Unionizing the union

Unhappy current and former staffers say the California Union of Safety Employees is facing a federal investigation

Former California Union of Safety Employees staffer Mike Collins claims the FBI is “ramping up” an investigation into the union.

Former California Union of Safety Employees staffer Mike Collins claims the FBI is “ramping up” an investigation into the union.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Labor disputes rarely pit one union against another. But in the case of the California Union of Safety Employees (CAUSE), staff members joined the Teamsters to protect themselves from union leadership.

CAUSE serves a constituency of 6,200 members, who range from Department of Motor Vehicles inspectors to park rangers, from uniformed officers to California Highway Patrol (CHP) dispatchers. CAUSE staff represents these members in labor disputes with the state and negotiates labor contracts. But that same staff has no union representation and moved to join the Teamsters last year.

“We figured the Teamsters could protect us,” said Mike Collins, who was with CAUSE for 14 years before being fired January 13. “We’re getting picked off one by one to keep this thing from blowing up.”

That same sentiment is shared by a number of current and former members of CAUSE’s staff. Although they represent members by negotiating the nuances of labor law, they themselves have been defined as at-will employees, and some have voiced concerns regarding the use of CAUSE’s $4.5 million in annual membership dues.

Along with a board of directors made up of 19 union members, CAUSE leadership dictates how union dues are spent and serves as the point agency in representing members in negotiations with the state.

Some union members have “had enough,” said Collins.

At a February 23 protest outside the CAUSE office on H Street, two dozen members marched and protested the leadership of their union. Many of them were CHP dispatchers.

CAUSE President Alan Barcelona dismissed them as rogues.

“This was not a sanctioned event,” Barcelona said. “They don’t represent our membership, and they don’t speak for the union. We got warning beforehand that these people were coming, and the dispatchers’ association assured me they do not endorse what these people are doing.”

Sanctioned or not, sources indicate that CAUSE may be under fire on multiple fronts. SN&R talked to six current and former employees of CAUSE, three of whom said they were contacted by the FBI as part of an investigation into the organization and its management practices.

Collins maintains that he’s no longer with CAUSE because he “knew too much.” Chief legal counsel Sam McCall was released in August 2003 after 17 years with CAUSE. Bookkeeper Karen Clifford, 56, came to work January 9 to be informed she was being “outsourced” after six years of employment.

Whether it’s downsizing or getting rid of people who know too much depends on whom you ask.

“CAUSE is doing things with member dues that are supposed to help the union, but it ultimately hurts the very people it’s supposed to help,” said Collins.

Collins, McCall and Clifford cite one significant misadventure in particular: the union’s opening of a candy store in the K Street Mall in November 2001, which ultimately closed in December 2003.

“Board members were told, ‘This store’s doing great. It’s making $1,000 a month,’” Collins said. “But they didn’t add that [it] was running up $1,500 a month in expenses. Board members aren’t businessmen, and they didn’t even know to ask about expenses.”

Barcelona says that competition was the problem, not mismanagement.

“We didn’t count on Starbucks opening next door or a Subway around the corner,” Barcelona said. “Starbucks was the last straw, so we closed it.”

Collins and two other employees say the FBI interviewed them in September, with questions about the store’s operation and about whether CAUSE staff operated the store on state time.

Staff members also say the agency was concerned about the $2,500 monthly stipend paid to Barcelona, which supplements his salary drawn as a special agent with the state Department of Justice. (CAUSE Vice President John Miller and Controller Ricardo Sanchez receive monthly stipends of $2,000 and $1,000, respectively, in addition to their state pay. All stipends were approved by the board of directors and were allocated to help CAUSE leaders supplement their salaries as state employees.) With travel, meals, lodging and other expenses already paid for, CAUSE staff interviewed for this story believe Barcelona’s $2,500 monthly stipend is excessive. They claim he travels frequently, is gone four to five days a week and doesn’t let staff members know where he is or what he is doing.

Collins and McCall said that during their interviews with the FBI, the agency also was curious about payments for moving costs, clothing and allocations for Barcelona.

“Some of these people on the board are not the most sophisticated people in world,” said one CAUSE employee. “They’re blue-collar, and now they’re on the board, and once a year they get to meet the governor and get a $150 stipend and travel expenses to attend meetings. It’s a relatively big deal to them, but they have no idea what Barcelona is doing, and they think he’s in charge of them, when in fact it’s supposed to be the opposite.”

Josie Ayala-Hodson served on the board of directors from 1993 to 2002 coming to loggerheads with Barcelona when she questioned expenses and his whereabouts. She’s worked as a CHP radio dispatcher for 30 years.

“This guy put me through a tribunal. I started questioning his expenses and why he couldn’t be found easily and wasn’t even accountable,” Ayala-Hodson said. “That’s when he brought me up before the board of directors for two solid hours of grilling, making me out to be the problem.” She said she stepped down from the board of directors because “it was too much trouble” to pursue the matter further.

Two current CAUSE employees who spoke to SN&R said that in addition to an increasing workload because of the layoffs, they haven’t received a raise in four years and are swamped with calls from members with employee cases they don’t have time to handle.

“Before, we held [members’] hands and found out what was wrong, and we fought for them,” said McCall. “Now, they are not even returning phone calls for people asking for help. [Yet] the disputes with the state are just as bad as they ever were.”

One current CAUSE employee said Clifford, who approved numerous expense reports for Barcelona, Miller and Sanchez, came to her crying because she was forced to approve dubious expenses, sometimes without a receipt.

“They’d put down $500 for a new suit, and she’d tell them, ‘I can’t pay this,’” the employee said. “They’d write the figure on a napkin and toss it to her and tell her to pay it.”

Clifford said that she was forced into “difficult situations” with regard to approving expenses for personal items and those incurred by the candy store.

Clifford and McCall have retained legal counsel in response to their termination of employment at CAUSE.

[After declining to comment on a number of these issues, Barcelona failed to return SN&R’s follow-up calls, as did Sanchez, CAUSE’s controller.]

Meanwhile, the Teamsters are taking action against CAUSE leaders after stalled negotiations to represent its staff. “We’ve filed multiple unfair-labor-practices charges,” said Maria Carroll, of Teamsters Local 228.

Collins claims that, following interviews with CAUSE staff last fall, the FBI is now “ramping up” the investigation, after Barcelona, through an attorney, told the agency to back off in January. Barcelona steadfastly denies there’s any federal investigation of CAUSE and says that the group continues to represent its members well.

“We have not been contacted by any investigative agency,” Barcelona said. “Things are going to move ahead, and they’ll be the things we’ve always had to do for our people.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a nonprofit organization running a business, as long as that business is run correctly,” said Bill Steiner, an Internal Revenue Service spokesman for Northern California, who would neither confirm nor deny an investigation. He did note that the IRS works in conjunction with other federal agencies in investigations of such situations in order to pool resources. Meanwhile, the FBI’s David Hindley—whom sources say interviewed staff members last fall—was obtuse when asked about an investigation. “I can’t even confirm or deny whether or not I can confirm or deny an investigation,” Hindley said. “I’d prefer not to comment.”

“It’s a house of cards, and it’s all going to come tumbling down,” insisted a current CAUSE employee. “The members aren’t allowed to know what’s going on. I’m basically waiting around to see the people involved get their just deserts.”