California Correctional Officer Union Under Fire

Oct 27, 2010

By John Majeski, staff writer, In Good Practice column – October 27, 2010

Ten million dollars in punitive damages.

That’s the amount a federal court jury in Sacramento says Corrections USA, a California-based coalition of prison guard unions, is owed by one of the most politically powerful prison guard unions in the state, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association.

That comes on the heels of the $2.6 million the same jury awarded them less a few days earlier for financial losses.

The CCPOA, however, is saying not so fast. According to the 30,000-member union’s lawyer, it will appeal the $12.6 million in a defamation and breach of contract case.

The CCPOA had been fighting the case, in which they were accused in of taking over Corrections USA and removing its previous officers, for three years. (1) The balance of the award is against Corrections USA and two of its officers.

The jury found that union officials and Corrections USA broke contracts and spread lies about Brian Dawe, Corrections USA’s founder, and two other plaintiffs. Moreover, the jury found the broken contracts and lies harmed Corrections USA’s financial future as the CCPOA was taking control over the national organization. Finally, the jury found in favor of Dawe’s company, Flat Iron Mountain Associates, and another former Corrections USA officer. (1)

Daniel Baxter, the attorney for Corrections USA’s founder and former executive director, Brian Dawe, said the verdict sent a message that “bullying tactics by the CCPOA” are not acceptable. (1)

But the attorney for the CCPOA, David Sanders, said the union bullied no one and that an appeal will go forward. “We’re confident that ultimately our side will be vindicated, and we’ll move on doing the best we can for our members,” Sanders said. (1)

Testimony during the trial stated that the CCPOA spends what it collects in union dues each year and that its net worth had fallen in the last few years. Throughout that time, the CCPOA had been fighting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, trying to prevent him from imposing unpaid days off that he had imposed on other state employees in an attempt to help the state, which has been motoring along on a deficit.

In that suit against the “Governator,” the CCPOA lost, as did other unions who tried to stop the furloughs. As such, prison guards have been working without a contract since the Schwarzenegger administration ended benefits negotiated by the previous governor.

The union is still quite a force, however. When Republican lawmakers stalled on the legislature’s approval of amendments to the pension process for state workers, the governor blamed the union’s influence. (1)

The union’s finances were broken down in court. According to media reports and trial testimony, the union has more than $6 million budgeted this year for lobbying, advertising and political campaign contributions.

Whether the union is struggling financially or not is a bit of a debate. The union collects some $29 million in membership dues (union members pay about $80 per month) but is on course to spend more than that this year. Also, the union’s net worth has reportedly plunged from $16.5 million a few years ago to less than $5 million now because of legal costs and other issues. (2)

Still, the union offers an average annual salary of nearly $100,000 to its 85 employees, owns two $300,000 homes and rents an apartment for union officials. The union also spends more than $250,000 for luxury seating at professional sporting events. (2)

“There’s no indication from the information I have … that they’re in the poorhouse,” Baxter said. “You’ve got the [Sacramento] Kings tickets, you’ve got the political contributions – they’re things that are nice to have, but they’re baubles, they’re not necessary to sustain the organization.” (1)

Sanders said the union could pay the verdict if in fact they do lose the appeal, but its budget would have to be restructured.

Here’s an official statement from the CCPOA’s website:

“The jury in the Dawe v. Corrections USA case awarded damages to plaintiffs in the amount of $10.1 million. We disagree with the award of these damages and disagree with the original verdict rendered by the jury earlier this week. We are confident there are significant grounds for an appeal and will file that appeal shortly. We have every confidence that this ruling will be overturned.”

While the CCPOA is confident in an appeal, the judgment is a blow to a powerful union known for its big spending. In 2008, the group spent $1 million dollars in a campaign against California Proposition 5, or the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act.

Although its membership is relatively small, representing only about one tenth the membership of the California Teachers Association, CCPOA political activity routinely exceeds that of all other labor unions in California. In addition to lobbying and political campaign contributions, the CCPOA also hires public relations firms and political polling firms. (3)

It remains to be seen whether or not the appeal in the Corrections USA case will be granted. However, this case proves unions are still a force to be reckoned with in a state facing such a massive deficit.





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