The allegations of sexual harassment may or may not be true. But there’s no disputing that the top ranks of the Service Employees International Union are getting thinner. Over the last few weeks, the SEIU announced the resignation, suspension or termination of four alleged labor lotharios: Executive Vice President Scott Courtney; principal organizer Kendall Fells; Chicago organizer Caleb Jennings; and Detroit organizer Mark Raleigh. More such moves may lie ahead. “These personnel actions are the culmination of this stage of the investigation which brought to light the serious problems related to abusive behavior towards staff, predominantly female staff,” stated union spokesperson Sahar Wali in an email. In the context of similar accusations in the worlds of politics, publishing and film, the story has added significance.
Females are a large and growing portion of organized labor in this country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they now account for more than 45 percent of all union members, up from roughly a third in 1984. Within public-sector unions, women now constitute about 55 percent of all members. A general shift in the employment base from manufacturing to services, unionization of traditionally female occupations (i.e., teaching, nursing), and demands for gender pay equity, among other factors, explain this shift. One consequence is that union leaders more than ever are attuned to female grievances. “Unions have been very active in trying to improve labor rights in the low-wage labor market such as restaurants or car washes or to some extent retail,” says Ariane Hegewisch, study director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “But really what we’re seeing is that men have been working in fields where unionization has fallen…Unions are more aware of issues such as the need for paid sick days and paid leave, and they are pushing that because they have more women members.”
At the Service Employees, for the last seven years headed by a woman, Mary Kay Henry, female grievances have been popping up with regularity as of late. Apparently, several male officials at the roughly 1.9 million-member union either took sexual liberties with reluctant female staffers or made derogatory comments to them. During late October and early this month, four prominent SEIU officials resigned, were suspended or were fired outright. According to interviews conducted by BuzzFeed News with more than a dozen current and former union staffers, these patterns of behavior were an open secret. Moreover, a number of supervisors were aware of the situation but chose to ignore it.
Scott Courtney, a Service Employees executive vice president and principal strategist for the union’s highly publicized (and misguided) multi-city “Fight for 15” campaign to achieve a $15 an hour national minimum wage, is the prime casualty. In an October 23 email to staff, SEIU President Henry announced her acceptance of Courtney’s resignation following an internal probe into his “sexual misconduct and abusive behavior.” Over a number of years, the union alleged, Courtney dated female subordinates in violation of the SEIU Code of Ethics. He was suspended in October following his marriage to a union employee. “This morning, President Mary Kay Henry accepted Scott Courtney’s resignation as an elected officer and member of SEIU,” wrote spokesperson Wali. “This comes a week after she suspended him from his assigned duties based on preliminary information that surfaced through an internal investigation launched to look into questions about potential violations of our union’s anti-nepotism policy, efforts to evade our Code of Ethics and subsequent complaints related to sexual misconduct and abusive behavior toward union staff.”
Three other union officials also have left under a cloud of accusations. Foremost among them is Kendall Fells, one of the SEIU’s main organizers and the most prominent spokesperson for the Fight for 15 campaign; he resigned on November 2. In addition, Caleb Jennings, head of SEIU Chicago operations, was fired in late October. He is denying all wrongdoing. In an email statement to the Chicago Sun-Times, Jennings declared: “I support the ongoing investigations and I’m against any workplace sexual misconduct and abuse. My hope is that SEIU focuses on the systemic abuse that has been going on within the institution, rather than focusing on their public relations damage control. My employment was severed with SEIU without cause, was unjustified, and I am exploring all my options.” This assertion clashes with a letter signed by more than 50 employees of Chicago-area SEIU locals stating that Jennings had created a “toxic work environment.” The other union official, Detroit-area chief organizer Mark Raleigh, was put on indefinite administrative leave on November 2, the same day as Fells’ resignation.
The response from Washington, D.C. international union headquarters, predictably, has been accession to feminist demands. The SEIU has formed an external advisory group whose roster includes: Cecilia Munoz, director of the Obama-era White House Domestic Policy Council; Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center; and employment attorney Debra Katz, founding partner of the Katz, Marshall & Banks law firm and a specialist in sexual harassment cases. Munoz explains her mission this way: “I don’t think any sector is immune from this, including folks on the progressive side. There’s no question there’s a larger national reckoning going on.” The language of zero tolerance extends to the AFL-CIO, which represents 56 unions and 12.5 million workers. Commenting on an agreement in which an ombudsman could handle claims of sexual harassment, a group of federation officers declared: “We pledge to double down on our efforts to ensure we stamp out the pervasive problems of harassment and discrimination of any form in our workplaces and in our society.” Randi Weingarten, president of one of the AFL-CIO’s most powerful member unions, the American Federation of Teachers, issued this statement: “The AFL-CIO should lead, not follow, when it comes to workplace safety, which means not just reacting but creating an anti-harassment culture.”
All of this assumes that sexual abuse in the Service Employees International Union, and in other unions, is rampant. But is it? Suspicion is not proof. And women have been known to make false accusations of sexual assault or harassment in hopes of winning a generous monetary settlement or basking in a sense of personal revenge in matters unrelated to harassment. That said, there is credible evidence that the problem at the SEIU is not the product of fertile female imaginations. A former SEIU employee, Melissa Byrne, alleges that the now-departed Kendall Fells made repeated derogatory comments about her looks and wardrobe, and that she had raised the issue with SEIU officials back in 2011 but to no avail. And former Chicago SEIU researcher Carrie Sloan said that she felt compelled to move to a different office and a different campaign because of aggressive and controlling behavior of her supervisor, Chris Schwartz. Actually, the international union in 2009 had suspended Schwartz for inappropriate behavior, but Sloan said he retaliated by giving her a negative performance review.
The sexual hijinx at the Service Employees mirrors an ongoing dam burst of sex abuse allegations in workplaces generally. The primary catalyst for all this was the recent expose by the New York Times of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, a man apparently prone to treating actresses as little more than casting couch fodder. Not long after, various actresses came forward with accusations against certain male colleagues, Ben Affleck and Richard Dreyfuss among them. And various men came out of the woodwork to accuse actor Kevin Spacey of homo superior behavior. In the world of publishing, Leon Wieseltier, former longtime book review editor of The New Republic, has been accused by a number of women he had worked with, including Michelle Cottle, a former writer/editor for the magazine (and now with The Atlantic), of imposing himself upon them (behavior to which he subsequently admitted). And accusations of inappropriate sexual touching and groping, albeit in the distant past, are flying at a number of prominent politicians, including former President George H.W. Bush and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (who resigned in April while on suspension), the latter now running for U.S. senator. Congress is getting nervous as well. On Monday, about 1,500 former Capitol Hill aides delivered a signed open letter to House and Senate leaders to demand mandatory anti-harassment training and a revamping of the Office of Compliance.
In the court of public opinion, as in any court of law, an accused person is innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around. It may well be that some of these accusations are driven by revenge for acts unrelated to sexual misconduct and are part of a larger witch hunt. Notwithstanding, people of either sex should not have to feel pressured to “put out” in order to keep a job or receive a promotion. The recent revelations at the Service Employees are a reminder that labor unions are not immune to such exploitation.