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Head of health care union suspended over allegations of inappropriate behavior

Tyrék D. Lee faces accusations of sexual harassment, according to people familiar with the situation.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2017

The head of a large union that represents health care workers across Massachusetts has been suspended after allegations of inappropriate behavior.

Tyrék D. Lee Sr. leads the Service Employees International Union’s Local 1199, which represents about 56,000 workers in Massachusetts. He faces accusations of sexual harassment, according to people familiar with the situation.

Union officials did not detail the allegations.

“1199SEIU strongly condemns all forms of inappropriate conduct and will not tolerate such behavior by any employee of our union,” the union said in a statement Tuesday. “Upon being made aware of these allegations 1199SEIU has taken the action of suspending Executive Vice President Tyrék Lee while a formal investigation is conducted.”


Lee could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday night.

His suspension comes amid a tide of sexual harassment and assault allegations against male executives across a broad range of industries around the country, including entertainment, politics, the news media, and restaurants.

Lee took the top job at 1199SEIU in January 2016, when he was 38. He was the first black male to lead a statewide union. The Massachusetts union is part of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest health care union in the country

Lee was widely praised for rising from a rank-and-file hospital employee (he was once a telephone operator at Boston Medical Center) to a union executive.

Lee has talked about his difficult childhood. He was born in Boston but spent his early years in Cleveland, being raised by his grandmother and great-grandmother. He moved back to Boston when he was 13 to live with his mother. He became a father of three by the time he was 20, and he started working in hospitals to help pay child support.

“With hope, which I had, and people around me believing in me, which I had, I went from a telephone operator in 2003 to a vice president in 2010,” Lee told the Globe last year.


Lee has advocated for workers’ rights, including in the national movement to boost starting wages to $15 an hour.

The 1199SEIU represents workers at hospitals and other health care facilities across Massachusetts.

Last year, the union pushed a ballot question that would have slashed payments to the state’s largest health system, Partners HealthCare, while boosting payments to many other hospitals. The controversial question was avoided after a compromise was reached. That compromise paved the way for the SEIU to organize more workers at Partners hospitals.

With Lee in charge, the union’s membership has been growing. It represents workers in service, clerical, and technical jobs.

Adrian Walker of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.