Freedom Foundation

Inside SEIU 775’s “Toxic” Workplace Culture

The recent groundbreaking accusations of sexual misconduct against film producer Harvey Weinstein certainly rocked Hollywood, but didn’t end there.

In the months since, an array of sexual harassment allegations have been brought against prominent actors, business executives and political figures. Even the labor movement, which ostensibly exists to stand for workers’ rights and protections, has had to start cleaning house.

Buzzfeed News broke the story on Oct. 19 that Service Employees International Union (SEIU) vice president Scott Courtney had been suspended based on allegations of inappropriate relationships with union staffers and breaches of the union’s code of ethics. Days later, Courtney, a leader of the union’s “Fight for $15” campaign for a $15/hr. minimum wage, married a subordinate SEIU staffer and resigned. On Oct. 24, it was reported that SEIU had fired Caleb Jennings, who led the Fight for $15 in Chicago, and placed Mark Raleigh of the Detroit Fight for $15 on administrative leave. Raleigh was subsequently terminated, while Kendall Fells, the national SEIU organizing director for the Fight for $15, resigned.

All were brought down by allegations of sexual harassment and unethical conduct. As significant as the terminations were, one anonymous SEIU staffer told Buzzfeed the actions were “only the beginning.”

Though SEIU’s internal purge has yet to reach Washington state, the workplace culture at SEIU 775, the largest SEIU local in Washington, reportedly fosters problems similar to those coming to light elsewhere.

For example, federal reports filed by the union with the U.S. Department of Labor indicate SEIU 775 paid $16,857 to Sound View Strategies and $5,000 to Seattle for Everyone in 2016. Until spring 2017, Rolf’s wife, Kylie, was listed on Sound View Strategies’ website as “public affairs director” and on Seattle for Everyone’s website as “coalition manager,” both staff positions. According to her LinkedIn profile, Kylie worked as Sound View Strategies’ public affairs director from April 2013 to May 2017. Sometime after April 2017, her name was also removed from Seattle for Everyone’s website.

By authorizing payment to these two entities employing his wife, David Rolf appears to have likely violated section 5(c)(2) of the “SEIU Code of Ethics and Conflict of Interest Policy,” which states:

“It is not permissible for any covered individual to… Make or attempt to influence or participate in any way in a decision concerning the relations of SEIU or an Affiliate with a vendor, firm or other entity or individual in which the covered individual or his or her relative, spouse or business partner has a substantial ownership or financial interest.”

Section 1 of the code of ethics defines “covered individuals” as “all officers, executive board members and employees of SEIU,” clearly encompassing David Rolf.

Section 5 defines a “substantial ownership or financial interest” as “one which either contributes significantly to the individual’s financial wellbeing or which enables the individual to significantly affect or influence the course of the business entity’s decision-making.” As a lead employee at both Sound View Strategies and Seattle for Everyone, Kylie Rolf seemingly had a “financial interest” in each.

Lastly, SEIU 775’s bylaws give clear responsibility for hiring vendors and authorizing disbursements to David Rolf. Article 4.5 of the bylaws grants the union president:

“…sole authority to employ, hire, direct, supervise, discipline and discharge such staff, counsel, accountants, consultants, vendors and contractors as he or she deems necessary or advisable to be employed by the Union for the purposes of carrying out the vision, mission, strategies and programs of the Union and to fix their compensation.”

The same article also specifies that it is the president’s duty, “To decide, determine, authorize and make all expenditures and disbursements, and to sign all checks on behalf of the Union.”

Assuming Rolf followed his union’s bylaws, he had direct, personal responsibility for authorizing the payments to his wife’s employers, an apparent violation of the national SEIU’s code of ethics.

It also appears that David Rolf met and eventually married Kylie as a result of her position at SEIU 775. Kylie Rolf’s LinkedIn profile indicates she worked as an “executive assistant” at SEIU 775 from December 2009 to April 2010. While SEIU’s ethics policy does not prohibit employee relationships, it does make it clear that, “Supervisory employees shall not directly supervise a relative or a person with whom they have a personal relationship,” and SEIU VP Scott Courtney’s suspension reportedly resulted at least in-part from his “history of dating [and eventually marrying] subordinates.”

Regardless of the propriety of the union’s payments to Kylie Rolf’s employers, it is clear significant problems exist in SEIU 775’s broader workplace environment.

An anonymous letter sent to the Freedom Foundation last year by someone claiming to work in SEIU 775’s “Member Resource Center” (call center) detailed both poor working conditions at the union and deceptive tactics used to get Medicaid-subsidized home care aides represented by SEIU 775 to sign up for membership over the phone.

Since the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn found that it was unconstitutional for unions to force these caregivers to pay union dues, SEIU 775 has responded by employing a suite of tactics to keep caregivers locked into union membership. One of the tactics involves getting them to agree to membership in recorded telephone conversations. At this point, the state will begin deducting union dues from the caregivers’ pay. The only way for caregivers to cancel the deductions is by submitting a written demand to the union during an arbitrary 15-day annual escape period.

In the letter, the anonymous SEIU 775 employee alleged:

“…this organization is harmful and not only for the union members, but also for its own employers. SEIU775… has Member Resource Center, simply a call center located in the basement. There is only immigrants and multi-cultural people hired to work there as slaves on the phones to sign membership cards, sitting in stuffy room where temperature reaches 79-80F. When SEIU775 call center hires, they never tell to the New Hires that job is not really to help union members with training and health benefits, but to record legal script on the phone to every member who calls for help; even if this member does not understand English or legal language. Most MRC employers understand it is wrong and disgusting. It violates people Human Rights. Benefits for work are not suppose to be a reason for taking money from poor caregivers, but employers afraid to say anything, because they will be fired same moment. SEIU775 fire quick if you disagree with their policy.

SEIU775 Member Resource Center is ruling by Director Jennifer Rodgers, who was re-hired from Group Health call center specifically to this role to force call center employers, under the threat of being fired, to solicit and lie to members, to record membership messages and obtain signature over the phone using deceptive way.” (Errors in original)

Employee reviews of SEIU 775 posted on jobs and recruiting website Glassdoor.com contain similar accounts. Of the eight reviews submitted by current and former employees, all but two are negative.

One review describes “rude leaders who do not respect their staff, and power tripping leaders who have been with the union forever likely because they can’t get hired elsewhere.” As “advice for management,” one reviewer wrote, “Stop picking favorites and cutting corners. Take an ethics class.”

Other highlights from the reviews include the following:

  • “I worked there last year and it was one of my worse experiences ever! They have you picking up calls all day where they have you lie to people in order to sign ‘membership cards’ management harasses and targets people, they will literally fire you for anything without any proof or harass you until you quit. The turnover is ridiculous new people usually last 2-3 weeks.” (Link)
  • “Unintelligent management, especially in call center. Awful micromanagement which does not have any sense. Aggressive policies against employees, especially in union call center. Unfriendly approach to not native English speaking. Favoritism, management create jobs for their own. Racial, despicable organization. Even if you work there for many years, do not count on good reputation, evaluation and good references.” (Link)
  • “Unhealthy workplace culture, favoritism, unequal application of the rules. Staff feel unvalued by leadership.” (Link)
  • “Top management are corrupt, disengaged and unrealistic. They create positions for their friends, favoritism is part of their leadership core. It’s not about helping members, it’s about their ego and fame. No life balance, will work you to death. Very high turnover especially for organizers.” (Link)

Perhaps most damning, however, is a petition filed with SEIU 775 management by members of the SEIU 775 “staff union union” (SUU), the union representing SEIU 775 staff, in Sept. 2015. While the proximate cause of the petition was the union’s termination of two popular employees for no apparent cause (the petition was provided to the Freedom Foundation by a former SEIU 775 staffer who knew the terminated employees), the petition spoke volumes about the systemic problems plaguing the workplace.

Some of the demands made by the petitioners included:

  • Third-party management training for SEIU 775 management. To ensure competent training for SEIU 775 managers, we must seek outside assistance. SEIU 775 will seek out consultation from the Great Place to Work Institute or a similar organization to be mutually agreed upon by SEIU 775 management and SUU. This training will also include a comprehensive evaluation of management practices and workplace culture at all offices representing members of the SUU, including but not limited to Seattle 775, Seattle WW, Olympia, Vancouver, and Montana.”
  • Management commits to significantly reduce employee turnover among the SUU membership. This commitment will include setting a numeric goal for turnover reduction in each department by December 31, 2016. Our unusually high turnover rate hurts our reputation and reduces effectiveness in our operations, and in the recruiting and retention of qualified individuals. Reducing our turnover rate will improve workplace atmosphere and relations and reduce our community reputation as a ‘toxic workplace.’”

High turnover. Elitist bosses. Favoritism. Unethical practices. Nepotism. Toxic working environment.

Sounds an awful lot like the kinds of workplace practices unions purportedly exist to solve. Union hypocrisy is nothing new, but SEIU 775 appears to have taken it to a whole new level.

But while the national SEIU has shown at least somewhat of a willingness to clean house, it remains to be seen whether SEIU 775 will receive the attention it appears to deserve. After all, David Rolf is not just head of a powerful SEIU local in Washington; he’s also an international SEIU vice president. As the author of a book about the “Fight for $15,” subject of many fawning media profiles, and a fixture of the progressive speaking circuit, Rolf casts himself as something of a savior for the modern labor movement. It would be no small thing for his conduct to come under scrutiny.

But if recent events have proven anything, it’s that the past has a way of catching up with everyone, even the most powerful.