State employee Mariam Noujaim said the tussle with her union started with a question: Why does the state pay for crossing guards to work on a lightly traveled street between two DMV buildings connected by a tunnel?
"I really believe we can help solve our crisis by spending our money on monitoring the waste rather than bribing political and special interest (groups)," Noujaim wrote in an indelicate April 2010 email to her Service Employees International Union Local 1000 representative.
Dissatisfied with the response, she began pushing to find out what the union is spending its money on if it isn't working to ferret out waste.
Noujaim since has spent $18,000 of her own money in a fight to see the union's books, an effort she believes will pay off when she examines detailed business records on Tuesday.
To get to this point, Noujaim has poured money into legal fees, a protest website, fliers, picket signs and rallies including paid nonunion pickets that have accused local President Yvonne Walker and other union leaders of secretly benefiting from union resources.
"If they are proud of how they are spending our money, why not show us?" she reasoned during a recent interview. "Why not be transparent?"
Union spokesman Jim Zamora said Noujaim (pronounced "new gem") is a self-promoter whose politics, personal agenda and disruptive antics have earned Local 1000's suspicion.
"She supported Meg Whitman," Zamora said, referring to the 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate whose name became a virtual epithet among state workers for her promise to cut 40,000 state jobs and tear down public pensions.
The union tried to reach an agreement last year, he said, but Noujaim at the time refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement to keep personal and proprietary information secret.
She's not lacking for confidence. Emails from her personal account close with, "Mariam, The Mighty." Business cards for Noujaim's part-time real estate business depict her flexing Photoshopped biceps that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger proud.
Her movement's "core group," she said, numbers about a dozen co-workers from the Department of Motor Vehicles and a few other departments.
Noujaim did support Whitman but says she believes Local 1000 is perfectly positioned to blow the whistle on government waste. The 95,000 state employees it represents work in virtually every nook and cranny of government.
When she asked the union to look into the cost of the DMV crossing guards, Local 1000 field representative Ted Burnett brushed aside the issue. He asserted in an April 3, 2010, letter that "the only special interests we have are the members' jobs and pension" and that the union already monitors waste.
"Why don't you let us use your zeal to fight the system in a good way," Burnett wrote, by questioning why the state spends tens of billions of dollars on outside contracts for services that state workers could provide. And he warned of dire consequences should Whitman win the election.
Dissatisfied with Burnett's letter and subsequent contacts with Local 1000 officials, Noujaim hired Sacramento labor attorney Steve Bassoff to represent her in her financial-records quest. Bassoff did not respond to phone messages seeking comment for this story.
Bassoff said in a March 2011 letter to Local 1000's top attorney, Paul Harris, that Noujaim was invoking her right as a union member to see how the union "spends her dues and the dues of other members similarly situated," specifically financial records and expense reports for 2009 and 2010.
She picked that time frame because that's when the state imposed three unpaid days per month on state workers, equal to nearly a 14 percent pay cut.
"Let's see how much of a cut (union leaders) took while we were on those furloughs," Noujaim said.
An exchange of testy lawyer letters ensued. The two sides eventually agreed on a June 2011 date for the records inspection. Harris made the appointment conditional on Noujaim signing an agreement that she wouldn't disclose "the confidential and private information contained in the records to any person."
"This appears to be another attempt by SEIU Local 1000 to prevent Ms. Noujaim from reviewing the accounting records," her attorney wrote in a May 2011 letter to the union. She took her case to court.
"Her refusal created a big problem," said Local 1000 spokesman Zamora. "If she had agreed to something early on, this wouldn't have taken as long as it did."
While the legal saga played out, Noujaim's group, dubbed Occupy SEIU, crashed a Local 1000 rally at Cesar Chavez Plaza supporting the national Occupy Wall Street movement. Noujaim, some of her supporters and several paid pickets carried signs at the November event such as, "UNION DUES FOR UNION MEMBERS," and "SEIU OFFICERS ARE THE 1%!"
Noujaim said she paid "$20 or $30" plus gas money for the stand-ins, noting that the union provides transportation and food to protesters at big Local 1000 rallies at the Capitol and elsewhere.
"The difference is that this is my money," she said. "Besides, I'm just doing what they do."
Noujaim's group also has staged small-but-noisy protests at Local 1000's R Street headquarters. Occupy SEIU's rough-hewn website includes video of a band of pickets shouting chants such as, "Yvonne, we want cars! Yvonne, we want money!" in reference to union-paid perks they're convinced Walker has received.
Last May, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly ruled that the union was within its rights to demand protections before releasing its records for Noujaim's review.
In July, she wrote up a list of 17 documents for inspection: bank accounts, checks and electronic funds transactions, payments to SEIU's state and national organizations, emails, redacted W-2 forms and more. Zamora said satisfying the request filled four file boxes.
Barring something unforeseen, Noujaim will see those records Tuesday. She can't make any copies or take any pictures. She can take notes. The judge also allowed her to take along one person.
The union will have monitors on hand to watch it all.