Scab master

The lives and crimes of strike buster Gary Fanger

By A.C. Thompson

The 800 workers who walked out at three San Francisco hospitals Sept. 13 are clearly prepared for an epic standoff. When we dropped by one of the facilities – California Pacific Medical Center's California Street campus – we found the strikers equipped with five bullhorns, two large urns of coffee, two propane-fueled heaters, a gargantuan pile of purple-and-white picket signs, three folding tables, and a large charcoal grill, among other things.

More important, they've got real money behind them, with Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and one of the most powerful people in American labor, pledging to pump a quarter-million dollars a week into the strike.

On the other side stands the Sacramento-based hospital chain Sutter Health, which is equally prepared, having tapped a company called HCSS Inc. to help recruit workers for the duration of the strike.

HCSS is closely associated with a legendary strike buster, an Alameda entrepreneur named Gary W. Fanger, who's played a starring role in countless acrimonious labor disputes over the years. When we started checking the guy out, we discovered him to be a truly remarkable character worthy of some ink: a 52-year-old ex-felon who's been convicted on fraud, forgery, and drug charges and accused of stealing trade secrets and failing to pay child support.

Fanger portrays himself as a decent guy who's made some mistakes over the years. "I did some stupid things back then," he says. But, "I think I've been a contributor to society by employing hundreds of people.... I'm a good boss, a good dad."

You can chart the career of Gary W. Fanger, a bulky man with blond hair, a soft voice, and a passion for sailing, by trolling the court records and criminal databases of California, Colorado, and beyond.

Fanger, who was raised in Los Gatos, first appears in the system in 1981, in Colorado, when Aspen police accused him of writing a bad check for $1,666.66, according to a search-warrant affidavit. At the time, Fanger was running what appears to have been a barter business called Executive Exchange. The case was closed and prosecution deferred when Fanger agreed to repay the money along with a $250 fine and court costs, court records show.

By 1984 he was wearing handcuffs again, accused by Denver cops of second-degree forgery (four counts), criminal impersonation (three counts), and check fraud (a single count). At trial, court reports indicate, he was found guilty on two forgery charges and sentenced to four years in the state pen; he appealed the conviction and was released on bond.

While out on bond, he was popped a third time, for "conspiracy to dispense" cocaine, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Probation records say he pled to a single count of "Criminal Attempt to Possess a Schedule II Controlled Substance," and got another four-year sentence, to be served consecutively with his earlier term. Fanger tells us he did three years in the Colorado pen and used the time behind bars to pursue college degrees.

His probation officer didn't have particularly flattering things to say about him, concluding, in a written report, that he was driven by "greed" and "the opportunity to turn $100,000 into half a million dollars in three to four weeks time." The probation officer was also concerned that Fanger was $25,000 behind on child support payments to an ex-spouse, with whom he'd had four kids.

"It's amazing," says one source who knows Fanger. "Every person around him gets screwed."

But others close to Fanger stick up for him. Shirley King, who's worked with him for almost 20 years, paints him as "wonderful father" and loyal employer.

Whatever his shortcomings, Fanger is undeniably a tremendously ambitious fellow who's started at least 15 businesses, including a basketball league, a roller-hockey league, a collection agency, a health and fitness magazine, and a gaggle of nursing firms.

In a message posted in May to the Web site Scab.org, Fanger detailed his history in the strike-busting business, saying he'd started supplying hospitals with replacement nurses in 1988, and had since worked "over 200 strikes across the country." He enthusiastically described his colleagues as the "A Team" of labor disputes.

Some of his former colleagues, however, have had less flattering words for him. In 1999 a Colorado firm called US Nursing Corporation filed suit against Fanger, accusing him of stealing the company's trade secrets while working as a consultant. According to US Nursing, he made off with the firm's database of nurses, customer lists, contracts, and other proprietary materials, and put them to work when he launched his own company, Travel Nurse Data Bank.

The suit charges Fanger with "fraudulently and improperly" incorporating the company by using the alias Gary Barnes on official paperwork filed with the state of California.

Responding to US Nursing's suit, Fanger claimed he hadn't stolen anything, and the case was eventually settled out of court under terms that remain confidential. "All of those claims are not true; I didn't need to steal a database to start a company," Fanger says, adding that he didn't use a fake name to incorporate the firm, which operated out of an office on Mission Street.

Despite the legal hassles, Fanger unloaded the firm in 2002, selling it to a Florida business for $9.5 million, filings made with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission indicate.

Let's suppose for a moment that US Nursing was right, and Fanger did indee d use a phony name to found his firm. Why would he do that?

Well, it's possible he was trying to shield himself from creditors, since at the same time he was launching his business, an ex-wife was coming after him for $85,000 in unpaid child support bills, an offense for which he was facing a six-month jail sentence in Colorado, according to court documents.

It gets worse. In Santa Clara County, court records show, Fanger owed a jaw-dropping $371,276 in child support to three different women. He finally paid at least one woman, Kristine Franck, more than $130,000 after she filed suit against him in three different jurisdictions over a span of nearly 10 years. "He's not a very nice guy," she says. "He's not trustworthy."

He disputes the $371,276 figure, although he admits, "At one time I was probably a couple hundred thousand down on child support." Fanger, who has sired 11 children, says he's current on all his child support obligations at this point.

Another ex-wife, Emma Lopez, says Fanger "continues to pay my child support and continues to help me and our five-year-old daughter."

After selling his company, Fanger began consulting for another strike-busting outfit, an ever-mutating company known variously as Healthcare Consulting and Staffing Services, Healthcare Contingency Staffing Services, and HCSS Inc. Fanger's sister is the president of the business, which, at least until recently, had an office in San Francisco.

And that brings us to the labor war currently unfolding at Sutter Health's San Francisco hospitals: HCSS, Inc. is providing most of the replacement workers. Fanger says he's been working the strike for HCSS, which has hired more than 100 scab workers to staff the facilities during the open-ended walk-out.

On the picket line, striking workers are, predictably, skeptical about their replacements. "You can't learn a job in a day," says Helen York-Jones, a striker who, under normal circumstances, toils as a cashier in the hospital cafeteria.

HCSS, for its part, clearly has no love for the union, SEIU United Healthcare Workers West. In August HCSS sued for defamation, saying the company had been libeled by a flyer the union put out. (The flyer said, in a massive block letters, "Sutter Hires Drug Dealer," and refered to Fanger as a "deadbeat dad.") The suit is still pending.

So what does all this say about Sutter Health and the ongoing strike? Well, there are a couple of ways to look at it. Perhaps Sutter, a $5 billion corporation with facilities all over the state, should've done a better background check on Fanger and friends before they signed HCSS to a contract in July.

On the other hand, perhaps Gary W. Fanger is the perfect guy for the messy, unpleasant, and all around ugly job of quashing a strike. E-mail A.C. Thompson at acthompson@hushmail.com.