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Fight For $15 Chicago Organizer Fired Amid Harassment Investigation

By Emma G. Gallegos in News on Oct 25, 2017 6:59PM

A previous Fight For $15 protest in March 2016 (Photo by Aaron Cynic/Chicagoist)

The lead organizer for the Fight For $15 campaign in Chicago has been fired amid an investigation into harassment at the upper echelons of management in the SEIU, the nation's second largest labor union.

Buzzfeed News reports that Caleb Jennings was fired from his position Monday as a result of a wider investigation into harassment, nepotism and sexual abuse inside the union that led the fight to increase the minimum wage.

SEIU Executive Vice President Scott Courtney is also a target of that investigation, and he resigned Monday. Current and former employees told Bloomberg that Courtney dated his subordinates and rewarded or reassigned them based on their romantic relationships. Last week he was honeymooning with one of his former subordinates. Mark Raleigh, who heads up the campaign in Detroit, was put on leave as a result of the investigation. Raleigh and Jennings both reported to Courtney.

Dozens of current and former staffers at BuzzFeed say that not only was Courtney's behavior itself a problem, but he also refused to take action when they complained about the abusive, aggressive behavior of staffers under him, including Jennings.

In June 2016, over 50 staffers signed a letter calling for Jennings to be fired. The letter alleged that he shoved a 28-year-old female staffer Gönül Düzer against a door frame, and then later fired her. The letter described Jenning's attitude as "sexist and aggressive." A portion, obtained by BuzzFeed, read, "Caleb has made himself well known for creating a toxic work environment… Making it more egregious in this instance is that the FF15 Organizing Coordinator attacked an immigrant and a woman of color, exactly the workers which the FF15’s success depends on."

Jennings denied the allegation, and said a criminal investigation cleared him in the incident. Düzer filed a claim against Jennings and the National Labor Relations Board found that she was fired for protected work and awarded her $20,000 in back pay. Düzer waived her right to be reinstated, she told labor website Libcom, because “I wouldn't want to work for someone who assaulted me.”

Jennings told BuzzFeed News, "I support the ongoing investigations, and I'm against any workplace sexual misconduct and abuse."

International President Mary Kay Henry wrote an email obtained by BuzzFeed to staff Monday that said the organization was looking into "sexual misconduct and abusive behavior." She wrote, "Each day, we stand with fast food workers, home health aides, child care workers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees, and workers everywhere to demand that their voices are heard, their work is valued, and that they are treated with dignity and respect. Those values must also be reflected inside the Fight for $15 and a Union work environment. Any conduct that does not meet that standard will not be tolerated."