After 2017 sexual harassment complaints, union official now up for a promotion
A year after he was accused of sexual harassment and demoted from his leadership post, an official at a powerful health care labor union is in line for a promotion.
Tyrék D. Lee Sr. was executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and held the union’s top post in Massachusetts, where it now represents about 60,000 workers. He was suspended in December 2017 while union officials investigated the complaints against him.
In March 2018 — following a Globe story that detailed Lee’s alleged inappropriate behavior — he was removed from leadership and moved to a different role at 1199SEIU. At the time, union officials said they found that Lee had violated union policy but had not committed a crime.
But last month, Lee’s name reappeared on the union election ballot as a candidate for vice president. The president of 1199SEIU supported Lee’s candidacy, and as one of 12 people running for 12 slots, he was essentially guaranteed a win.
1199SEIU is part of the Service Employees International Union and is headquartered in New York. It has more than 420,000 members across several states who work in technical, clerical, and service jobs at hospitals and other health care facilities.
“Based on Lee’s growth and contributions, he was selected to run as a candidate for vice president at-large, and his union sisters and brothers elected him into this new role,” union president George Gresham said in a statement. “1199SEIU believes in a pathway for growth and redemption for all.”
Lee was required to complete anti-harassment training last year — as was the rest of the union staff. Gresham said the union also added a new human resources liaison to help foster a more supportive work environment.
Lee has been working on data and technology projects for the past year and will continue this work as vice president, according to union officials. His compensation, they said, was frozen upon his demotion and will not increase with his new title. Lee is one of the highest-paid officials at 1199SEIU, earning more than $140,000 in 2018, according to a union report filed with the US Department of Labor.
People with knowledge of Lee’s behavior, including two women who filed complaints with the union against him, have told the Globe about a range of inappropriate conduct over several years. They said Lee pursued sexual relationships with female co-workers, including by sending vulgar messages about sexual acts he wanted to perform with them. He allegedly pursued women who were younger and subordinate to him.
The people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Lee also touched female co-workers on the arms, shoulders, and backs. One woman who spoke to the Globe said she never had an intimate relationship with Lee, yet he told her how to wear her hair, grabbed at her clothes, and once backed her against a wall at a work event to whisper a sexually suggestive comment.
Another time, Lee allegedly exposed himself and urinated in front of several female associates in the parking lot of a restaurant where colleagues had gathered for drinks.
And at work, Lee openly discussed women’s bodies and boasted about being a “hot” and “sexy” grandfather, according to people with knowledge of his behavior. The Globe also reviewed e-mails and other records included in the investigation into Lee’s behavior.
Lee, who remains based in Massachusetts, has not discussed the allegations publicly. He did not respond to requests for comment this week.
While union officials say they take workplace harassment seriously and are taking steps to address it, a woman who works at 1199SEIU’s New York headquarters said their support and promotion of Lee sends a different message. “If anything happens to me, I’m on my own,” she said. “I probably won’t be believed, won’t be supported, if I were harassed.”
The women who filed complaints against Lee said they were disappointed to learn that he was in line for a promotion just a year after he was investigated and demoted for his conduct.
“Taking responsibility for our actions and apologizing to those we have harmed is critical to redemption and second chances,” one of the women said. “Tyrék has done neither.”
The other woman said she was “fearful of the message it sends to those who might want to come forward against their own harassers, and to people in power that may be empowered to harass others.”
But union leaders apparently felt that Lee had been punished enough. Earlier this year, they rewarded him by sending him to a six-week, $16,000 Harvard Law School program for labor leaders. At the end of the program, Lee was the class speaker chosen to address his classmates.
Steven A. Tolman, a former state lawmaker who is president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO — of which 1199SEIU is an affiliate — said he recommended Lee for the Harvard Trade Union Program.
Tolman praised Lee as a great leader and said he didn’t know the details of the sexual harassment allegations.
“I believe in second chances, and in my conversations with him, he said he learned from it,” Tolman said. “He’s a very talented young man who works very hard at his job.”
Harvard officials said Lee met the criteria for admission into their program. They said they took steps to ensure that Lee “was fully informed about Harvard’s sexual harassment policy and understood his responsibilities as a participant in a Harvard program.”
Lee worked as a hospital telephone operator in Boston before becoming a union organizer. He rose through the ranks at 1199SEIU, becoming vice president, then executive vice president. In 2016, at age 38, he became the first black man to lead a statewide union in Massachusetts.
“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 at the time.
Lee frequently appeared on Beacon Hill and at labor events, and he worked on a campaign to raise starting wages to at least $15 an hour.
Since Lee’s demotion last year, Tim Foley has been executive vice president in charge of the union’s Massachusetts operations. Foley has not commented on the situation and referred questions to the union president’s office in New York.