The impacts of Freeman’s freefall

With the head of Butte County’s largest union ousted by scandal, what does the future hold for in-home workers?

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Alphabet soup
Stories about labor unions necessarily include a lot of acronyms, and this one is no exception. Here’s a guide:

AFSCME—The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the parent organization of the UDW.

CUHW—California United Homecare Workers, formed in 2005 by agreement between the UDW and the ULTWC. It represents Butte County in-home workers.

SEIU—The Service Employees International Union, parent organization of the ULTCW.

UDW—United Domestic Workers, a home-care-workers local affiliated with the AFSCME. Before 2005, it represented Butte County workers.

ULTCW—United Long-Term Care Workers, the Southern California home-care workers local headed by Tyrone Freeman.

Less clout:
Union membership in America declined from 28 percent of employed workers in 1954 to just 12 percent in 2007.

Larry “Lars” Logan never liked Tyrone Freeman. So he’s now taking some pleasure in the Southern California union boss’ downfall.

Freeman, some readers may know, was the president of the 160,000-member United Long-Term Care Workers (ULTCW), the largest union local in California. He was also president of the newly formed California United Homecare Workers (CUHW), which represents some 30,000 in-home workers, including more than 2,000 in Butte County—easily the largest union group in the county.

At one time Logan was on the bargaining team for CUHW in Butte County, working to negotiate a contract with the Board of Supervisors—until Freeman booted him off.

On Aug. 9, Freeman was the subject of a front-page Los Angeles Times exposé charging that he’d misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in union funds obtained from his low-income workers, funneling the money to firms owned by his wife and mother-in-law and spending lavishly on a golf tournament, a Beverly Hills cigar club, expensive restaurants and a consulting contract with a Hollywood talent agency.

Freeman has since been put on administrative leave from both of his positions while ULTCW’s parent, the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), does an internal investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is also looking into the charges. Meanwhile, the SEIU has appointed a trustee—headquarters insider John Ronches—to oversee the two unions.

Now, CUHW workers are on pins and needles, wondering what is going to happen next. Who will renegotiate their contract? Will long-promised elections be held to replace Freeman, or will the union bosses appoint a new president? How will this turmoil affect their lives?

Tyrone Freeman first made his presence felt in Butte County in 2005, Lars Logan said, when the ULTCW began an aggressive effort to poach members from the union then representing Butte County in-home workers, the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW). Before 2005, ULTCW and UDW had an uneasy truce that divided the state’s counties between them, with each representing in-home workers in 29 counties.

At the time Logan—who then used his stepfather’s last name, Trosin—worked as an in-home care provider for a man with severe cerebral palsy, working 40 hours a week for $7.11 an hour. He joined the San Diego-based UDW in 2005 and felt “so proud,” he said, to be a union member. He began attending union meetings and quickly was selected to be on the bargaining team, which thus far had been unable to get a contract.

But that year UDW’s parent organization—the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—stepped in and took over the union. The action was prompted by allegations of corruption and gross financial mismanagement on the part of UDW’s elected leaders.

Those leaders, in turn, quickly tried to sever their ties to AFSCME and partner with ULTCW/SEIU. A federal judge, however, upheld the takeover, placing UDW under AFSCME trusteeship.

At that point, ULTCW began reaching into UDW counties, using aggressive tactics to lure members away from UDW.

In Butte County, Logan said, the campaign took the form of ULTCW workers wearing UDW pins to disguise themselves and then convincing workers to sign decertification cards. Somehow they got workers’ addresses and went from home to home. Freeman also sent out robocalls urging workers to join ULTCW/SEIU.

To Logan, Freeman was colluding with the corrupt former leadership of UDW, which he said had run the union “as a family business, putting family members on the payroll.”

Eventually ULTCW and UDW reached what they called a “Strength in Unity” agreement, whereby they would join together to form a new union, California United Homecare Workers. Freeman was appointed its president.

That agreement also upset Logan: “It was done behind our backs,” he said. “None of the workers were consulted.” And he was angry that no election had been held. “What Freeman did [to UDW] was wrong, and now he was being rewarded for it.”

As a member of the local negotiating team, Logan soon found that Freeman and his surrogates actually controlled the process. They were in a hurry to get a contract, and eventually settled for a starting-pay hike of only $1.04 an hour, from $7.11 to $8.15—an increase that has become almost meaningless since the state’s minimum wage increased to $8 per hour on Jan. 1. The increase did come with a dues hike, however, from $10 to $28 a month, Logan complained.

In April 2006, Logan was told to sign a “norms of conduct” contract for CUHW bargaining team members. Among the provisions was a commitment to support the union and its leaders. Logan blacked out the part about the leaders and signed it. Freeman kicked him off the bargaining team soon after.

Rose Marie Landry is another person who doesn’t like Tyrone Freeman. The Chico woman and a small army of aides care for 10 disabled youths, all of whom Landry has adopted. “He really, really is not a very nice man,” she said during a recent phone interview.

Tyrone Freeman

All the people who work with him are “very cold people,” she added, who don’t care about the workers or their clients. “I used to believe in unions because they would help people, but that’s not true anymore.”

Like Logan, Landry was on the CUHW bargaining team. At one point, she said, she was talking with Freeman on the phone, disagreeing with him, and he became so angry he started “shouting and yelling” at her. He stopped only when she threatened to call her attorney.

She described him as someone who “dresses extremely well, in very nice suits,” and always travels with several of his henchmen around him. “I think people are scared of him.”

The local person who knows Freeman best is Evan LeVang, the director of the Chico-based Independent Living Center of Northern California, a support and advocacy group for disabled adults.

Before coming to Chico in 2003, LeVang worked for Freeman and the ULTCW in Southern California for three years, organizing seniors and the disabled to improve access to in-home long-term care.

“I liked him,” LeVang said of Freeman, whom he described as a “magnanimous person, with a big personality.” He said he was surprised to read about his alleged transgressions—"I think everyone was.”

Freeman’s union did “a lot of great work” that is “being overlooked,” LeVang said.

The scandal “hurts the entire movement,” he added, “but I wouldn’t rush to judgment.”

He acknowledged some local folks don’t like Freeman. “There are always going to be disgruntled union members. The bottom line is, are workers better off with a contract? Is it a good investment?”

He pointed out that union members now have health insurance that they didn’t have before. Unionization is good for everyone, he said, including taxpayers. Every disabled person who is cared for at home is someone who isn’t in an institution, costing taxpayers far more money.

As he knows from personal experience as an in-home care provider many years ago, the work is “incredibly difficult,” he said. “You’re working with bodily fluids and doing heavy lifting for very low pay.” He once worked nine months without a day off.

Some of the local discontent about lack of support and union democracy, he said, is due to the fact that CUHW grew very fast and is trying to serve a very large group of members who work in separate locations. “How do you hold an election in these situations? How does a legitimate challenge arise? How do you get a mailing list?”

Local union representatives, who work out of their homes and also sometimes use his office as a base, “work their tails off,” he insisted.

LeVang said he had no idea what would happen next to the CUHW. “There’s a mathematical possibility that Tyrone Freeman could be cleared of everything and reinstated,” he said. “More likely the trustee [Ronches] will become the long-term leader and step in locally. The third possible scenario is that there’s a big blow-up and AFSCME would use this as an opportunity to take full control.”

Freeman did not return a phone message, but the CN&R did talk with Michelle Rinquette, the spokeswoman for SEIU in Washington, D.C.

The CUHW is so new that it doesn’t yet have a charter and bylaws, she explained. But she expressed confidence that the process of establishing the union, and new leadership, “is going to move forward.”

Elections will be held, she continued, as soon as this process is completed. In the meantime, she added, SEIU has filed “internal charges” against Tyrone Freeman.

Meanwhile, the Freeman scandal is having ripple effects not only in Southern California, but elsewhere as well. In Michigan, the head of the SEIU local, Rickman Jackson, was forced to step down because of allegations related to his former position as Freeman’s chief of staff.

Closer to home, the city of Compton is looking into possible mishandling of money it appropriated to a nonprofit long-term-care housing corporation controlled by Freeman. And the U.S. Department of Labor is investigating allegations that Freeman’s union made it nearly impossible for people not on his slate to qualify for the 2002 election in which he was voted in as president.

Meanwhile, a fierce contest for Los Angeles County supervisor between Bernard Parks, former L.A. police chief and current city councilman, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, a termed-out state senator, got even fiercer when Parks challenged Ridley-Thomas to return more than $4.5 million raised on his behalf by a labor alliance that included Freeman.

A Ridley-Thomas spokesman retorted that the money was the alliance’s, and it was up to its members to decide what to do with it.