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NYC assemblyman calls out SEIU for working against the interest of workers

Unions have a reputation for helping out the “little guy,” and protecting the powerless against the powerful, but in some instances, officials will protect their own interests first, even if it comes at the expense of workers.  

Case in point: New York City assemblyman Ron Kim just called out one of the most powerful unions in the Northeast for working with an employer against the interest of workers.

The report, prepared by Assemblyman Kim’s staff, condemns Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199 for working with the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC) to strip home health care workers of their right to sue their employer in court for lost wages. The report calls SEIU the CPC’s “chief abettor.” 

Kim directs most of his fire at the CPC, a social services non-profit with a mission to help low-income Chinese American immigrants. The report says the CPC was “ostensibly taken by many to possess progressive and racially just bona fides”—but its employees tell a different story. They have filed two class-action lawsuits alleging the CPC did not pay them for all the hours they worked when they were assigned 24-hour shifts.

A New York Department of Labor rule says home health care aides can be paid for only 13 hours of a 24-hour shift as long as they can sleep for eight hours, including five uninterrupted hours, and have three hours off for meals. If those conditions are not met, the aides are supposed to be paid for the full 24 hours.

The report says that the home health care aides claim they did not get the required amount of sleep because they often had to perform tasks like taking their clients to the bathroom or turning them over to prevent bedsores, but the CPC still refused to pay them for more than 13 hours.

According to the report, after the workers filed the lawsuits against the CPC in 2015, SEIU officials signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the CPC that forced all workers into arbitration, effectively ending their lawsuits. The MOA made this retroactive, so it also applied to a lawsuit filed by retired CPC employees, even though as retired employees, they had no say in the agreement signed by the union.

The report calls the collective bargaining agreement—which includes the MOA—between SEIU and CPC “paternalistic” and “disempowering.”

It goes on to say that the collective bargaining agreement shows that the union is more interested in its own power and interests than in its workers’ interests.

“The relation of the workers to the CBA are one in which the negotiating power, interests, and industrial stability of CPC and [SEIU] 1199, and more generally, the home care industry at-large, reign supreme,” the report says.

The MOA says employees must go to arbitration if mediation fails, and that the arbitration is final and binding. The MOA also names the arbitrator all cases must be heard by as Martin F. Scheinman.

Scheinman has extensive political connections and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and party committees. He was an early fundraiser for former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and donated tens of thousands of dollars to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The MOA was ratified at the union’s headquarters in January 2016. SEIU sent postcards to members telling them about the meeting which included language about a “new contract,” however the report says there is no way to know if the union gave members enough information to vote on the MOA in an informed manner.

CPC employees are still waiting for a resolution to their claims, six years after first filing lawsuits. Meanwhile, other pro-worker groups have taken up the cause of CPC employees and have pointed out that the SEIU has treated the workers poorly.

Federal and state labor laws make it difficult for workers to hold their union officials accountable after unions put their own interests ahead of their members’ interests. But rather than focusing on labor law, Kim and other lawmakers have instead worked to change Medicaid reimbursement rules, which the CPC says led them and other home health care businesses to underpay their workers.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.