New union chief at county schools has troubled past

Secret meetings in Chinatown.

Shredded documents.

Improper transfers of millions of dollars.

The details belong in a John Grisham thriller, but they aren’t fiction.

The acts were carried out by a California labor union’s inner circle dubbed the Shakers and Makers, a group led by John Vellardita, who was recently named the new executive director of the Clark County Education Association.

The Oakland, Calif., group plunged its own union, United Healthcare Workers-West, into disarray. Last year, a jury for Northern California’s U.S. District Court ordered Vellardita and other members of the group to pay $1.5 million in damages to the local’s parent union for conspiracy to make the union ungovernable, destruction of files and property, violating union bylaws and breaching fiduciary responsibilities.

But the controversy wasn’t a deal breaker for those who ultimately selected Vellardita to represent teachers in heated negotiations with the Clark County School District. Vellardita begins his new job Oct. 17, said Ruben Murillo, president of the education association.

The teachers union is fully aware of Vellardita’s past and is “100 percent behind him,” Murillo said.

The union’s board of directors hired Vellardita from a pool of 14 candidates identified in a national search.

“He has an issue back there,” said Murillo, referring to the California civil case. “But we feel he did it for his members. They didn’t want to lose their local.”

Vellardita, who is out of the country, couldn’t be reached for comment.

As part of Shakers and Makers, Vellar­dita ordered that documents be shredded and members’ contact information be jumbled in the union local’s computer servers. The correct information was placed in off-site databases, according to evidence in the federal civil lawsuit.

But why implode their own union?

Word had trickled down that the Service Employees International Union was going to take the local union into trusteeship, in part because of financial improprieties. Local leadership likely would have been removed. United Healthcare Workers-West is a local chapter of SEIU, the nation’s largest health care union of 1.2 million members.

Vellardita was then head of the long-term care division of United Healthcare Workers-West, according to evidence in the federal civil trial that began in March 2010 in San Francisco.

Aside from the civil lawsuit, Vellardita is “clean,” has no criminal record and an impressive résumé, Murillo said.

“He has vast experience in negotiations,” Murillo said.

Vellardita has been involved in labor for more than 35 years. He has led a multi-state Union Council and has been a distinguished guest of the European Trade Union. He founded the reform movement in the United Paperworkers International Union.

But the federal jury in San Francisco left Vellardita’s record with a prominent blemish. The jury, unanimous in its decision, ordered 17 defendants to pay SEIU $1.5 million, which was just a fraction of SEIU’s requested $25 million in damages. Included in that was $724,000 that a rival union was ordered to pay. That union was created by members of the Shakers and Makers, who broke away from the SEIU.

Of the 17 people named as defendants in the lawsuit, Vellardita was ordered to pay the largest chunk, $77,850. That’s more than the $70,600 paid out by then United Healthcare Workers-West president Sal Rosselli.

Witnesses and evidence portrayed Vellardita as leading the effort to undo the California union from within. He recruited for the Shakers and Makers and gave orders, such as those to shred or hide union members’ files, according to testimony from his former assistant in court documents.

“I was under John Vellardita’s instruction,” said the assistant under questioning by an attorney for the SEIU.

“And did he tell you why he was giving you that instruction?” the attorney asked.

“Because we didn’t want to let International have easy access to our members’ information. … There was stuff written on there that we can’t replace,” the assistant said.

Email from Vellardita to other Shakers and Makers demonstrated Vellardita’s role in directing activities.

“Anyone leaving Oakland to carpool do not leave from our Oakland office since we are under surveillance,” Vellar­dita wrote in one message.

The group often conducted their meetings in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

In fact, SEIU was already in California at that time, opening an office in Alameda to prepare for the takeover, which happened Jan. 27, 2009.

“Defendants … including Vellardita, broke into the office, terrorized a security guard,” SEIU’s attorney said in his opening trial statement. “They took a witness who you will hear from — took a witness, a lady who was working there, grabbed files out of her hand and took other documents from that office on Jan. 27.”

SEIU claimed it was taking over United Healthcare Workers-West because of an investigation finding that the local had “diverted $3,000,000 into a sham ‘educational’ entity that was set up for purposes different from its stated ‘educational’ purpose,” SEIU wrote in a letter to the local’s officers.

Vellardita was a trustee for the educational fund.

In the wake of the takeover, three Shakers and Makers, including Vellardita, approached a member who stayed with United Healthcare Workers-West, confronting him as he parked his car on a dark street outside his home after work. The man testified that they threatened him and yelled, “Sellout! Scab!” After they left, he immediately called police.

Vellardita joins the Clark County Education Association as executive director at a critical time. The teachers union, which bargains for more than 17,000 public school teachers, is at loggerheads with district officials over a contract for the 2011-13 school years. Negotiations have reached a stalemate and are going to arbitration, where a third party will hear both sides and settle the terms.

The cash-strapped district is asking teachers to give up pay raises this year based on experience and education, to contribute half of the increase in payments to the Public Employees Retirement System, and to replace the Teachers Health Trust and Retiree Health Trust, which are not-for-profit and teacher-governed, with a for-profit carrier.

Contact Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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