington D.C., to handle the Freeman fiasco.
"We want complete control of Local 6434," said Karen Linzy, a home care worker from Inglewood.
Linzy and some of her fellow members, which included a videographer, then took an elevator ride up to SEIU headquarters to deliver a poster-sized letter stating their demands. Beka Langen, a campaign support co-ordinator, greeted them and the camera with a smile but no answers to their questions. And, according to Langen, no one was available to talk with the group. Langen also told them she did not give her permission to be taped, and she didn't want to see her face on YouTube the next day. By that point, she was not smiling anymore.
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Linzy and her entourage left, but a few minutes later, Michelle Ringuette, the national SEIU media director, called my cell phone after I had given my business card to Lisa Hubbard, deputy director of communications at SEIU's Los Angeles office. Ringuette was working at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, but the controversy in LA was obviously becoming a major sore point for the national leadership.
Ringuette said that once the Freeman matter is settled, the local members will be able to elect their own president, rather than have someone appointed. She also said SEIU had brought aboard two "independent" figures to help with the unfolding inquiry: former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin. Van de Kamp will assist in the investigation, according to Ringuette, while Grodin will be the hearing officer for the investigation's findings.
Freeman, meanwhile, has taken a leave of absence, the rank-and-file are becoming more and more vocal in their frustration with national leadership, and Andy Stern wants to keep things from spiraling out of control as he tries to help Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama win in November. It's a messy situation that does not appear to be going away anytime soon.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.