Business & Tech

Citing bias, unions call for state labor board member to step down or quit outside job

Governor Charlie Baker appointed Katherine Lev to the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board in 2015.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Governor Charlie Baker appointed Katherine Lev to the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board in 2015.

Local union leaders are raising concerns that a member of a state board that handles labor disputes involving public-sector unions may have an anti-union bias that affects her rulings. On Thursday, the unions delivered a letter to Governor Charlie Baker calling on board member Katherine Lev to either step down from the board or give up an outside consulting job.

Lev was recently hired by the University of South Florida to hold informational sessions for adjunct professors who have been trying to organize a union for more than a year. The adjuncts’ efforts have repeatedly been rebuffed by the Tampa school, and the unions consider Lev’s involvement as a conflict of interest with her position on the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board.

In a letter to Lev last week, and in the one to Baker — who appointed Lev in 2015 — union officials questioned how she could remain impartial when deciding cases involving unions in Massachusetts while she was working for an organization that publicly denounced unionization.

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“A zebra’s stripes don’t change,” said Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, one of three union leaders who signed the letter, along with the heads of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Service Employees International Union Local 509. “It’s unethical to put a union-buster on a board that is supposed to be a neutral arbitrator in workplace disputes.”

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Baker’s office declined to comment, referring the matter to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, which oversees the Department of Labor Relations and its board. The labor department said Lev is a “highly respected and experienced labor relations lawyer” whose work with USF is not a conflict of interest. Board members may be removed only by the governor for neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.

Lev told the state she would not work on public-sector union cases in Massachusetts, according to the state, and has voted in favor of unions 13 times over the course of 24 decisions.

But in her consulting work, she has repeatedly cast unions in a negative light.

In one of the meetings with USF adjuncts last week, according to an account in the university’s student newspaper, Lev admitted she was “not a neutral third party in this particular matter” and “would prefer to speak for myself” rather than rely on a union.

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Jarad Fennell, an adjunct professor in the Department of English who was at the meeting, said Lev’s bias showed in the hypothetical examples she cited. “She kept painting the union as a villain,” he said. “There was a pattern.”

This isn’t the first time Lev has represented a company opposing the organization of its workers while serving on the Massachusetts board.

In 2016, a HuffPost article detailed Lev’s involvement in meetings between employees at the New York-based legal news service Law360 and what are described as anti-union consultants.

In the article, based in part on audio recordings of the meetings, Lev states that she is neutral in her work on the Massachusetts board, but acknowledges “I am biased” when it comes to her work for Law360. She doesn’t tell the employees what to do but warns that their situation may not improve when they unionize.

“Not voting in the union is free,” she said, according to the article. “Voting the union in, you pay dues.”

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Lev, who was originally nominated for the post late in Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, declined to speak to the Globe about the union’s concerns, but issued a statement:

“My work as an advocate in matters outside of the Massachusetts public sector, which Governor Deval Patrick’s Department of Labor Relations Advisory Council was made aware of prior to my nomination, does not interfere in any way with my neutrality and objectivity when it comes to matters before the board.”

The three-person board is not allowed to have more than two members of the same political party. Lev, who runs a labor law firm and labor consulting firm in Hudson and teaches at Boston College, according to her LinkedIn profile, is an unenrolled independent.

The other two are Democrats: Joan Ackerstein, who worked for 29 years as a management-side litigator at the Boston office of the prominent anti-union firm Jackson Lewis, and chair Marjorie Wittner, the only full-time member, who previously served as chief counsel for the labor relations board.

Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU Local 509, which represents 8,300 state human service workers and educators who could potentially come before the state’s labor relations board, said the fact that Lev is getting a paycheck from organizations trying to prevent unions from organizing while serving on a board where she is supposed to have an open mind is troubling.

“When someone is so clearly intertwined in these two ventures at the same time, it certainly raises a question whether you really can be impartial,” he said. “Can you really take off one hat and put on another?”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.