By New Times
By Connor Radnovich
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Ray Stern
By Keegan Hamilton
By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
Claudia Webb can't forget the day her late husband was betrayed by his union.
Reed Webb was a new salesman for the U S West Direct Yellow Pages in Phoenix. In 1991, his second year, Webb's sales were near the top of the highly competitive 30-member staff that sold the big display ads for the book.
He felt sure he was going to win the Yellow Pages equivalent of an Oscar--a trip to the President's Circle of Excellence. "Making Circle," as many salespeople call it, meant joining the year's heaviest hitters from U S West Yellow Pages operations in 14 states for a four-day romp in Hawaii.
All he had to do was place in the top four in his office, and Reed Webb was going to join the Yellow Pages big leagues, pampered and feted for making the company a lot of money.
But in November, Claudia Webb recalls, her husband was abruptly called into a meeting with U S West Direct management. Also present was Karen Ortega, the highest-ranking union officer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in the Phoenix office.
Claudia Webb says that according to her husband's account of the meeting, which he related to his wife and co-workers, Ortega wasn't there to act as Webb's advocate, as would be expected of a union representative. Instead, she was leading the attack, insisting to management that some of Webb's accounts be adjusted and his performance ranking lowered so that he would not qualify for Circle.
Not coincidentally, Claudia Webb says, her husband's disqualification would mean that Ortega, also a salesperson, would move into the top four and qualify for Circle herself.
"Karen Ortega and some of her buddies wanted to go to Hawaii very badly, and they wanted to move up [in the rankings]," Claudia Webb says. "If a couple of the top people were gone, then they could go."
When her husband came home that night, he was shattered, Claudia Webb says. "He was just amazed because he was always 100 percent honest and did everything aboveboard," Claudia Webb says. "He was devastated that these people he thought were his friends would call him in and try to take away what he had worked so hard for."
Initially, the company refused to change the rankings, Claudia Webb says, but Ortega would not give up. Reed Webb's health took a turn for the worse--she says the stress of defending his integrity contributed to his ailments--and he had to be hospitalized.
While Webb was in the hospital, Ortega and other union stewards rifled through his accounts, looking for errors or mistakes that would convince management to disqualify him. "It was sick," says one of Webb's co-workers.
"While Reed was dying in the hospital, Karen was able to investigate his accounts," says Kathy Smith, another Yellow Pages salesperson at the time. Some of Reed Webb's accounts were taken away from him and given to others. "Reed was never in a position to defend himself."
On March 5, 1992, Reed Webb died of pneumonia. Claudia Webb does not believe that the troubles with the union caused his death, but they certainly added to his misery. He was 37 years old, and the father of one daughter. By that time, Ortega had succeeded in having Webb's name withdrawn from Circle. She would be going to Hawaii herself.
Family and friends did not want to tell Webb that he had lost the fight, his widow says. They let him die still believing that if he got well, he was going to make the Hawaii trip.
"He was a very sensitive person," Claudia Webb recalls. "He couldn't believe people would be out to get him in such a cutthroat way. He had been a strong union supporter. He believed in the union."
But the brazen, petty treatment that Ortega and the union gave Reed Webb has not been forgotten by many union members, and their memories of the incident are coming back to haunt Ortega.
Webb was not the only IBEW member in the office to be shafted by his own union, according to more than a dozen current and former employees interviewed by New Times.
They contend that Ortega--who likes to remind co-workers that she is the daughter of former Phoenix police chief Ruben Ortega--has used her years in the union hierarchy to sell out members like Webb and assure her own ascent.
Several current and former employees say the union would not file grievances for them when they asked. But, they say, Ortega and the union have a history of investigating members and then demanding that management discipline or fire them.
Ortega and a close-knit band of union stewards, they say, have used the union's powers to protect their own hefty paychecks and perks, with little regard for everyone else who pays monthly dues.
Company management, they contend, has turned its back on wrongdoing to maintain a fa‡ade of harmony, and out of fear of Ortega's father, who was chief of police during most of the time his daughter was rising within the company. (Ironically, Ruben Ortega, now chief of police in Salt Lake City, was an avid union buster who sparred often with the police and firefighters unions during his ten-year tenure. Ruben Ortega also used his office to target and investigate his political enemies and was considered by some to be the most powerful man in Phoenix.)