OAKLAND, CA: A local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has issued a letter to the president of the University of California (UC) demanding the termination of their contract with Hill & Knowlton, which has a history of representing the tobacco industry.
AFSCME has 1.4 million members nationwide in the service and healthcare sectors and advocates for healthcare reform and public policy. Local 3299, which sent the letter along with other activists, represents UC employees, many of whom are nurses at the University's five medical centers. The union only discovered UC's relationship with H&K in the last two weeks. Members of the California government were included on the letter.
"To have funds potentially diverted to a public relations agency with [the] track record of H&K would be truly outrageous in our mind," said William Schlitz, political and communications director of AFSCME Local 3299.
Following a threatened strike during labor negotiations with the California Nurses Association in 2005, UC felt that communications help was necessary and brought on H&K.
"[H&K] has been invaluable in helping us to keep our employees and the general public educated about UC labor negotiations and all UC does as an employer to recognize and reward employees," said a UC spokesperson, Peter Schwartz via email.
H&K's work for the tobacco industry began in the 1950s to counter growing evidence that tobacco was harmful.
Mark Thorne, EVP and COO of H&K issued the following statement via email to PRWeek:
"The criticism of H&K lodged by the coalition of unions is directed to work done more than 50 years ago. While we disagree that H&K ever was engaged in any improper conduct, our current firm policy is that we will not provide services in any way related to tobacco, anywhere in the world."
Local 3299 plans to take the issue to the state legislature if ties aren't severed.