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Months after allegations of union corruption and favoritism first surfaced at the U S West Direct Yellow Pages sales office in Phoenix, investigations into the company and officers of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1269 are mushrooming.
Three federal agencies have now been asked to probe various allegations made by current and former workers against the company, union or both, including charges of discrimination and union election fraud.
In April, New Times reported that current and former union members contended that IBEW officers--including ranking Phoenix union official Karen Ortega--had sold them out. Two former Yellow Pages salespeople had filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which then filed a formal complaint against the company and the union ("A Union Made in Hell," April 7).
The two women, Kathy Smith and Kim Seagraves, charged that IBEW officers--with the cooperation of U S West Direct managers--had fabricated misconduct allegations against them and caused them to be illegally fired.
The fired women, and others, alleged that Ortega and other union officers used their positions to investigate fellow IBEW members and have them disciplined or fired. Ortega and at least one union steward were also accused of using their IBEW positions to garner special treatment for themselves from U S West Direct management by manipulating sales accounts and enhancing their own performance and bonuses.
Ortega and IBEW Business Agent Peter Pusateri, while refusing to discuss the complaints in detail, have denied any wrongdoing.
Since the initial NLRB complaint was filed, charges have been brought against the company or union on three fronts:
ù The NLRB has broadened its probe of Smith and Seagraves' firings into other allegations of unfair labor practices by U S West Direct and alleged favoritism granted to Ortega and other union officials.
ù The Department of Labor has been asked to investigate alleged irregularities during a June 25 IBEW election in which Ortega, a member of the local's executive board, and Pusateri handily retained their posts.
ù The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which enforces antidiscrimination laws at companies doing business with the federal government, is checking complaints that U S West Direct discriminates against female employees.
Current and former employees, and sources close to the investigations, say that U S West Direct and the union are slowly being consumed by the allegations.
"Every step, every month, every week, this has gotten bigger, and the company can't stop it," says one source.
U S West Direct, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the investigations. IBEW Business Agent Pusateri says he is unaware of election complaints filed with the Labor Department and declined to discuss other allegations. Ortega could not be reached for comment for this story.
IBEW Local 1269, which has about 1,000 members, represents U S West Direct Yellow Pages salespeople in Arizona and six other states. The local also represents Pacific Bell Yellow Pages workers in parts of California.
Pusateri, based at the local's San Francisco office, has been the top local officer for 30 years. Ortega, a 13-year U S West Direct employee and former shop steward, was elected to the local's governing board in 1990 and reelected this summer.
The union, and its relationship with U S West Direct management, is now undergoing a rare level of scrutiny by the NLRB, confirms NLRB Regional Director Roy Garner.
Two attorneys have been poring through thousands of documents, Garner says, and interviewing current and former Yellow Pages employees in preparation for an expected trial.
Garner says the NLRB settles about 90 percent of its cases without formal trials. When trials are conducted, he says, they generally last only a few days.
But in the U S West Direct case, Garner says, an NLRB judge has scheduled five weeks for public trial beginning in late February. "It is unusual to schedule a trial for this many hearing days," Garner says. "This is primarily a document case, and it will take some time."
Earlier this month, the NLRB expanded the scope of its allegations against U S West Direct and the IBEW beyond just the Smith and Seagraves firings.
In an amended complaint filed with the NLRB judge, agency attorneys contended that the company and union have become too cozy.
"The [company] created the impression among its bargaining unit employees that [U S West Direct] and the [IBEW] had entered into an arrangement whereby the [IBEW's] officers, agents and representatives had the authority to investigate employees for alleged breach of company policies, rules and regulations, and the [IBEW] could effectively recommend to the [company] the suspensions, discharges and other discipline of bargaining unit employees," the amended complaint says.
The complaint further alleges that the IBEW "by its officers, agents and representatives has engaged in a course and conduct of activities to secure special and more favorable terms and conditions of employment, awards and privileges from [U S West Direct] for its officers, agents and representatives and to deny similar benefits to other bargaining unit employees for self-serving reasons and in derogation of the [IBEW's] fiduciary obligation to represent all employees in a fair and impartial manner."
The NLRB also expanded the list of U S West Direct managers named in the complaint to include several high-ranking company officials from U S West Direct's Denver headquarters. Among those now named are company President Sol Trujillo and Vice President Carol Johnson. Previously, only managers in the Phoenix U S West Direct office had been named.
Kathy Smith, one of the fired employees still fighting to win her job back, says she is overwhelmed by the effort expended by the NLRB on the case and is waiting for a courtroom showdown with the company and union.
"This is the time that we have been waiting for," Smith says. "For [the company and union], it doesn't get any better. It just gets worse."
Soon after the NLRB broadened its complaint, another U S West Direct employee filed new NLRB charges against the company and union, alleging that union officials received preferential treatment from the company "in the processing and distribution of accounts, whereby said union agents receive commissions, assignments and other economic benefits and rewards not available to other bargaining unit employees."
In her written complaint, the employee also charges that, in the course of its in-house investigation into the situation, U S West Direct improperly interrogated her without informing her of her legal rights or allowing her representation while she was being questioned by a company-hired attorney.
Garner says the new allegations will also be investigated. "There is a continuation [of the investigation], and it will expand if we find merit," Garner says.
At least one other employee has filed a discrimination complaint with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, contending that the company discriminates against women employees.
"We do have an open case, I can confirm that," says Joseph Franco of the OFCCP's Phoenix office. The agency, however, does not discuss pending cases in detail, he says.
Meanwhile, Kristin Hart, a Pacific Bell Yellow Pages saleswoman who unsuccessfully challenged Pusateri for the top local post in the June election, says she is continuing to press for a Department of Labor investigation into alleged election irregularities.
Hart contends that the local violated its constitution while conducting the election by failing to give members proper notice of nominating procedures, failing to make sure all eligible members received ballots and blocking opposition candidates from communicating with members.
She also contends that Pusateri and Ortega improperly used union resources and money to campaign for their offices, and says she would like to have the union books audited and the election results thrown out.
The Department of Labor, by policy, does not comment on whether it has formally opened an investigation into a union.