The Navajo Times

Window Rock,Ariz


Turf Battle

'State of distress' causes International Union to intervene in local IHS union


By Nathan J. Tohtsoni
Times Reporter

GALLUP, N.M - Arguments over whether a meeting should be open or closed between the executive board of the Navajo Health Care Employees Union and representatives of the Laborer's International Union of North America dominated early discussions in Gallup Saturday (Dec. 2).

Before the executive board voted 5 to 4 to keep the meeting open, statements of intimidation and disrespect were dispersed toward International Union's representative Bob Purcell of Sacramento, Calif.

The special meeting was held after members of Local Union 1376 received a letter Nov. 21 from Terence O'Sullivan, general president of International Union. The letter said the giant union intended to intervene in the Navajo Area Indian Health Service's local union which represents almost 1,000 IHS employees on the Navajo Nation, Albuquerque and surrounding areas.

The local union has existed since 1975 when it included two hospitals. There are now about 2,500 employees in the Navajo Area IHS.

The letter was sent after Brent Pilarski, International's auditor officer, found Local Union 1376 in the "state of distress warranting immediate intervention by the International Union" because of "improper and/or nonexistent financial and membership accounting procedures, outstanding amounts owed to the LIUNA Local Union and District Council Pension Fund, the International Union and the Public Employees District Council and failure to implement previous auditor recommendations.

"An emergency situation exists requiring immediate intervention," the letter continued. "Local Union 1376 is hereby placed under Emergency Supervision of the International Union, effective immediately."

Local Navajo officials were surprised.

"I was surprised by what was on that letter," said Marie Toledo, board member from the Dzilth-na-o-dith-hle (N.M.) IHS clinic. "I know it had to do with an audit. That's when I realized this was very serious."

O'Sullivan ordered Local Union 1376 to cooperate fully with Pacific Southwest Regional Manager Mason Warren and Julie Claymore, Warren's deputy supervisor. He scheduled a hearing Dec. 12 at the Gallup Holiday Inn by independent hearing officer Peter Vaira of Philadelphia to determine if the supervision should continue.

Purcell said the reason he requested a closed meeting is because he didn't want to expose the findings of the audit until they were able to talk it over with the executive board. The hearing at 10 a.m. Dec. 12 will air out all the issues, he said.

"This local has had some history of financial problems and practices," he said. "There have been three audits with this local union since 1998. We finally said, 'Look, we've had three different auditors making similar recommendations over the past three years.' People feel they're personally being blamed and that's not the issue."

Purcell said the most recent audit was conducted about three months ago. The previous audits included a former executive board secretary who embezzled an undetermined amount of funds. He would not comment further, but said the claim had been settled.

"The (emergency) supervision is not the most controlling move the union could have done," Purcell added. "A trusteeship could have removed all the officers."

He hoped to have autonomy restored to the local union before September when a constitutional convention will be held. If not, the local will be held in emergency supervision for 18 months.

Larson Manuelito, a Navajo labor commissioner and advisor to Local Union 1376, said if International Union had done their job in adequately training the officers, none of what the letter alleges would have occurred.

"International never did their job," Manuelito said. "This international union has not been servicing the local union as they should have. Meaning, training the officers to be officers, and helping and assisting in keeping their records. They have been asking for their help, but (International) never responded.

"They're insinuating there's some money missing. If there's money missing - prove it," added Manuelito, who is also a former International Union representative.

Tully Haswood, vice chairperson of the Navajo Nation Council's Human Services Committee, sat in on the proceedings because his committee oversees employment and training issues on the Navajo Nation. He said that the International union is subject to Navajo laws as stated in the Navajo Preference in Employment Act.

Once the meeting started, Navajo Health Care Employees Union chairman Pete Artis of the Gallup IHS resigned. A motion to close the meeting for the financial report and Purcell's report followed. The motion carried by a 7 to 0 vote, with two abstaining.

As Haswood and non-board members gathered in the parking lot, he said what happened is a violation of tribal law even though the meeting was held off the reservation. He said because a majority of the 1,000 union members are Navajo with most employed within the boundaries of the reservation, the International Union must follow Navajo laws.

"Any organization on the Navajo Nation must adhere to this law," Haswood said. "As a Human Services Committee member, I have a responsibility to take a look at these issues in pertaining to Navajo Nation law. This law addresses any form of discrimination. If an organization comes in from off the reservation and says you can do this and you can't do this, I could see that as intimidation."

In his report to the committee chariman, Haswood will include the dichotomy between Navajo and Anglo board members and that the Navajo officers resigned during the executive meeting. He said the Office of Navajo Labor Relations and the Human Services Committee more than likely will get involved.

Local Union 1376 is the oldest and largest local IHS union in the country. In 1991, there were 187 IHS members enrolled with Laborer's International Union of North America. Today there are nine locals with more than 2,000 members in 10 states and 50 IHS facilities.

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