Union Reverses Position on Calif. Guard Leadership

California Guard's largest union questions General's leadership following NBC Bay Area, KNBC-TV joint investigation

The California National Guard’s largest union is questioning the leadership of the organization’s highest ranking member, Adjutant General David Baldwin, following a series of investigations by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit and KNBC-TV in Los Angeles.

Officials from the National Guard District Council of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents civilian technicians working fulltime in the Guard, publicly endorsed  Baldwin at his confirmation hearing less than a year ago. In February union leaders sent letters to members of the senate rules committee endorsing Gov. Jerry Brown’s choice to lead the Guard.

Almost a year later, Ben Banchs, LIUNA National Guard District Council's decision maker and business manager has reversed his organization’s position.

“The reason I am here is it’s the right thing to do,” Banchs said. “The reason I am here is your story is the right thing to do. This has to be told.”

He was referring to investigations he watched on NBC Bay Area News and KNBC.

Banchs admits that speaking out may hurt his union’s ongoing contract negotiations with the Guard’s leadership. He is talking to NBC Bay Area and KNBC-TV after watching investigations by the television stations and hearing members of the California Guard point to a culture where they say complaints of harassment, retaliation and racism are not properly handled. Banchs says he saw it in the reports and has heard it from his union members.

“It’s not necessarily that they tolerate it, but they don’t address it,” Banchs said. “There is still a culture of retaliation. There is still a culture of fear out there.”

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules Committee last year, Baldwin made a promise to change the culture of the organization.

“At this point he has definitely not kept the promise,” Banchs said. “And if you need any evidence all you need to do is look at the people you have spoken with.”

The NBC Bay Area and KNBC investigations included interviews with more than two dozen members of the Guard. Some happened off-camera because of fears of retaliation. Others told their stories in front of the cameras.

“I just can’t believe that the chain of command just can’t take care of people,” said Master Sergeant Jessica Brown, who claimed her superiors failed to report a sexual assault she says happened to her in a Las Vegas hotel room during a training mission in 2007.

Staff Sergeant Ann Oluwadare claims the Guard’s leadership failed to properly address an act of racism directed at her while she worked at the Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters in Sacramento in 2010.

“They would like to keep this a dirty little secret,” Oluwadare said. “They would like to keep it right there in the closet with all the other skeletons.”

During a group interview with current and former members of the California National Guard in October, NBC Bay Area’s Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski asked if Baldwin kept his promise to fix problems of racism, sexual harassment and retaliation. The group replied with a resounding no.

“Since this change of leadership, has the problem been cleaned up?” Kovaleski asked.

“No,” the group answered.

“It’s gotten worse,” one Guard member added.

Baldwin and top leaders of the California National Guard continue to decline on-camera interview requests, citing ongoing negotiations with the union. But for the first time leaders issued a written response addressing the attacks on the Guard’s culture:

"Under the direction of Maj. Gen. Baldwin, the California National Guard has worked tirelessly in establishing a positive working relationship with our unions. Since his appointment as the state's Adjutant General, he and his staff have created an open dialogue with all unions that represent our employees and service members, viewing them as partners in the ongoing effort to improve the cultural climate of the California National Guard.

"Toward that end, Maj. Gen. Baldwin has implemented labor management councils to ensure he and his command team remain proactive in addressing our service members' and employees' concerns. The current California National Guard leadership has devoted more time and energy to guarantee the success of our union members than all preceding command teams.

But more than 18 months after Gov. Brown appointed Baldwin and nearly a year after the general promised to fix the guard’s culture, the union’s leadership says Baldwin has failed.

“In response to your investigative report he has asked [the National Guard Bureau] once more to come down and they are not going to come down for another three months,” Banchs said. “So how many investigations does General Baldwin need to tell him the obvious—that there are problems within the organization.”

When asked to grade Baldwin’s performance over the past 18 months Banchs answer was a "D," adding, “I don’t even think its average.”

In its written statement the Guard also wrote:

"It’s both unfortunate and ill-timed that Mr. Banchs feels the need to disparage the military department with specious allegations during this period of open contract negotiations, when all involved parties should instead be focused on securing the best possible working conditions for our service members and employees.  Regardless of Mr. Banchs comments, Maj. Gen. Baldwin has instructed his negotiation team to continue working diligently with the union to come up with an innovative contract that is fair to both sides.”

Banchs says his comments have nothing to do with the ongoing contract discussions.

Click here to watch Part 1 of "Behind the Gates of the Guard." Click here to watch Part 2.

If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit email theunit@nbcbayarea.com or call 888-996-8477.

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