Two women have leveled a number of serious accusations against powerful local labor leader Mickey Kasparian.
Two separate lawsuits have been filed against Kasparian, each dealing with different issues.
One is a wrongful termination suit that also alleges gender discrimination. It was brought by Sandy Naranjo, a former organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Kasparian is president of that union, the largest in San Diego.
In addition to allegations about Kasparian’s treatment of Naranjo, the complaint reveals the depth and extent of the war going on between him and other local progressives.
The other lawsuit is far more troubling. It is brought by Isabel Vasquez, a former UFCW insurance clerk, who says Kasparian forced her into a years-long, sporadic sexual relationship that she relented to out of fear that she would lose her job.
Attorney Dan Gilleon filed the lawsuits last week, and NBC San Diego was the first to report on them.
Kasparian has denied all of the allegations. He said Naranjo was fired for falsifying her time card and destroying union property to cover it up. He said the events described in Vasquez’s lawsuit never happened.
Meanwhile, a handful of other women who have worked for Kasparian over the years have stepped forward to support the allegation in Naranjo’s suit that he polices his union staff and the San Diego political landscape through bullying and fear, and that he mistreats women specifically. Kasparian denies those allegations as well, and a fellow UFCW leader, a woman, has come to his defense.
There are a number of different things happening and it’s important to keep the separate elements separated. We’ll handle them one at a time.
The most serious, and shocking, charges are contained in Vasquez’s suit.
It says Kasparian would intermittently demand oral sex or sexual intercourse with Vasquez in his office, at union-sponsored events and in hotels paid for by UFCW Local 135, the union Kasparian runs and for which Vasquez worked until she retired in July.
The alleged sexual abuse would sometimes not happen for long periods, but Kasparian eventually would call her into his office and demand oral sex, according to the suit.
“This pattern of abuse continued such that each day Vasquez came to work, her workday would be filled with constant fear and anxiety that today would be the day she would be called into his office for oral sex,” the suit says.
Vasquez filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment & Housing earlier this month, before filing her lawsuit last week.
In an interview, Vasquez said she never told a soul about the abuse while it was happening because she was ashamed.
She said Kasparian never explicitly told her he would fire her if she did not comply. But because the entire office was dominated by fear of angering him – and because Kasparian regularly fired people whom he thought had crossed him – she did as he said even without an explicit threat, Vasquez said.
“I just went into another space in my mind when it would happen,” she said. “He fired every woman around me. Every single woman in that office is petrified. I’m one example of the manipulation. No one else can speak up because they’re so afraid.”
Vasquez said she supported Kasparian when he was running for union leadership. He sounded the part of a champion of workers, and won her over. She still says she loves UFCW and considers herself “union through and through.”
She said the first incident took place about six months after she started working for the union in 2002, after UFCW staff went out for happy hour and Kasparian came along. When the night ended, he asked Vasquez to come back to his car with him to talk. Once there, he propositioned her and they had sexual intercourse.
From then on the sexual encounters happened sporadically, she said. It would sometimes happen three or four times in a year, but then not again for more than a year. The years-long relationship is painful for her to remember and it’s difficult for her to provide details about each specific encounter, Gilleon said.
Vasquez said she buried the relations because they humiliated her, and she feared retaliation.
“He would pick off women in our office who were my dear friends to this day and he would try to ruin their lives,” she said. “I wanted to come forward but I was so scared. For that I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself.
That stopped, Vasquez said, when she got a call from Naranjo – the other woman who’s filed suit against Kasparian – telling her she had been fired earlier this month.
“I said, ‘Enough,’” Vasquez said. “I had to do something. I couldn’t let it happen again. I know the people who know me know I’m not lying, and I know he knows I’m not lying, and that’s good enough for me – and yes, I’m very angry.”
Kasparian offered just one comment on Vasquez’s suit: “I don’t comment on things that never happened,” he said. “You can capitalize ‘never’ if you’d like.”
Gilleon said he and Vasquez will be able to prove that the relationship occurred.
“Our next step is to sit Mr. Kasparian for a deposition under oath,” he said. “We’ll see if he thinks perjury laws apply to him.”
Vasquez’s lawsuit also references a previous incident involving Kasparian and another employee, Rosie Miner.
It says Kasparian once propositioned Miner over dinner and drinks. Later, Kasparian ran into Miner’s husband, Mathew Miner, leading to a physical altercation. Rosie Miner was subsequently fired. Two other former UFCW employees, Sara Garcia and Debbie Principe, said the situation happened as described in Vasquez’s lawsuit.
The lawsuit also says Rosie Miner reported the situation to the union’s controller, Brian Kelly, and he didn’t take any action.
Kelly said he could not comment on pending litigation.
Public records show that Matthew Miner pleaded guilty to felony assault and battery against Kasparian on March 5, 2011. The case file does not include any details of the dispute. Matthew Miner was sentenced to jail time over the incident and is on probation.
Kasparian also said he could not comment on the case, except to say the description in Vasquez’s lawsuit is “totally false.”
Naranjo’s lawsuit alleges wrongful termination. It says she was fired because she was a woman, and because Kasparian was paranoid that Naranjo was conspiring against him.
That latter charge is related to a widening schism between two major elements of labor: Kasparian, with UFCW and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council on one side, and the San Diego Building & Construction Trades and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on the other. It also relates to an ongoing feud between Kasparian and San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez.
Naranjo alleges that she was fired after she went to a physical therapy appointment on Dec. 2. She had been injured in a car accident while working for the union.
Kasparian was engaged in a standoff with Alvarez over a City Council vote on an operating agreement between the city and Civic San Diego, a group that runs some redevelopment programs for the city.
Kasparian supported the plan, which he thought had won a key concession for grocery workers. The Building Trades, IBEW and Alvarez opposed the deal, arguing it didn’t represent enough of a victory for unions and progressive causes. In her lawsuit, Naranjo says the concession Kasparian won was “illusory.” In an interview, she said he was trying to claim a victory even though it hadn’t achieved anything.
Naranjo’s husband, Andrew McKercher, works for IBEW. According to the lawsuit, Kasparian became paranoid that Naranjo wasn’t in the office while the fight over the Civic San Diego was going on because he believed she was working with Alvarez and IBEW to undermine him.
The following Monday, he suspended her pending an investigation. On Dec. 9, Kasparian fired her.
In an interview, Kasparian said Naranjo was fired for cause. He said she had falsified her timecard, her mileage and her activity log, then destroyed union property to cover it all up.
He said UFCW lawyers advised him not to go into more detail.
“I’m taking some shots I don’t deserve right now,” Kasparian said. “The text messages and calls I’ve received from women in the labor movement, it’s emotional because it makes you realize that people know what you stand for.”
Naranjo has a different story.
She said Kasparian was consumed by paranoia during the events that led to her firing. It wasn’t just the Civic San Diego vote, but also the pending City Council president vote, with Alvarez facing off against Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who had Kasparian’s support.
Kasparian and Alvarez have been in a heated feud for months. Three years ago, Kasparian backed Alvarez’s mayoral bid over former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher. But by this spring, the relationship deteriorated and the two men ran competing slates of supporters to win control of the Democratic Party’s central committee, which controls endorsements for local office, among other things.
Kasparian thought Naranjo was working with Alvarez, Naranjo said.
“He is opposed to David because he can’t control him,” Naranjo said. “He said that. He wants any elected official to be his tool. David has his own ethics and values, and Mickey can’t stand him. He was going crazy because he couldn’t control (Building Trades) and he couldn’t control David.”
She said Kasparian told staff he was supporting Cole for Council president because he knew he could control her.
“Mickey has a façade that he is about empowering women and women of color, but he is very threatened by women who are smart and independent,” Naranjo said. “He sees women as one of two things: sexual exploits, or disposable. I was disposable because he knew I was smart and very connected and he could use me, but once I caught on to what he was doing, I could be a threat.”
“No one has advocated for women and people of color more than me,” Kasparian said.
The War Within Labor
Kasparian agrees with Naranjo on one thing – he’s in a struggle for control over the labor movement in San Diego.
The labor movement is unbeatable when it’s united, Kasparian said. But that hasn’t been the case since 2012, when former Mayor Bob Filner won. Since then, the fight over Filner’s resignation – Kasparian stood by Filner longer than most Democratic officials – and the race to replace him between Alvarez and Fletcher created divisions.
“The dynamic had always been, the Labor Council speaks for labor, and that’s changed,” he said. “What’s happened recently is, they want to get more bang for their buck for members, so they’re trying to get more credit.”
Specifically, Kasparian cites the hiring of political directors at the Building Trades and IBEW – Carol Kim and Gretchen Newsom, respectively – as emblematic of the changing dynamic.
In the last year and change, Kasparian has split with other local labor groups on who to support in the District 9 City Council race, on Measure C for a Chargers stadium, on the Measure A transit tax, the 7th and Market project downtown, the Civic San Diego operating agreement and the recent Council president vote.
He thinks the new union leadership is too focused on its own goals, not the overall labor movement.
“I appreciate new people coming in, but initially they just work for their own union,” he said.
He also said he thinks he’s forged better relationships with some Republicans and can get deals that work for their members. He acknowledges that the Civic San Diego agreement, for instance, is not perfect, but thinks it’s the best deal he could get. Kim and Newsom are less compromising right now, he said.
Kim agrees. If she had to find a common thread between the disagreements her organization has had with Kasparian, it’s that he has been too willing to step back from union goals.
“The thing I have heard is that we should take what we can get and be pragmatic,” Kim said. “The opposing side is, if we aren’t getting anything for the community, we should keep fighting. We shouldn’t concede.”
She rejects the idea that ego or credit has anything to do with the dispute.
“If it helps workers have dignity and a pathway to prosperity and safe communities and strong educations for our kids, I do not care who gets credit,” she said. “If Mickey can make those things happen, that’s great.”
She doesn’t think there’s a power struggle going on. There have been some disagreements between labor, a reflection on the fact that the movement is not monolithic.
Newsom rejected any connection between the lawsuits and an ongoing fight among labor groups.
“Yes, we have different opinions on what progressive politics look like,” she said. “What I’m thrown off by is, Mickey is blaming women for allegations that he has problems with women. He’s creating conspiracy theories.”
Neither Newsom nor Kim would comment on the allegations facing Kasparian. The organizations have not taken any positions on the allegations, either.
A Toxic Environment
A handful of other women say UFCW under Kasparian was a workplace defined by bullying, control and paranoia, and that women receive especially harsh treatment.
One person who said Kasparian presided over a toxic work environment is Odette McAdams. She began working at the union in 2000 as an insurance clerk and was fired in 2007 for falsifying her timecard. McAdams denies that she did it.
She believes the real reason she was fired was because her sister worked for a local grocery store and threatened to sue UFCW after a grievance she filed against the store didn’t go anywhere. Kasparian was paranoid that she was helping her sister, McAdams said, and looked for a reason to fire her.
“He was a very insecure man,” she said. “The littlest thing that he doesn’t like, he goes after you. He reprimands you, he bullies you. You feel bullied all the time to do what he wants.”
McAdams said he forced other female workers to break ties with her after she was fired. She said they were forced to volunteer for political causes – phone banking, or canvassing for votes – and they’d be harshly reprimanded if Kasparian didn’t think they spent enough time on it.
“I’m so glad this is coming out,” she said, referring to the allegations of bullying toward women described in Naranjo’s lawsuit. “I tried to get it out before, but I couldn’t get anybody to support me.”
Forcing employees to volunteer, reprimands in front of staff and especially harsh treatment of women are common memories from former staffers.
Debbie Principe worked for UFCW from 2004 to 2013.
She said there was a honeymoon period when Kasparian first took control, but over time it “became clear he was a dictator.”
She said she got so sick of the mistreatment – especially being forced to volunteer – that she reached out to union representatives who told her to document everything. She did, but that never went anywhere.
“He had a general attitude that you could never disagree with him, ever. He treats people very badly, and I’m worried about the people who are still there,” she said.
Sara Garcia started working at UFCW in 2008 and was fired in 2011.
She was told it was because she wasn’t doing her job properly.
“Working under Mickey, one minute you’re on a pedestal and the next you’re on the shit list,” she said. “Where you stand depends on if you’re working on a priority of his. And from my experience, it’s far more directed at women.”
Neither Garcia, Principe nor McAdams said Mickey ever made any sexual advances on them, nor did they ever witness anything similar from him to others. Naranjo, likewise, said she never saw Kasparian make any sexual advances toward women.
Though he wouldn’t respond to allegations in the lawsuits, Kasparian was willing to respond to the allegations regarding the working environment within UFCW.
He said there was just cause for everyone he fired. They were all represented by a union, and if their issues had merit they would have been successful in their grievances.
“There are a handful of people over 13 years who left unhappy,” he said. “That’s true of any business. But I’m happy that everyone had the opportunity to go through the process to pursue a grievance. It would be hypocritical if people who work for a union didn’t have that representation.”
Rosalyn Hackworth worked alongside Kasparian at UFCW as secretary-treasurer until she retired in June. Kasparian said she was his “partner, in every way that you can be in a partnership.”
Hackworth said Kasparian was the one who suggested to the executive board that she, a black woman, be appointed. While in charge, Kasparian shifted UFCW from one dominated by white men to a diverse organization with many women in managerial positions, she said.
“I have never seen him be confrontational to a woman,” she said. “I would not work in an environment where a man was treating women in a demeaning fashion. I never would have put up with that if I had witnessed anything like these allegations, and any person who knows me will tell you I am a vocal person.”