Reading aloud a letter addressed to her supervisors about retaliation she faced after reporting sexual misconduct within SEIU, Njoki Woods, a 42-year-old African American single mother of 4, begins to cry.
Prior to joining the staff at SEIU United Healthcare West in 2015, Woods had spent a decade organizing her fellow co-workers as a certified nursing assistant and unit secretary at Riverside Community Hospital in Southern California.
After leading a successful effort as a rank and file member to organize residual workers at nearby St. Mary’s hospital, Woods was offered a staff job in May of 2015.
“I was excited. I had just organized some residual members successfully at St. Mary’s,” says Woods. “I was so proud of myself. The day they called and told me I got the job, I cried, I was so excited.”
However, after raising complaints about sexual misconduct, illegal union electioneering, and selling out members in backroom deals with management, Woods says she wished she had never left the hospital to become a union staffer.
“I faced racism at Riverside Community Hospital, but they addressed it at least,” says Wood.
Woods’ employer SEIU-UHW has come under heavy criticism for the culture of sexual misconduct that many say is epidemic throughout SEIU nationwide. Recently, a lawsuit brought by a current employee of SEIU-UHW, Mindy Sturges, alleges that SEIU-UHW and its president Dave Regan knowingly hired staffers accused of sexual misconduct, routinely covered up sexual misconduct and retailed against those who reported it. (SEIU-UHW denies the claims).
In 2017, Payday Report broke the story of how Pedro Malavet was hired at SEIU-UHW after an investigation by another local, SEIU 32BJ, found that he had committed sexual assault against another union staffer, Dario Alladio.
Regan also hired Caleb Jennings to work at SEIU-UHW, who in 2016 was charged with assault of an SEIU staffer, Gönül Düzer. Jennings was later found not guilty since it was his words against Düzer’s. After the criminal process, Düzer was fired in what many saw as a retaliatory move for her speaking out against Jenning’s abuses.
In 2016, more than 50 union staffers signed a letter calling for Jennings to be fired. However, not until late 2017 when #metoo went viral did SEIU finally decide to fire Jennings, a protegee of SEIU VP Dave Regan.
Now, for the first time, another SEIU-UHW staffer has gone on record in an exclusive interview with Payday Report to corroborate the allegations made in Mindy Sturge’s lawsuit that not only has Regan been accused of covering up sexual misconduct, but that he has conducted sexual misconduct himself and retaliated against whistleblowers, who spoke out.
“It was widely discussed amongst members that he had sexual relations with members and staff,” says Woods. Interviews with UHW staff that wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation back up these statements.
Woods says that the example set by Regan’s frequent drinking and personal sexual misconduct created a toxic culture where many felt pressure to have sex in order to get ahead.
“It’s a sexual culture—it was all okay,” says Wood. ”The culture at the time was everybody was having sex with everybody. That’s just the culture—sexual favors—that’s how people got ahead there”.
The accusations against Regan, a powerful SEIU leader who sits on the international union’s executive board, mark the third time that a top ally of SEIU President Mary Kay Henry has been accused of sexual misconduct.
In 2017, Fight for $15 Director and SEIU Executive Vice President Scott Courtney was forced out after allegations of sexual misconduct. In 2018, SEIU Healthcare Massachusetts Executive Director Tyrek D. Lee was demoted after being accused of sexual misconduct. (Many say that Lee was only able to keep his job after a social media campaign by SEIU staffer to defame his accusers).
Union culture is notorious for partying and drinking in workers’ off hours. In this environment of heavy intoxication and frequent travel together in hotels, many say sexual misconduct runs rampant.
In addition to Regan being accused of sexual misconduct, two other top SEIU-UHW officials, Chokri Bensaid and Grissel Rodriguez are now also being accused by SEIU #metoo activists of sexual misconduct and allegedly engaging in favoritism with SEIU those staffers willing to trade sexual favors.
Interviews with SEIU_UHW staff indicate that Regan has also been accused of being violent when drunk. In August of 2018, California Assemblyman Richard Bloom accused Regan of shoving him across a room while drunk. A charge which Regan denies.
It’s not the first time Regan’s been accused of violence. In 2016, Regan was accused of shoving a process server down the steps of his home. Police officers said that when they arrived to investigate that the politically connected Regan even tried to intimidate them; a charge that he also denies.
“He drinks all the time, everybody knows it,” says Woods who says she smelled alcohol on Regan’s breath many times during the work day. “He was always drunk—it was just the norm.”
SEIU-UHW did not immediately respond for a request for comment when reached late on Thursday.
Many say that the toxic workplace culture of SEIU-UHW stems from the hostile takeover of the local union by Regan and engineered by the
“It’s a cultish type environment. When you go in, you feel great, you feel like you are a part of something big,” says Woods. “You feel really good until you start getting into these robotic type of conversations, there is nothing genuine. It’s these robotic type of conversations meant to conform you…Its like they want to program you, you have to be as a mean as them”.
In 2009, SEIU international took over the local union after the local leadership rejected efforts by international leadership to force the local to make concessionary closed door deals with healthcare companies.
Then, in a controversial move and without a vote of the membership, SEIU international forced all 200 elected shop stewards out of office and installed Dave Regan to run SEIU-UHW.
In 2011, the federal National Labor Relations Board found that SEIU-UHW leadership illegally colluded with Kaiser Permanente to retaliate against workers, who favored NUHW over SEIU in a union election between the two rival unions. Finding that SEIU-UHW engaged in illegal conduct in collusion with the company, the NLRB threw out the union election results and ordered that a new union election be held.
The conflict between NUHW union members and the SEIU international staffers being sent into California to target NUHW activists opposing the SEIU-UHW created a culture of intimidation and domination within the union, where staffers regularly targeted other SEIU staffers, who wouldn’t go along with plans to smear NUHW activists.
Many #metoo activists say the culture of bullying within SEIU-UHW made it a workplace where sexual misconduct could easily flourish. They say many low-level SEIU staffers were often scared of upper-level SEIU International management sent into to bust the NUHW.
Woods says that she felt pressure from SEIU not to fight management too much and that sometimes SEIU would even instruct her to get a member fired if they questioned SEIU’s lack of militancy; instructions, which Woods says she refused.
After getting hired by SEIU in the spring of 2015, she says she felt herself getting bullied almost immediately.
Under federal labor law, it’s illegal to require union staffers to contribute to the internal election campaigns of union officers. However, Woods says that was told by SEIU-UHW
“She said you have to do it, it’s not a choice,” says Woods.
Woods says she also found herself getting pressured to not push too far with certain companies with whom SEIU had good relations. Indeed, in some situations, if a member criticized SEIU union leadership, Woods says her supervisor Grissel Rodriguez was instructed to work with the union members’ employer to get that member fired; something that Woods also says she refused to do.
Beginning in August of 2015, Woods, a cancer survivor, says that she found herself getting constantly harassed about disability issues from Rodriguez as she resisted Rodriguez’s wishes.
“I would hear about her saying things in coordinating meetings,” says Wood. “People that she had relationships with that I didn’t have a relationship would know about my health. They started talking about it right away.”
“It was definitely a bullying tactic, I could feel it,” says Woods. “It was like she recruited other people to bully. If you start complaining they will build a picture of you in a different light. People can’t talk to you, they won’t talk to you. They isolate you.”
She says some union staffers also mocked a union staffer Mustafa “Hawk” Tahjuddin, who committed suicide in 2012 after leaving a note saying that pressure from the union pushed him over the edge.
According to Woods, union staffer Myriam J. Inzunza pointed to Tahjuddin’s old desk and joked that the people who sat there would kill themselves. “He said it was us and we tortured him and were killing him, but he had other issues,” says Woods.
Woods account of the joke is verified through interview with other SEIU-UHW staff that wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
Woods says that like other union staffers, she found herself coming close to the edge of experiencing a nervous breakdown as she faced pressure to go along with union management’s wishes.
Woods says she was often forced to work 6-7 days a week and was penalized with reduced pay if she took a day off. Woods said that her workload was heavier because she was forced to often perform the work of a co-worker who was having sex with their supervisor Grissel Rodriguez.
In October of 2017, Woods wrote in an email obtained by Payday Report outlining her concerns about her supervisor Rodriguez having a sexual relationship with an employee under Rodriguez’s supervision.
Afterward, Rodriquez was overheard by Woods co-workers in the office saying “We are going to get that black bitch fired.”
Woods says she began receiving write-ups for not performing well enough on the job and found herself mocked for her health condition while having more and more work hours requested of her.
In December of 2017, Woods and other union staffers, who wished to remain
“Dave Regan was standing on the stage and they put all these numbers to these attorneys and he said ‘if you have an issue of sexual harassment then you can contact these attorneys, but you better damn well know that if you bring up allegations against us, you are coming up against a million dollar organization and we will come after you’,” says Wood.
After Regan’s statement, Woods stood up and raised questions about Rodriguez’s sexual relationship with someone under her supervision. Woods say that staffers in the audience heckled and told her to mind her own business.
After the public confrontation with Regan, Woods says that retaliation increased dramatically after the incident. She says that she struggled to sleep and began experiencing severe health issues.
“I have developed irritable bowel syndrome that I have had for two years. I have constant headaches,” says Woods. “I have anxiety attacks all day long. It’s to the point that the anxiety is just horrible. I throw up; there are times when I cannot eat.”
As Woods’ health deteriorated, she decided to take two months off on medical leave and enter an intensive 8-week therapy program to get the anxiety attack under control. However, after she returned, Woods says she faced more retaliation and claims she was often written up for minor infractions.
However, Woods, who came out of the rank-and-file of her union, says she was determined not to leave the union and kept pushing on despite the intimidation.
In December of 2018, Woods says that things came to a head when a top SEIU official Bennie Tinson berated her at length.
She suffered an anxiety attack and had to call an ambulance.
“He’s just attacking me, yelling at me. He’s going on and on and attacking” says Woods. “The room was not even the room anymore. I can’t
As a result of the hospitalization, she was forced to take another month off on medical leave to recover.
After she returned to work, Woods was reassigned to do organizing in the far away High Desert.
Woods had never had to drive more than 42 miles from her house for previous assignments, but now she was required to drive 86 miles each way every day through heavy South California traffic. While SEIU policy required that organizers being given a hotel room if they are forced to travel more than 40 miles from their home, Woods says that she was denied hotel reimbursement and forced to commute round trip nearly four hours a day.
The drives caused sleeping and back problems, which lead to her filing a workers compensation claim against SEIU-UHW that is still pending. As a result of the health issues, Woods once again is back out on medical leave.
She fears that SEIU will fire her, but having fought for years as a rank-and-file leader within SEIU, she said she was determined to not see the struggle of her and her co-workers go in vain.
“I thought the organization believed in the labor movement and that’s not the case,” says Woods. “It’s not about the labor movement for Dave Reagan, it’s about power and control or Dave Reagan. It’s not about members and I’m not comfortable with that because I am lying to these people.”
“I have children, how do I look at my children,” says Woods.
Despite the hostility from management, Woods says that many of her co-workers have encouraged her to speak out and she hopes that her courage in speaking out inspires others to do so.
“This is standing up for the staff, standing up for the members,” she says as she pushes back tears. “Members should have good contracts, members should know what’s going in their contract, they should be aware of the truth.”
Donate to Payday to Help Us Continue to Take On Sexual Misconduct in the Labor Movement
I personally worked alongside Njoki, she is a great organizer and a sweet person. The internal staff motto of UHW is “UHW is where great organizers go to die” – and they sure live up to it. Glad I got away. Stay strong Njoki!!!!!!
As a former employee of the organization I think it’s far past time to file a class action suit sexual discrimination sexism racial discrimination racially disparaging remarks as a former organizer with in the organization I can attest and be would be more than willing to I’ve worked at UHW for over 10 years