Although facing campaign allegations that she has used her powerful union position to sell out members, Karen Ortega has been handily reelected to the Executive Board of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local that represents U S West Direct Yellow Pages salespeople in Arizona and six other states.
IBEW's Local 1269--which includes about 60 Yellow Pages salespeople in Phoenix--has been in turmoil for months, roiling with accusations that Ortega and at least one other union leader have used their positions to cause office rivals to be fired ("A Union Made in Hell," April 7).
The National Labor Relations Board is investigating charges by two former U S West Direct employees that they were unfairly terminated by the company at the insistence of Ortega and the union. A hearing on the charges before an administrative law judge is set for early August.
On June 25, Ortega and the local's longtime business manager, Peter Pusateri, were reelected to three-year terms by wide margins.
Kristin Hart, a Yellow Pages salesperson in California who ran against Pusateri for the local's top position, said she will seek to have the election results thrown out. Hart claims that numerous irregularities rendered the election illegal.
Hart's challenge may prolong what has become the most tumultuous campaign for union office in the local's recent history. Neither Ortega nor Pusateri could be reached for comment.
Ortega's challengers contend that she and some union stewards have improperly investigated the sales practices of fellow salespeople, and then insisted to management that they be fired. The firings allow Ortega and others to enhance their rankings among the highly competitive sales force, union dissidents claim.
In the most controversial case, current and former co-workers contend that in 1991 Ortega targeted Reed Webb, a former salesperson, and tried to have him fired so that she could move to the top of the sales-force rankings and win a trip to Hawaii.
Webb died of a terminal illness at the time his handling of sales accounts was being investigated, family and former co-workers say.
Webb's widow, brother and four co-workers all say that Webb told them it was Ortega, and not the company, that was trying to have him fired.
During the election, a different version of Webb's case was offered in a letter from Phoenix attorney Mel McDonald, who is representing Ortega and the union. The letter, which characterized the New Times story as "callous and false," was widely circulated throughout the union.
In the letter, McDonald contended that Webb had violated company rules on ethics in his handling of one advertising account. At issue was a forbidden practice known as "heading jumping"--a firing offense--where an advertisement is improperly placed under a category where it doesn't belong, moving it ahead of competitors' ads in the book.
Webb was guilty of heading jumping with a locksmith advertisement, McDonald wrote, and was at risk of being dismissed by the company.
The union, and Ortega, successfully fought to help Webb keep his job, he said.
"Contrary to the implication that Ms. Ortega and the union left Mr. Webb hanging in the wind, your union representatives went in and did a superb job on Mr. Webb's behalf," McDonald wrote. "He justifiably lost his sales commission and received a simple reprimand. The union's actions had spared his job."
Former co-workers, however, say that the placement of the advertisement in question had been approved by Webb's supervisor before it was published. They question why the company would have sought to fire a salesperson for an act that company management had approved.
McDonald agreed with this argument, claiming Ortega made the same point with the company in arguing for Webb's continued employment.
Citing internal company year-end sales rankings from spring 1992, McDonald also wrote that the controversy over Webb's accounts "played no role of any kind" in Ortega's ascent to one of the year's top four sales-ranking slots, which qualified her for a trip to Hawaii.
"Ms. Ortega did not personally benefit in any way by the Webb audit," McDonald's letter said. "Indeed, Ms. Ortega had not even planned on taking the trip because [the] union was involved in contract negotiations with management."
Company rankings provided to New Times, however, show that on November 2, 1991--about the time the controversial challenge of Webb's accounts began--Webb was in fourth place in the office standings, while Ortega was ranked sixth. By spring of 1992, the end of the sales year, Ortega had moved into the top four and Webb had dropped out of the top rankings.
McDonald also wrote that, after Webb's death, the union was instrumental in obtaining "over $100,000," in death benefits for Webb's widow. Claudia Webb could not be reached for comment. In an interview several months ago, however, she said it was the company, not the union, which helped her straighten out the death benefits.
Lingering questions about Ortega's action in the Webb case partially fueled controversy in the recent election. Both Ortega and business agent Pusateri faced challengers for their posts, which union members say is virtually unheard of in the local's history.
Typically, candidates run unopposed, they say, and Pusateri has held office for almost 30 years.
But this year, Hart challenged Pusateri, ultimately losing the race 299 to 149, while John King, a Phoenix salesperson, ran against Ortega, who won by a 97-45 margin.
During one campaign event Hart held in San Francisco, Ortega showed up. Hart claims that Ortega apparently attempted to disguise herself in order to blend in with the crowd.
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"She had brushed her hair, fluffed it out real wide [and] had on the darkest sunglasses I've ever seen in my life, and had on a raincoat," Hart says.
Union member and Hart supporter James Brown confronted Ortega, he says, and she acknowledged her identity.
Hart found the sunglasses incident amusing, but says that other union behavior will form the basis of her challenge of the results.
Hart says she will file an appeal of the election with the union's international leaders, and they will have three months to assess her charges. If the union does not act, she says, she will then appeal to the U.S. Department of Labor.