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Head of Largest County Workers' Union Is Fired

April 30, 1996|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gilbert Cedillo, the combative head of Los Angeles County's largest employee union, has been fired after losing a power struggle with the board of directors of the Service Employees International Union, Local 660, but said Monday he will fight to regain his job.

The union local's board voted 23 to 3 late Sunday to terminate its one-year contract with Cedillo and begin a national search for a replacement by July 1, when the county's new fiscal year starts. It also fired Cedillo's top political aide and second in command, Dan Savage.

SEIU Assistant General Manager Annelle Grajeda was named the union's acting general manager until a permanent replacement can be found, said union President Alejandro Stephens.

Both Cedillo and Stephens said the timing of the discharge is bad, since the powerful union is trying to negotiate labor contracts for more than 42,000 county workers and trying to get hundreds of other union workers--laid off during last summer's budget cuts--back on the job.

"This is the worst time for this," Cedillo said. "We have health care issues in front of us, a budget in front of us. We need to be uniting our organization and continue to fight to provide services for the community."

But Stephens said Cedillo had become a divisive force, alienating the union's rank- and-file members from its 30-member board of directors at a time when the union needs a unified voice in many political battles. SEIU is trying to remain a key player in the county's ongoing effort to downsize and restructure its troubled health system, and it is fighting a proposed dismantling of the welfare system by conservatives in the federal government, which could cost many union workers their jobs.

"We just didn't work as a team," Stephens said of Cedillo and the board. "This did not happen overnight. It was a painful decision, but one that we had to make in the best interests of our members. We have to stay vocal, we have to stay focused and we have to stay organized."

Stephens once had been a close ally of Cedillo. As president, he unsuccessfully tried to block the board from firing the vocal activist turned labor lawyer and leader in 1992. But Cedillo, then acting general manager, was reinstated after the union sent a trustee from its Washington headquarters, who took a vote among members and found that they supported Cedillo overwhelmingly.

But the two have had a falling-out in recent months, and Stephens and other board members were said to be unhappy with the militancy--and high expense--of Cedillo's campaign last summer to protect union jobs during the county's worst budget crisis. Cedillo's organized rallies, slick television ads and pep talks with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other national figures made him an almost daily presence at the County Hall of Administration--and on television news.

By the end of last summer's budget crisis, Cedillo was credited by his members with saving many jobs. But he also had drawn the ire of union leaders who thought that his profile had become higher than theirs. Earlier this month, the board suspended Cedillo for two weeks without pay for what it said were violations of union bylaws. Among those violations was the inappropriate discussion of union matters, including his contract, with the rank and file, they said.

The board, in an unsigned statement released Monday, said Cedillo was discharged after his relations with the directors "had deteriorated to an untenable level."

"Cedillo consistently disregarded and disrespected the elected governing board. He neglected to consult on important policy matters," the statement said. "By the end, most [board members] no longer trusted Gil."

Stephens added that there were "some other transgressions . . . and other factors that I cannot state."

Cedillo denied that there were any improprieties. He said Stephens and other board members simply disagreed with his combative style, his successes and the high profile that he had gained by leading so many protest marches and rallies. "Many of them felt uncomfortable with that," Cedillo said. He said all his expenses, from the expensive TV ad campaign down to dinners paid with credit cards, were approved and never questioned by the board or Stephens.

Calling themselves Members for a Democratic Union, a group of Cedillo supporters vowed to fight his discharge. "Cedillo," they said in a statement, was "responsible for many successful campaigns to defend services and jobs and does not deserve this as his reward."

By Monday afternoon, Cedillo supporters claimed to have gotten enough member signatures to seek a special vote on whether to change the union bylaws and make the general manager an elected position, and reappoint Cedillo.

"I believe this is now in the hands of the membership," Cedillo said. "It will be for them to decide who will lead them."

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