The ongoing battle between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and a major California health care workers affiliate for the last several months has been in its special-ops phase. And the parent union, not happy over its sudden bad publicity, may owe a substantial sum to the security firm it hired to keep the peace. On May 1, the OSO Group, Ltd. sued the SEIU and an allied security firm in San Francisco federal court, demanding back payment for surveillance and security services related to a trusteeship that the SEIU imposed upon the dissident Oakland-Calif.-based United Health Workers-West (UHW) in January. OSO has close ties to a union-busting company that broke a UHW strike four years ago.
What is OSO Group? Say this about it: It’s not your average security firm. Based in San Francisco with offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Ireland and several Asian countries, the company describes itself as “the first commercial counter-espionage group established in the private sector.” With a leadership heavily represented by ex-Secret Service, FBI and CIA agents, OSO is positioned to engage in high-level private-sector spying. And spying is what Service Employees President Andrew Stern felt was needed to keep a lid on the UHW-West situation. For the last couple years he and UHW President Sal Rosselli have been locked in a feud over economic and internal governance issues. The battle culminated in late January when Stern replaced Rosselli with a trusteeship, alleging Rosselli and his people had misused local funds and refused to accept an SEIU reorganization plan. The next day, Rosselli, backed by more than 100 officers and board members, announced the 150,000-member UHW was disaffiliating from the two-million-member SEIU to lead a new nationwide entity, the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
Stern already had set the wheels in motion to enforce the new regime. According to OSO’s lawsuit, the company began its espionage on behalf of the Services Employees International Union on January 15. It deployed $110-an-hour off-duty and retired armed plainclothes agents to conduct 24/7 car surveillance of UHW offices. Spooks also photographed and videotaped UHW members and staff arriving at and leaving from work, and provided round-the-clock “protection services” to visiting SEIU executives and drivers involved in secret meetings with hospital CEOs, and California legislators and staff. It proved to be an expensive proposition. The suit states the SEIU’s demand for security and drivers “continued to increase exponentially at business facilities, hotels and private residences.” OSO operated out of a “command post” at an Oakland hotel to “coordinate the large amount of manpower, logistics and scheduling.”
The Service Employees union also allegedly had OSO infiltrate UHW-West meetings. The lawsuit indicates that the SEIU directed OSO Group agents to conduct “a security and surveillance operation” targeting thousands of UHW members who attended five union meetings in schools and auditoriums across California on January 24. Union members at those meetings discussed the merits of the parent union’s demand that UHW transfer its 65,000 long-term care members to a new union without a vote. The OSO Group reportedly prepared an advance written plan, “Security Operations Plan for SEIU,” for SEIU’s chief security consultant, Bullock & Associates, which is listed with SEIU as a defendant.
SEIU’s choice of OSO Group to do its dirty work makes a certain sense. A top OSO executive, Garnett Williams, an ex-Secret Service agent, is a former official of the Steele Foundation, a San Francisco-based consultant hired by Sutter Health to break a two-month strike by hundreds of UHW members in 2005. At one point during the strike, security guards reportedly kicked and punched workers, mostly women, on the picket line. One striker, Lorena Hernandez, was hospitalized after a guard knocked her to the ground and kicked her repeatedly in the abdomen. The lawsuit claims that SEIU officials contacted Williams on January 14, 2009 through a former Secret Service agent to request OSO’s assistance in putting UHW under trusteeship. Less than two seeks later, trusteeship hearing officer Ray Marshall, a former Labor Secretary (under Carter), presented the findings of his investigation to the SEIU executive board. Coincidence or not, call it good timing.
If the SEIU and OSO Group had a close relationship, it didn’t last long. The international union either couldn’t – or wouldn’t – pay its bills for services rendered. OSO in turn is demanding payment of $924,434.13 plus fees, cost and interest; the union already has paid for another roughly $1.25 million in services. It’s claiming breach of contract, fraud and negligent representation by SEIU and Bullock. Andrew Stern is bent on consolidating power in the service of a long-range goal of expanding organized labor’s ranks. Whether or not he and loyalists have committed civil wrongdoing, the affair is indicative of something wrong in American unions. We’re used to stories of companies spying on union employees. A union spying on its own appears to be something new. (U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, 5/1/09; indybay.com, 5/6/09).