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Calls Grow For San Diego Union Boss To Step Down Amid Sexual Harassment, Gender Discrimination Allegations

(1/2) The head of one of the biggest local unions, Mickey Kasparian, is being sued by former employees for sexual harassment and gender discrimination. But first, what are unions' role when it comes to local politics?

(2/2) Calls for Mickey Kasparian to step down or go on leave are amplifying. Two months ago, Kasparian, who is the head of one of San Diego County’s biggest unions, was sued by two former employees for sexual harassment and gender discrimination, among other claims.

Calls for Mickey Kasparian to step down or go on leave are amplifying. Two months ago, Kasparian, who is the head of one of San Diego County’s biggest unions, was sued by two former employees for sexual harassment and gender discrimination, among other claims. A third employee later filed a complaint over a hostile work environment and retaliation.

More than 40 local Democrats and elected officials signed a letter asking Kasparian's union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135, to put him on administrative leave while conducting an investigation. That hasn't yet happened.

Kasparian's role as head of the local UFCW has a lot of power, said Ricardo Ochoa, a lawyer who represents local unions. Local politicians, especially Democrats, want unions on their side because it signals "that this is somebody that stands on the side of working families," Ochoa said.

Unions also donate a lot of money to support candidates — the local UFCW has given more than $800,000 to local candidates and issues since 2014 — as well as rally their members.

"One of the very powerful things that unions are able to do is they're able to aggregate the power of working people who individually would not be able to influence politics in the same way," Ochoa said. "And so by organizing tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of working people they're able to generate votes through the recommendations to their members. They're able to generate volunteers for candidates. So it really makes a big difference in our local politics."

And the head of a union "has considerable sway and influence" over which candidates to support, Ochoa said.

One of the lawsuits against Kasparian was filed by Isabel Vasquez, a former UFCW union rep who worked for Kasparian for 15 years before retiring from her job last summer. She said throughout her time at UFCW, Kasparian sexually abused her in his office.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Isabel Vasquez speaks to KPBS in an interview, January 2017.

"I never knew when I was being called up there for a valid reason or I was being called up to his office for something else," she told KPBS. "It was like, what would people think of me that I let that happen to me. It was like the deepest darkest secret that I could ever keep."

Vasquez said she retired to stop the abuse.

Kasparian has publicly denied the allegations, but did not respond to repeated requests for comment from KPBS.

Vasquez said she decided to speak out at the urging of her son — "my son told me if I did not use my name then (Kasparian) still owned me and I was not going to let him own me anymore" — and because she did not want Kasparian's first accuser to stand alone.

That woman is Sandy Naranjo, who worked for Kasparian and the UFCW as an organizer. She is now suing for gender discrimination, retaliation for political affiliation and wrongful termination after being fired in December 2016.

She believes she was fired because her husband, who works for the electrical workers union IBEW 569, disagreed with terms of a contract between the city and Civic San Diego, which is the city's nonprofit redevelopment agency. Kasparian supported the contract with Civic San Diego.

Naranjo alleges Kasparian was worried she was aligned with her husband, not him, so he fired her.

"It was devastating," she said. "I mean it’s like I have my dream job. I have a lot of friends who are struggling to find their dream job and I have it and I’m working for social justice and to lose all that was just so damaging to my soul."

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Sandy Naranjo speaks to KPBS in an interview, January 2017.

She traces her respect for labor unions to her father.

"When I lost my father, the union came in and gave my mother a pension so I wanted to do the same things that the unions did for me," she told KPBS.

She said it was a dream come true when she was hired by Kasparian in 2013.

"So when I meet Mickey Kasparian, I was like this is the work that you do, the work that you do is what the labor unions did for my family, so I was inspired, I admired him," she said. "I loved the way he used to speak about workers and worker justice. So when he offered me the job I knew this is the job I want, this is the person I want to work for."

But the admiration didn’t last.

"Nobody challenged him, people were always scared of him and how threatening he was when you didn’t do something he wanted," she said. "He made people cry, he made people stressed and people retired quickly."

Vasquez echoed that description of the work environment.

"It's very controlling, he makes examples of people if you speak out against him," she said.

UFCW Local 135 has filed its own lawsuit against Naranjo, which says she was fired after an investigation into her use of company time. Attorneys for UFCW didn't speak to KPBS, but wrote in court documents that the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act gives unions officials broad discretion to hire and fire policymakers.

This month a third employee of the local UFCW, Anabel Arauz, filed a claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing over what she says is retaliation from Kasparian. She has not yet filed a lawsuit.

Detailed in Naranjo's lawsuit is a growing rift between two groups of local unions, and that split also shows Kasparian's power.

His union, the UFCW, is the largest member of the San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council, and Kasparian is the Labor Council's president.

The Labor Council is like a union for other unions and is a powerful political force, said Ochoa, the union lawyer.

"Unions will come together in the Labor Council, pool their resources and make endorsements, but also fund campaign activities, so fund precinct walking, fund mail pieces that are sent out to voters, occasionally will fund television or radio commercials," he said.

In the past, all labor unions in San Diego were usually united in their political efforts. But recently, the Labor Council has disagreed with another large union, the San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council, on local issues, and has often come out on top.

Photo caption:

For example, the Labor Council supported Myrtle Cole for president of the San Diego City Council, while Building Trades supported David Alvarez. Cole won.

Building Trades also opposed the City Council renewing a contract with Civic San Diego, while the Labor Council supported it. The contract was renewed.

Despite what former employees Vasquez and Naranjo say Kasparian did to them, both said they continue to believe in the mission of unions.

"I am pro-union, I will be until the day I die," Vasquez said.

Naranjo said it's "crushing" to stand against the head of the union she used to stand for.

"Because I loved the labor movement and I always will love the labor movement but it’s crushing to see a man like Mickey Kasparian who does everything against the principles of what a labor union stands for," she said. "This man, he’s dangerous and he’s corrupt and he exploits women and I want to show my daughter that we have to stand up."

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