A top labor movement figure who led the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign was suspended this week after complaints from staffers about his conduct toward women, BuzzFeed News has learned.
The Service Employees International Union suspended Executive Vice President Scott Courtney after “questions were raised ... relating to our union’s ethical code and anti-nepotism policy,” Sahar Wali, a spokesperson for the powerful union, said in a statement Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Mary Kay Henry, the union’s international president, wrote in an email to her staff that "questions were raised about Executive Vice President Scott Courtney relating to a romantic relationship between a staff person and a supervisor. Such relationships are governed by our union’s ethical code and anti-nepotism policy."
Amid an ongoing investigation by SEIU general counsel Nicole Berner, Henry said in the email, obtained by BuzzFeed News, “I suspended Executive Vice President Scott Courtney from his assigned duties as an officer of SEIU on Monday.”
This past weekend, Courtney married a union staffer. Courtney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We are taking this investigation very seriously,” Wali told BuzzFeed News on Thursday. “As credible allegations come in, we are pursuing them as part of this investigation.”
The complaints about Courtney had been an open secret among women in the high-profile Fight for $15 campaign within the union, which is itself led by one of the most visible women in American labor. The SEIU lies at the heart of the US labor movement’s attempt to transform itself from a traditional trade union body into a broad force for social and progressive change for union members and nonunion members alike.
The Fight for $15, which is focused on raising the wages of a low-income, largely female fast-food workforce, has been the highest-profile symbol of that effort, and won dramatic victories from New York to Arizona to California. But women inside the union say the internal culture of the Fight for $15 contrasts starkly with the values Henry and the union preach.
“Our union has been fighting for justice for working families, immigrants, women, people of color, LGBTQ people and people of all faiths and backgrounds in their work places, in our communities and in our economy and democracy,” Henry wrote in her email. “Just as we fight to make change in our society, we know that our organization should reflect the kind of just society that we fight for across the country.”
“In the weeks ahead, I will be taking concrete steps to ensure there is an open and safe space process for staff to discuss these and related concerns,” Henry wrote.
Seven people who have worked with Courtney, including current and former SEIU staffers, told BuzzFeed News the top official had a history of sexual relationships with young women staffers — who were subsequently promoted, they said.
The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation within the labor movement.
Two also said no significant action was taken after staffers reported abuse and sexual harassment by supervisors — who reported to Courtney. “Nothing happened on those campaigns without Scott knowing," one of the sources told BuzzFeed News.
According to a source within SEIU and SEIU’s governing documents, suspension is the highest form of action Henry can take within her authority as union president against a union officer at Courtney’s level.
For an executive vice president to be removed from his or her position, the union must go through an official proceeding by the union’s internal executive board, its second highest governing body.
Cora Lewis is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Cora Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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