N.Y.U. trustee’s company did hire goons for demo

Theresa Ross Whitaker, a registered nurse who is on strike from a Healthbridge Management nursing home in Stamford, Conn., spoke to fellow strikers and N.Y.U. students at an Oct. 11 protest against HealthBridge and CareOne C.E.O. Daniel Straus, who is an N.Y.U. Law School trustee.  Photo by Sam Spokony

BY SAM SPOKONY  |   A spokesperson for a company owned by Daniel Straus, an N.Y.U. Law School trustee, has now admitted that the company did in fact have “security” attend an anti-Straus demonstration that was led by a student group and the company’s striking union workers.

The students — members of New York University’s Student Labor Action Movement, or SLAM — continue to claim that during their protest against Straus on Sept. 11, the supposed security (which they instead derided as a group of “anti-union thugs”) harassed them with threats of violence and homophobic slurs.

Last week, SLAM announced it had found evidence apparently revealing that an indirect associate of Straus’s CareOne nursing home company was involved in hiring the alleged thugs, one of whom reportedly threatened a student protester by saying, “Either you’re gonna leave by yourself or you’re gonna be carried out.”

An N.Y.U. spokesperson declined to answer this reporter’s question of whether the university will investigate the students’ claims regarding Straus’s involvement in the matter.

“The university is not a party to this labor dispute, [and] has no input into how either side is managing its PR campaigns to convey its views,” the spokesperson wrote in an e-mailed statement, while stressing that the principle of peaceful and lawful protest is “crucially important” at N.Y.U.

“And we caution all parties to take the steps necessary to ensure that [that principle] is upheld and to avoid any actions that might be seen to undermine it,” the statement added.

Straus has served on the Executive Committee of N.Y.U. Law School’s board of trustees since 1998, and is one of the school’s major donors. In 2009, he endowed the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice, at 22 Washington Square North, with an ongoing annual gift of $1.25 million.

Straus is also an owner of both the CareOne and Healthbridge Management companies, which own dozens of nursing homes in New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Employees of CareOne and Healthbridge — all members of the 1199 Service Employees International Union, also known as United Healthcare Workers East — have been on strike for months, some for more than a year. The workers maintain that Straus dealt unfairly by asking the union to sign a contract that eliminated six paid sick days and a week of vacation for many workers, froze pensions and required many workers to pay at least $6,000 more per year for family healthcare coverage.

SLAM has since joined the S.E.I.U. workers in their protests against Straus outside N.Y.U. buildings, mainly around Washington Square, where several of the university’s Law School buildings are located.

The students and workers claim that their Sept. 11 protest was disrupted by a group of about 25 “anti-union thugs” disguised as counter-protesters, who they say harassed protesters with threats of violence and homophobic slurs.

SLAM found Internet evidence linking the alleged thugs to Mark Petrozzella, a reality TV personality with connections to the C.E.O. of National Labor Consultants, a Staten Island consulting firm that was hired by CareOne earlier this year. Petrozzella apparently facilitated the hiring of counter-protesters — the same people the CareOne spokesperson referred to as a security team — by posting a job advertisement on his Facebook page on Sept. 6.

Petrozzella’s online post stated that any men and women who applied would be paid $100 cash to “work” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sept. 11, with transportation provided and “no manual labor.”

The students made a YouTube video of their Sept. 11 protest that apparently shows Petrozzella to be in attendance, alongside friends of his who took photos and later posted them on Facebook. In the video, the counter-protesters are shown taunting and verbally threatening a SLAM member who was handing out leaflets outside the opening reception at the Straus Institute.

The students also claim they saw Petrozzella and several of his cronies at another SLAM rally on Sept. 19, at which they say he videotaped the protesters before sneaking away.

Tim Hodges, a CareOne spokesperson, originally denied the company’s involvement in hiring the alleged thugs.

“As to the absurd accusation that our company hired people to intimidate demonstrators at the Sept. 11 rally, nothing could be further from the truth,” Hodges wrote in a Sept. 19 statement to this newspaper. He also claimed, at that time, that the only people present at the rally besides students and S.E.I.U. members were other legitimate employees of CareOne and Healthbridge, who Hodges said had come to show their support for Straus.

But on Monday, after this newspaper informed him of SLAM’s evidence linking Petrozzella — and, indirectly, Straus — to the hiring of the counter-protesters, Hodges reversed course and said that CareOne and HealthBridge had in fact brought “security” to the Sept. 11 protest.

“Our experience has been that strikers have been less than respectful to the neighborhoods in which they have picketed,” Hodges wrote in an e-mailed statement. “Our concern that they would bring this behavior to N.Y.U., coupled with uneasiness about the ongoing ruthless S.E.I.U. tactics and the actions of some within the S.E.I.U., led us to believe that it was prudent to have security for the HealthBridge and CareOne employees exercising their right to free speech in a counter-protest.”

SLAM continues to call for N.Y.U. President John Sexton and Law School Dean Richard Revesz to investigate SLAM’s claims against Straus and to pressure him to deal fairly with his workers.

An N.Y.U. spokesperson stressed that “the students’ right to express their views peacefully and without fear of intimidation must be unambiguously respected,” but did not address whether the university would investigate the alleged harassment of protesters or take any other action at this time.

In a Sept. 19 statement, an N.Y.U. Law School spokesperson called Straus an “upright and honorable person,” but there was no direct mention of Straus in the statement the university sent to this newspaper on Monday.

“It’s clear that we’re getting to [Straus], because he’s had to respond so frequently,” said Caitlin MacLaren, a SLAM member who helped organize the group’s most recent protest alongside S.E.I.U. outside the Law School board of trustees meeting on Oct. 11. “The fact that [CareOne and HealthBridge] care enough to send people to our school and threaten students just shows that all of this actually has an impact. But I think it’s hard for them to believe that students actually care about this.”

On Sept. 26 the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that investigates unfair labor practices, sided with the striking workers and affirmed a judge’s earlier ruling that ordered CareOne to rehire the workers under their previous contract and compensate them for lost wages. But the board’s order is not self-enforcing, and the N.L.R.B. will have to persuade a federal court to enforce that order.

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