Sunday, December 17, 2006

Confronting Corruption in Labor Unions -- conference audio online

From the AUD website:

"On October 14th, 2006 AUD held a one-day conference
to assess fifty years of efforts by unionists and government agencies to drive out the mob and rid unions of corruption. The conference was held at the City University of New York and co-sponsored by the Center for Urban Research, and Building Bridges. Thanks to Ken Nash of Building Bridges, over the next month or two, we will post the complete audio.

"This conference presented a sometimes upbeat but often grim portrayal of the struggle against corruption. Eleven speakers shared their experiences and ideas with an audience of about 90 people, some coming from as far away as Ohio, Illinois, and even Alaska.

"We welcome feedback and encourage you to discuss the ideas and perspectives presented here in union forums, lists and blogs, both official and rank-and-file. Please let us know about discussions or threads on your site and we will post a link on this page."

Latest Audio: Judith Schneider, introducing the conference and speakers; Herman Benson on corruption and democracy; James Jacobs on the history of government trusteeships.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Benson challenges NYC Central Labor Council

In an interview broadcast on Building Bridges: your Community-Labor Report, Herman Benson discusses the charges against New York City Central Labor Council President Brian McLaughlin, and issues a challenge to the Council's leaders: if you are serious about fighting union corruption, why not conduct hearings into two prominent cases of union corruption?

You can hear the interview, (plus an interesting piece on the Coalition of Imokalee Workers), here.

Thanks to Ken Nash and Mimi Rosenberg.

--Matt Noyes

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Where are those missing AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Codes?

Brian McLaughlin, still President of the NYC AFL-CIO Central Labor Council but now on unpaid leave of absence, has been arrested on federal charges of stealing a few million dollars from the council itself, from his IBEW Local 3, and from assorted political committees. These are familiar sources of illicit take. But from the Queens Little League! That’s going too far. It reminds one of Dave Beck, former Teamster international president, who defrauded his friend’s widow out of her insurance money. When news of the pending charges first broke, McLaughlin voluntarily took a six-month leave of absence from his job at the council, a paid leave of absence. But upon his arrest, the council was shocked, shocked, so shocked that it suspended his paid leave.

Ed Ott, the council’s acting executive director who is in line to replace McLaughlin, has learned something from the shocking facts. The Times reports “he planned to reach out to immigrant workers” and “to help veterans.” It’s hard to believe that the labor movement somehow requires the theft of millions of dollars by one of its top leaders to spur it along the path of progressive social action.

Denis Hughes, who is president of the state federation of labor and chairs the NYC council’s executive committee, proposes measures that are at least relevant to the subject. For one thing he told the Times, he proposes “ethics seminars for state and city leaders.” It is depressing to learn that labor leaders must be taught that it’s not nice to steal union money and certainly not from Little Leagues.

He also says, “We want to have some ethical practices and procedures that make some sense.” Where has he been? The AFL-CIO is already overloaded with Ethical Practices Codes. The first comprehensive AFL-CIO code was adopted back in 1957 and then went through several editions. Enforcement machinery was included in the AFL-CIO constitution. But directly to the point, in 1995 a supplementary code was adopted that applied specifically to city and state labor councils and their officers, like McLaughlin. That code should not have gone unnoticed, because it was debated at the AFL-CIO convention in 1995 which directed the executive council to strengthen implementation of the unimplemented codes already on the books. If Mr. Hughes can’t find a copy he can get it from Jon Hiatt, chief AFL-CIO counsel, which is where we got it.

How can it be that McLaughlin might have been stealing ecumenically from anything anywhere that was not welded down? Can it possibly be that no one anywhere knew, or even suspected? The greatest likelihood is everyone feared to speak out or even mention the subject for fear of retaliation.

Ed Ott told the New York Times, “I’ve always been willing to talk about corruption in the labor movement.” Which may be true. But we are not aware of any public occasion on which he actually yielded to that personal impulse. We don’t suggest that he knew anything about McLaughlin’s derelictions. But if he had spoken out vigorously against corruption, even as an abstract generality, while McLaughlin was still active in power as council president, does Ott imagine he would still be holding his lofty council post? He would have been passed over long ago as the kind of irresponsible, undependable person that no one in power could trust.

Take McLaughlin’s power base, IBEW Local 3, from which he seems to be accused of stealing money. Do you imagine that anyone would dare to suggest that their lofty leader might have been guilty of misdeeds? Most construction unions maintain hiring halls which are clearly union hiring halls and are subject to regulation by the National Labor Relations Board which gives at least certain minimal protection to workers against arbitrary treatment by their union officials. IBEW Local 3, however, is uniquely different; its hall masquerades as a joint industry hall and therefore is immune to NLRB control. Local 3 electricians have no recourse against favoritism or discrimination in the hall. At the mercy of the McLaughlin establishment, are they likely to complain against him or any officials?

And so all this talk about the need for codes, and training seminars, and progressive programs for oppressed workers is just a way to pass the time until the whole embarrassing thing is forgotten until the next one.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bureaucratizers and super bureaucratizers


The Machinists union (AFL-CIO) seems on the road to becoming a copycat super-bureaucratizer, taking as its model the Carpenters union (Change to Win), which is showing all the others how to get around federal law and deprive members of their right to elect union officers.

Members tell the Association for Union Democracy that when IAM District Lodge 747 in California was first established around 2001 by the merger of two other districts, its bylaws provided for the election of the top officer of Directing Business Manager (DBM) by membership vote. In IAM districts, DBMs were traditionally elected by the membership. Apparently that is about to change. Because District Lodge 747 was now technically a “new” district, members were not permitted to vote; the DBM was appointed by the IAM international office. Members never got the chance to vote, because before the term of the appointed DBM expired, the international trusteed the district.

When the international lifted the trusteeship after 18 months, members discovered that they were presented by new bylaws, summarily imposed by the international. The right of members to elect had been eliminated. From now on, only delegates will select the DBM. A portent of things to come in the IAM. A moral victory for the Change to Win bureaucratizers.

Service Employees

Meanwhile, Andy Stern, the practical and ideological mentor of Change to Win, reaches out to grasp the hands of the CEOs of America’s corporate leaders. In a piece written for the Wall Street Journal on July 17, he writes:

“Today I sent a letter to every CEO in the Fortune 500 asking them to make health care the national priority….Our union members ---your employees--- will work with you. The old idea that business and labor can’t work together for the common good is as outdated as lifetime jobs. The Service Employees International Union is the largest health-care union in the country…. We know health care. You know business. Together, let’s build a new 21st-century economy.”

As he notes, “The employer-based system of health care is over.” It may be an effective tactic, with great PR advantages, to try to induce the rulers of corporate America to abandon any exclusive responsibility for health care ---bound to be attractive to them--- and to join in formulating a new plan to socialize the costs of “a universal system that provides affordable coverage.”

But there are complications.

Some day in that utopian future, in happier times, labor and management may collaborate harmoniously in building an economy that justly serves all. The trouble is that we still live in a harsher world where a central problem for the labor movement is to end the dominance of federal government by those who favor the interests of the corporate rich, represented and symbolized by the Fortune 500. The need is to shape national policy on taxes so that the costs of social needs, like health care, are borne in just proportion by those who can best afford the burden. For that, we need a labor movement that can inspire its own members, rally the majority of people, and change the balance of power in the nation. The big question is: Can a bureaucratically centralized labor movement projected by Change to Win and now being copied by the IAM effectively serve that need? What do you think?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The ABD’s of unionism: Apathy, Bureaucracy, and Democracy

It is becoming fashionable, even among some activists and labor-oriented intellectuals, to derogate internal union democracy as an impediment to the great cause of reorienting and rebuilding the labor movement.

“…[T]he crusade for union democracy,” writes one eminent advocate of a labor-intellectual alliance, “seems interminable and interminably futile.” Andy Stern writes, “Workers want their lives to be changed. They want strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual, historical, mythical democracy.” And so the Change to Win Coalition, which he leads, proposes to reorganize the labor movement on a new basis, without concern for the rights of workers inside their unions. Stephen Lerner renders the thought deeper: “Considering union democracy as only a question of how a union is governed is too narrow….If only 10% of workers in an industry are unionized, it is impossible to have real union democracy because 90% are excluded.”

If there was no real interest in union democracy, why would you need so many niggling rules to suppress it? Why those meeting attendance rules which effectively exclude over 90% of union members from running for office? Why those tricky long, continuous good standing requirements which disqualify longtime union activists? Why impose burdensome and near-impossible petition gathering quotas on aspiring candidates? Why try to restrict independent access to the internet and websites? Why limit the right of observers to watch the ballot count? Why resist informing members of their democratic rights under federal law? Why eliminate the direct election of union officers? Why, if no one cares or listens, bother to use control over union hiring halls to starve out independent-minded workers who speak their minds. Why, in summary, if there is so little interest in union democracy, are so many union leaders afraid of it?

One radical, a relentless critic of the modern labor movement, dismisses the whole idea of “union democracy” as a delusion and ridicules reformers who would raise it as a demand in their unions. “[A]pathy,” he writes, "reigns too widely and a connected stratum of members simply delivers their votes in exchange for jobs and job security.” In support of that notion, he quotes C. Wright Mills, “Democracy within the unions, as within the nation as a whole, is usually a democracy of machine politics imposed upon a mass of apathetic members.”

Those who minimize the importance of democracy because members are apathetic have matters upside down. Democracy is especially important precisely where there is apathy.

In any social institution involving millions of people, and the labor movement is one such institution, the vast majority is preoccupied with the tough tasks of daily life: finding a way to earn a living, a good place to, live, getting and keeping a marriage, raising and educating children and keeping them off drugs, starting the car on a cold winter day, the rent and mortgage, those aching teeth and sprained ankles.

Overwhelmed by what deep-thinkers might consider these trivial pursuits, they‘re forced to neglect other important but less pressing matters, like union affairs. That is, they tend to become “apathetic.” Where there is a robust democracy, an activist, vociferous, gadfly minority can be available to shake up that majority and force them to face up to the critical issues of the moment. That is, democracy is an indispensable means to overcome apathy.

Those union officials, even those who are contemptuous of others who speak of “union democracy” are fully aware of all this. When they see fit to move an “apathetic” membership, they will utilize the standard tools of democracy. They orate at length to induce members to come out and vote on election day, to raise their dues, to vote to strike or not, to adopt a contract. They fill the pages of their captive union newspapers with exhortation on the selected subjects of the day. Come out on Labor Day, with me at the head of the parade! They are not exactly inveterate enemies of the idea of democracy. They simply feel more secure when they, themselves, enjoy a monopoly of those democratic rights. They get nervous when it is available independently to other union members not under their control.

In our labor movement, there are thousands of active, loyal unionists, and potentially many thousands more, independent-minded, conscious of their rights as Americans, insistent on dignified treatment in their union and on the job. Union democracy is one means of releasing that spirit as an energizing force to help overcome “apathy” in the labor movement.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Assessing a half century of union reform

A discussion piece by Herman Benson (from the May/June 2006 issue of Union Democracy Review)

After decades of union reform effort, aimed at combating corruption, ousting organized crime, and strengthening internal union democracy, where are we?

In his book, "Mobsters, Unions, and Feds," James B. Jacobs, NYU law professor, assesses the results of the monitorships imposed by federal law enforcement authorities over unions dominated by corrupt officials, unions which were heavily infiltrated by organized crime. The government's campaign against racketeers in unions opened in 1982 with a successful federal suit under the RICO statute against Teamsters Local 560, then controlled by Tony Provenzano for the Genovese crime family. Over the years, more than 20 similar actions followed. Each led to some measure of federal control aimed at ousting the mob. A current Justice Department complaint against the International Longshoremen's Association makes clear that the campaign continues.

More than 20 years before the government move against Local 560, prompted by the adoption in 1959 of the LMRDA, which provided support in federal law for rights of members in their unions, insurgent movements, led by rank and filers and a few leaders, sprang to life in the labor movement demanding democratic reforms, an end to corruption, fair job referrals from union hiring halls. A substantial part of that record is preserved in two periodicals: Union Democracy in Action and Union Democracy Review and summarized in my own book, "Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers." As UDR readers know, movements for reform within the labor movement continue to this day, newly encouraged by easy access to the internet.

We now look back at nearly a half century of intensive reform activity, by government and by unionists. It all began before most of our current readers were born. Has it been a success and to what extent? What's next?

Government drive against mob in unions

Despite mixed results, federal authorities can point to a few notable achievements. Organized crime was pried loose from control over the international offices of the Laborers, the Hotel Employees, and the Teamsters. In Teamsters Local 560, mob domination was replaced by a new leadership recruited from the rank and file. But most cases ended inclusively; suspect forces still hold power or remain as an overhanging threat. In one case at least, Pennsylvania Roofers Local 30, federal control ended in disaster; a corrupt old gang remained in power and was allowed to threaten opponents and drive them out of the union and out of the industry. A few years later, in 2005 (after Jacobs had completed his book) the international imposed a trusteeship and removed all officers; they had brought the union, its pension fund, and its welfare fund to the point of bankruptcy; they were allowing contractors to hire nonunion workers. There have been battle victories but no Big Success in the war. Organized crime and corruption remain as major evils, poisoning our labor movement.

Summing up his estimate of the outcome of 20 federal monitorships over the previous 20 years, Jacobs writes:

"…. it has fallen seriously short of its full potential. The majority of trusteeships have not produced regime change. Many have not produced a single fair, much less competitive election. The majority have probably not completely purged organized crime's influence from the union….Only three of the hard-fought RICO trusteeships can be judged to have been completely successful, for many of the others, it is still too early to say. Some…must be considered complete failures. The Cosa Nostra crime families are much weaker … but they continue to be a presence in most of the cities where they have existed…."

Reform insurgency

After 50 years of insurgency, running through the labor movement, making an impact on most major American unions, with their rights newly protected by federal law, reform movements forced the union establishment to make concessions to the principles and even to the practice of union democracy. The victory of the Miners for Democracy overturned a murderous regime in the Miners union, gave the union a new democratic constitution, ended generations trusteeships over the union districts, and eased the way of Rich Trumka as secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

In the Teamsters union, the setback of organized crime in 1991, the victory of Ron Carey, and the rising influence of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union marked the high point in the movement for reform. Carey's victory changed the balance of power in the AFL-CIO and made possible the election of John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president. His ascendancy, despite the later setback for Teamster reform, opened a new stage in the history of the American labor movement. Reform battles legitimized union democracy, which is generally honored as a principle even where it is violated in practice.

However, despite the upsurge of union insurgency and despite the immense expenditure of federal money and manpower which did weaken the mob, there have been only a few instances where suspect union administrations have been overturned and then replaced by organized democratic reform movements. There have been a few exceptions: like the Miners; Musicians; Marine Engineers; Masters, Mates, and Pilots. More complicated, in the Teamsters. But they remain exceptions. Borrowing modern war-related terminology; There have been few major "regime changes."

And so corruption and mob infiltration remain, weakening the labor movement as it tries to rally public support for its organizing campaigns, and, most decisive, to win political support to change the balance of power in America. The problem is not merely "pockets of corruption" but a major disease, chronic and obtrusive. For proof, one need only read Jacobs and study the report of Edwin Stier on his aborted campaign to create a self-reform program for the Teamsters union.

Even if it were proper and convenient to shrug it all off as an embarrassment, in the hope that no one will notice, labor's adversaries will not permit it. Corruption undermines the labor movement; a campaign against it is part of the battle to strengthen the labor movement.

Why after all this time and trouble by government and by union reformers, and despite their achievements, is the record so inconclusive?

The limits of government action

The power of the government to effect change, despite its enormous power, is limited; that truism surely applies to its campaign against rackets in unions, mainly because it relies for execution essentially upon lawyers, prosecutors, former FBI agents, and assorted other law enforcement personnel.

Bolstered by all the resources of government and the power of the RICO act, federal attorneys can compose complaints and indictments against racket-influenced unions so persuasive that judges agree to impose federal monitorships or trusteeships over locals and internationals, Once government prosecutors have established a measure of control, to enforce their authority and back up any program of reform, they are armed with FBI surveillance powers, and the power of subpoena, the threat of fines and jail sentences. and the threat of contempt of court citations. These are powerful enforcement weapons, not available to union reformers or even to union leaders who would like to act against the mob.

The potential for government action against racketeers is so sweeping that union officials charged with corruption are ready to 'voluntarily' accept limited measures of government control in order to avoid trial and ward off even more drastic measures imposed by a federal judge. So it was that the Laborers, the Hotel Employees, and the Teamsters avoided total government trusteeship and submitted to some reforms. Even in the ILA, which so far has avoided court control over the international, the rank and file Workers Coalition has been able to function in a union where insurgency once meant death.

Those 20 years of federal action against labor racketeers have been good for the labor movement and made life more tolerable for independent-minded unionists.

But these were the big cases, open to close public scrutiny. However, as Jacobs concludes, the results of all those years and all that effort have been mixed. More bluntly, disappointing.

The prosecutors, lawyers, and appointed monitors have the power; they may be experienced in dealing with crooks, but they lack the knowledge and ability needed to reform a union. Some get nowhere because they have no idea that they must aim to replace a corrupted union with a good democratic effective union. Others have the will but don't know the way; without union experience, they don't know the good guys from the bad; they fail to encourage members to become union activists; they can't develop a new leadership to replace the old.

Usually they look for a fast cheap fix. But where rackets have been in control for decades, no union can be rescued in just a few months. Racketeers solidify their own base of support by intimidating and demoralizing all others. It takes time, resources, and union skills to pry them loose. The two most effective RICO suits were long and hard: It took 13 years before the Local 560 trusteeship could be lifted. After 18 years and with the existence of a dedicated reform opposition, a federal judge and his appointees are still needed to watch over the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The limits of rank and file reform

For insurgents, a war against the mob is no do-it-yourself operation. They need help.

Citizens anywhere, armed or unarmed, rely on the power of government to combat organized crime; it is no different when racketeers wear a union label. All the obstacles that face insurgents in opposing any administration regime are multiplied overwhelmingly in mobbed up unions. Incumbents normally enjoy the advantage of greater resources: a permanently organized political machine, full time officers and staffers, access to the membership and union publications, control over the election and disciplinary apparatus, and more. Rigorously centralized bureaucratic unions provide no space where critics can develop the skills necessary for an alternative leadership.

Where racketeers are entrenched, all the normal advantages of incumbency are backed up by threats of violence and actual physical assaults, occasionally even murder. With the tolerance, even the direct assistance, of consenting employers, the mob blacklists stubborn opponents, starves them out by denying them work, and drives them out of the industry. For all these reasons, union reformers, however courageous, dedicated, and self-sacrificing, need the help of law enforcement authorities to oust the mob from their unions.

Greatest successes where two forces combine

If reformers need government support, government needs active help from union reformers; the greatest successes ---perhaps the only really major successes--- have been achieved when the authority of government and the power of reform insurgency have combined in mutual support in the war against thugs and mobsters. In the United Mine Workers, after a federal court armed insurgents with the tools of democracy and fair elections, the Miners for Democracy movement was able to get rid of a murderous officialdom and write a new democratic union constitution.

In the Teamsters union, court-appointed monitors warded off racketeers and presided over the first direct membership election of top officers in the union's history. With their rights protected by federal authorities, insurgents took control of the union's national office and elected Ron Carey as president. Even after Carey's defeat, still under the umbrella protection of federal monitors, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union has transformed itself from a small band of dedicated reformers into a formidable movement in opposition to the old guard. On a smaller scale in Teamsters Local 560, federal trustee Ed Stier wrested control of the union from the Genovese crime family; he succeeded because he understood the need to encourage a new leadership to come forward from the ranks and recruited a Teamster member, a former staffer, to help him run the union while under trusteeship.

Affirmative action to recruit reformers

Getting rid of racketeers and replacing them with a genuine union leadership is a tough job, really tough. Active or retired, those prosecutors, attorneys, and assemblage of federal agents simply cannot do it by themselves. The problem is that responsible federal reps who hope to get the job done are all lawyers themselves and are comfortable only with other lawyers. They need the help of union reformers at all levels. But where to find them? They need a new kind of affirmative action program to recruit union activists. Announce the need! Advertise! They are there: associates of the Association for Union Democracy; supporters of Labor Notes; and hundreds of others with union experience.

For federal authorities, it is a matter of recognizing a need and making a decision. Many union reformers, however, will be skeptical. "You can't trust the government," they will say, which is probably true but that simple truth is not a dependable guide to action. Nobody fully trusts the government. For Republicans, government and Democrats are the problem. Democrats don't trust Republicans. The FBI doesn't trust the CIA and vice versa. Half of Congress and a big part of the population do not trust the President. The State Department often doesn't trust the Pentagon. Nobody trusts the IRS. And so it goes. Government under a democratic system gets to be complex; in this intricate labyrinth of distrust, we decide how best to do what's right. It will be said, "Government intervention will undercut unions." For the unalloyed right wing, that may be quite true. But it is not true of the Office of Labor Management Standards which enforces the LMRDA. It is not true of the government action against racketeers in unions under the RICO suit.

Federal action against racketeers in unions opens the way for change. Even while remaining skeptical of government, union reformers should be alert to seize the opportunity.

Note: In submitting this subject for discussion, these comments are not intended to discuss once again the broader questions of workers' rights in their unions. Union democracy remains embattled even in unions with good, honest, but benignly bureaucratic leaders. That's another matter. It is relevant here essentially because it can be an effective instrument for combating corruption.

See also "The RICO Trusteeships after Twenty Years: A Progress Report," by James B. Jacobs, Eileen M. Cunningham, and Kimberly Friday

Monday, June 12, 2006

Don Taylor and Herman Benson on union democracy and Change to Win

Don Taylor is Education Coordinator for SEIU Local 1984 in Concord, NH, and teaches in the Political Science department at the University of New Hampshire. He has been an AUD supporter since 1997. AUD recently published a piece Taylor wrote for the March 2006 issue of Yankee Radical, the newsletter of the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, along with a reply by Herman Benson.

From Taylor's piece:
"...Think back to the great struggles in the automotive industry in the 1930s. How different would the outcome have been if the General Motors workers in Cleveland, at Detroit's Fisher Plant No. 2, and at Fisher No. 1 in Flint had been split between different unions? The outcome could not have been the same, and the history of the labor movement would be markedly different. Yet, for some reason, many in the labor movement accept today's atomized status quo. Some even applaud it-like the folks at Union Democracy Review, who seem to think workers' ability to change between unions like trading in an old car for a new one is more important than building power."

From Benson's reply:
"...Don Taylor allows his admirable hopes to overwhelm any sense of reality. His disenchantment with Sweeney and the AFL-CIO seems rooted in his feelings about the cold war, rigid anti-communism, business unionism, and other evils of a "nakedly aggressive monopoly capitalism." But it is an illusion to dream that a new labor coalition of the Teamsters under Hoffa, the Carpenters, the Laborers, and the Food Workers will deliver something closer to his heart's desire. He imagines it; they haven't even made the promise. In these times, when there is so little to cheer about, some radicals grasp at straws. The danger is that, in a desperate search for reassuring signs, they are being taken in by a new ideology of super-centralized bureaucratic labor unionism."

Read the pieces here.

From Review of Poor Workers' Unions, by Vanessa Tait

"...Take one square mile of working people's homes, poor or not, at the core of any metropolitan center. Here you can find more injustice, more exploitation, and more misery than can be overcome by any private organizations in a lifetime of devotion. Into this thicket of inequity come small bands of dedicated idealists inspired by visions of a more just society. They undertake the responsibility of fighting for the rights of those at the bottom, those who are ignored by other organizations which are unable or unwilling to undertake the burden, or even ignorant of the needs of those below.

"These pioneers enter boldly where others will not tread; they lead a virtual guerrilla war against injustice, battling here, battling there, wherever opportunities open. They sometimes win; they often lose; even the victories often prove ephemeral. But even in defeat they can win a moral victory as society slowly is sensitized to the need. They help keep the nation's democracy alive..."

Read more

Benson Wins “Lifetime Troublemaker” Award

Herman Benson, AUD co-founder, received a “Lifetime Troublemaker” award at the Labor Notes conference “Building Solidarity From Below” in Dearborn, MI, May 5-7. According to Labor Notes, “These awards are intended to recognize grassroots activists whose efforts may not have made headlines, but have contributed to the struggle for union democracy and workplace justice.”

Benson’s acceptance speech (listen here):

“I never saw myself exactly as a troublemaker but rather as one among many trying to get rid of the world's troubles. As they say, however, it takes one to catch one. If your assemblage of the world's top expert troublemakers agrees that I fit properly among them, I must accept the parahonor with thanks. A word about my old friend Erwin Baur who helped steer me toward one of the best decisions of my life: becoming a machinist and toolmaker. When he was president of a Steel local in the late thirties, right after the defeat in Little Steel, when times were real bad, he convinced his members to yield to a wage cut rather than risk a hopeless strike. I was there. It taught me that a good troublemaker must sometimes see trouble ahead and lead people away from it. Thanks for the tribute to three representatives of a fast-dwindling generation. Now it's up to you.”

(Editor’s note: AUD friends Erwin Baur and Harry Kelber also received “Lifetime Troublemaker” awards.)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

For Democracy! But not on our block!

Labor union leaders are leading the charge for 400 proposals to improve democratic procedures in organizations. Sadly, however, these proposed reforms are not for workers in their unions but only for stockholders in their corporations. Labor leaders are militantly in support of the right of stockholders to greater control over the executive officers of corporations. Dan Fisher tells the story in Forbes magazine.

In the vanguard of the battle for stockholders democratic rights is the Carpenters union. According to Fisher, it submits around 80 to 100 stockholder reform proposals every year. He writes, “The union’s director of corporate affairs, Ed Durkin, said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News that corporate directors need to be more accountable to shareholders. ‘If they know they have to get elected, that it not a foregone conclusion, then boards become better-functioning entities,’ Durkin said.”

Seems obvious? But the Carpenters union, which presses so ardently for the right of stockholders to keep corporate directors accountable, has reorganized itself to insulate its regional directors, the top leaders, from membership control. Their selection is indeed a “foregone conclusion.” These top union directors are not accountable to the membership because they are not elected by the membership.

Perhaps the solution is for the union to privatize, issue shares to members as stockholders, and seek a listing on the New York Stock Exchange…. No, we have to withdraw that suggestion. . The danger is that they might declare corporate bankruptcy while someone walks away with the money. Carpenters for a Democratic Union have a better idea: one member, one vote in the election of union officer-directors.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A lesson from Transit Workers’ Local 100: The Limits of Bureaucratic Centralization

When Roger Toussaint was an insurgent in TWU Local 100, the 38,000–member union of New York City subway and bus workers, he campaigned to curb the authoritarian powers of the local president and to expand the countervailing power of the division chairs and representatives elected by the rank and file. But after winning election as president on the insurgent New Directions slate, he changed his mind. As he explained to the Chief, the civil service weekly, he decided that the most effective way to run a union was to centralize authority in the hands of a CEO, with full control over the paid staff and all phases of day-to-day operations. And so he proceeded successfully to wield powers that he once would have denied to others. Noel Acedevo, who was elected recording secretary along with Toussaint on the New Directions slate, says that when he expressed misgivings over the shift, he was with treated with contempt like an unwelcome clerk, confined to his office room, his incoming and outgoing mail carefully scrutinized, and denied meaningful participation in local affairs.

Ainsley Stewart and Toussaint were once fellow insurgents in New Directions, the opposition caucus that won the election for Toussaint just before the group fell apart. Stewart was later elected one of the division vice presidents in opposition to Toussaint. As vice president, Stewart is entitled to a constitutionally fixed salary. But now he is in federal court complaining that Toussaint unilaterally cut his bi-weekly salary installments whenever he decided that Stewart was not devoting time to pushing the official line. Stewart claims a loss of around $20,000 up to now.

Toussaint succeeded in entrenching himself organizationally. But when TWU members voted down the contract he had negotiated to end their three-day strike, they demonstrated that the power of bureaucratic centralization has its limits.

All went well for Toussaint until the three-day New York transit strike. By a tiny majority, the membership voted down the contract he had negotiated to end the strike, a contract which he and the executive board had campaigned hard to put over. Bitter over this rejection of his authority, he denounced those who had campaigned against it. If, only they had been responsible, if only they had not misled the voters, if only they had not lied, he insisted, what he proclaimed to be a fine contract would never have been defeated.

In this, he was perfectly correct. If no one had spoken against it, if everyone was willing to go along, of course it would have been adopted. But that’s not how the world works. If only Republicans had not criticized Democrats, John Kerry would be president today, or Al Gore. Toussaint says they lied about the contract’s defects; they say he lied about its virtues. That’s how it goes. Leaders in unions, as in politics, must live with it. No one is entitled to an automatic pass.

It’s tough to get a great contract these days, one that excites near-universal delight. You take the best you can get. Sometimes, you even have to take the least bad. Everyone should know that; New York Transit workers surely know that. Any debate over conflicting details gets so complicated and confusing that it’s often impossible for working members to decide what or who is right. And so, how can they make up their mind? They tend to accept the advice of leaders whom they respect and in whom they have confidence. Toussaint knows that. In a letter to The Chief discussing his contract defeat he wrote that the question is “why enough transit workers weren’t willing … to say that if Roger and our executive board say this is the best we can do, we trust them.” And he referred to this question as the “central issue of confidence in our union.”

Is he aware of the significance of his own words? A majority of the voters rejected the contract because they had less confidence in Toussaint’s executive board and more confidence in rank and file leaders who were independent of Toussaint and critical of him. In solidifying his personal power, Toussaint alienated a whole cadre of respected, independent-minded, local leaders, many of whom had originally supported him for president. In losing their support, he lost the support of the voting members.

Alan Saly, former managing editor of the Local 100 newspaper, told The Chief that when Toussaint fired one close supporter who opposed him on a minor matter, ”He made one too many enemies.” Richard Steier, editor of The Chief, wrote, “Mr. Toussaint has compounded his internal problems by taking harsh action against numerous former allies…. The net effect has been to wind up running the union largely on the strength of his own will.”

After his election, Toussaint ran a local which stands up militantly on behalf of its members against the Metropolitan Transit Authority. That might have been enough in a local of new unionists, subdued, inexperienced, grateful for modest gains, a union where no possible alternative leadership had yet emerged from the ranks. But Local 100 has a membership which has already fought its way up. It has a long tradition of internal political rivalry; Toussaint rode that tradition into power. On the job, transit workers fight for dignity and demand respect from a mean employer. Toussaint responded to that demand. In the union, however, there are rank and file leaders who insist on respect and dignity inside the local itself. In his obsession with power, Toussaint feared that insistence as a challenge to his authority.

Local 100 is composed of seven divisions, organized by job titles. Each division membership elects its own chairperson and is represented on the local executive board by one local vice president. The three top officers, plus the seven VPs plus 39 representatives elected by the divisions make up the 49-person executive board. In this big 38,000-member union, only the seven VPs and the three top officers receive any salary by virtue of their union office. Apart from these ten, the entire paid union staff numbering in the scores --- somewhere around sixty or more --- are all appointed by Toussaint. Division chairs get no pay unless appointed to a paid position y Toussaint. Disputes over this structure have triggered many a bitter battle.

The elected division chairs have position but no real power. The paid staff assigned to the divisions is appointed by the local president. The local president, not the division chairs, designates who can be released from their job and be paid temporarily for division union work. Insurgents have fought to give real power to the elected division chairs. A key demand in their platform, while Toussaint was part of the opposition, was to turn those powers over to the elected chairs. The old guard resisted. Once elected, Toussaint, having changed his mind, continued the old system, which remains today.

In 1999, according to Naomi Allen, Ainsley Stewart and Toussaint, then collaborators, sued to win the right of division chairs to a measure of participation in contract negotiations. They won something in court, but nothing changed on the ground. According to Toussaint’s critics, division chairs are still shunted aside at contract time.

In the past, the seven division vice presidents had been elected at large. In 2000, the insurgents won their battle for election of VPs by the membership they represented when the old guard yielded and changed the bylaws. Since then, the VPs, now elected by the members they represent, have become one source of potential power independent of the president. They cannot simply be ordered about; they must be convinced.

After many years of battles against private owners and city officials to establish a strong union, after decades of internal union battles over power and democracy, Local 100 developed a strong cadre of independent-minded union activists, sometimes in the ranks, sometimes in the leadership. Precisely because they were there, Roger Toussaint could be elected president as an insurgent in opposition to the local administration and in defiance of the international. After election, in his drive for centralized power, he alienated precisely the kind of unionists who lifted him into power.

In searching for the source of Toussaint’s troubles, his union rivals and outside neutral commentators alike find the answer in his personal quirks, in his inability to tolerate even mild criticism. Perhaps. But there is more to the story. His regime is representative of a growing trend in our labor movement, one which is moving beyond (or below!) the familiar bureaucratism of narrow-minded union officials: authoritarianism in practice but not backed up by ideology. The new tendency is most obviously revealed by the Change to Win coalition of unions which have seceded from the AFL-CIO. Its advocates, many of whom are dedicated unionists with an honorable record in civil rights and labor causes, offer an alternative philosophy. For them, authoritarianism is not an embarrassing problem; it is an indispensable part of the solution.

They would solve labor’s problems by undercutting local autonomous rights and concentrating power in the hands of a small well-meaning leadership. To them, union democracy, while perhaps fine as a somewhat Utopian long range goal, is an immediate practical hindrance. They would bureaucratize to organize. One model is supplied by the Carpenters union, which has merged locals into big regional councils, wiped out membership rights, turned locals into powerless administrative units, and assigned overwhelming authoritarian powers to a single council executive secretary treasurer.

In milder form, the Service Employees International Union has dissolved and merged locals into huge sprawling units, held together and administered by a small top leadership with full control over the paid staff, a system which makes it enormously difficult for any alternative leadership to coalesce.

In that new spirit, the regime of Roger Toussaint took form. At one critical moment in the local’s experience, in the post-strike contract referendum, that system obviously failed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Thinking about the New York City transit strike

By Herman Benson

Most of the media comments and all of the outrage were focused on the inconvenience inflicted on the suffering riding public by the 33,700 New York City subway and bus workers during their three-day strike, right in the middle of the holiday season. All those mythical million dollars worth of business presumably “lost!” But why did they do it? That question, lost in the arguments over bargaining details, never got the attention it still requires.

Before authorizing the walkout, members of Transit Workers Union Local 100 knew that they would be violating state law; they knew that the strike would cost them at least two days pay for each day out, that they each risked heavy additional fines imposed by a judge, that their union’s treasury and all its assets could be rapidly wiped out by murderous fines, that their leaders faced jail sentences. With all this at stake, the strike decision was no off-the-cuff action. It had been a long time brewing. Or festering. At AUD we could tell, because the prospect had been revealed in the bitter internal union battles over the years.

There had to be a transit strike, if not now, then not much later. It had to come because so many transit workers viewed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority as a mean, heartless employer, contemptuous of their human needs. As so many put it: we want dignity! That basic aspiration was a powerful undercurrent during negotiations in 2002 when it was reported that the MTA had averaged around 10,000 disciplinary citations a year against its 33,700 employees. As a decisive factor in reaching an agreement without a strike that year, the MTA agreed to be a little more understanding, a little less strict, by cutting the citations by 25%. Even then, 40% voted to reject the contract that year. Forward to 2004. Last year, according to the N. Y. Times, the MTA filed 15,200 disciplinary citations against its 33,700 employers, almost one for every two workers.

Years ago at AUD, we became acquainted with the human face of that arithmetic.

My former landlord, John LoPinto Sr., drove the No. 68 bus along Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn until he finally retired. He was a peaceable, responsible, intelligent citizen, easy to get along with, not looking for confrontation with anyone. He was the first to tell me about the nitpicking MTA that kept a disciplinary dossier on its workers, as long as your arm and much older; he showed me one copy (not his own.) As I remember, it was he who told me about the time a driver saw an elderly man trip and fall to the street as he was getting off the bus. The driver left his seat to help the man only to end up with a demerit for leaving his bus without proper authorization.

Larry Labrocca, a Staten Island bus driver, came to AUD with his story: One evening, while driving along the streets of Staten Island, he was attacked by six young thugs, one armed with a knife, knocked unconscious, and landed in the hospital with a fractured skull. While out of work, he faced charges from the MTA for being absent without authority. “Failure to report will result in action being taken to have you dismissed from the Authority.” He needed a lawyer to beat off summary discipline and ended with an eight-day suspension.

These incidents are years old but nothing much seems to have changed. When police officers and firefighters are injured or killed on the job, city notables rush consolingly to pay their respects. When transit workers are killed or injured, the MTA seems more concerned with proving that the victims themselves may have been at fault. I have not yet heard of any transit worker, who got disciplinary citations for getting themselves killed without permission, but there always could be a first time. Especially if compensation money is involved.

All that explains why, at one point or another, transit workers would strike. There had to be some way to release the pent up fury, to express their outrage against a thoughtless employer. From that standpoint, the precise details of the technical contractual issues were almost irrelevant to that broad section of the Local 100 membership who wanted action. There was little that Local President Roger Toussaint could have done to stop them, even had he wanted to.

MTA negotiators made a chronically tense situation even worse. They demanded that the retirement age be lifted from 55 to 62; that workers begin paying part of their medical insurance; that wage increases be paid for by assorted workplace givebacks in the name of productivity. It seemed as though the MTA hoped to humiliate the union or even to provoke a strike that could undermine the union’s public credibility. And then on the edge of a deadline, when an agreement seemed possible, the MTA unexpectedly inserted a new demand: that all new hires, but not current employees, be required to pay 6% of their pay into the pension fund. It was the demand for the introduction of a two-tier system, a poisoned bait that offers an advantage to older union members at the expense of those who would come later.

For TWU Local 100, President Toussaint rejected the MTA demand. The union, he declared, would not sacrifice “the unborn” as the price of reaching an agreement. (And in the end, the union succeeded in warding off this demand.)

The strike lasted three days. The press, like the mayor and governor, were unanimously hostile. Despite all the inconveniences, the response of the public was surprisingly mixed; there was the expected flurry of denunciation against the workers as irresponsible and selfish; but there were perhaps as many expressions of sympathy for the strikers and of suspicion of the MTA

The most damaging moral blow to the embattled strikers came from the international office of their own Transport Workers Union, the parent body of Local 100. The TWU international president publicly denounced Toussaint and the calling of the strike as irresponsible. That kind of obvious stab in the back is mercifully rare in the labor movement. In this case, it is explained by the bitter, years-long, faction fight between Toussaint and the TWU international administration. Factionalism spilled over into a treachery bordering on overt strikebreaking.

On the whole, the labor movement in New York was sympathetic to the strikers. Sympathetic, but without enthusiasm. There were mild expressions of support for Local 100’s aims but no resounding declarations of support for the strike. There was no suggestion that transit workers might be carrying the ball for the whole labor movement. How could it? Local 100 was resisting the demands for givebacks by current workers and sacrifices by future workers as costs of a new contract. But many unions, especially in the public sector, had already abandoned the cause and had agreed to those conditions in their own bargaining sessions. Still, New York unions did not desert the strikers; many had supported New York Mayor Bloomberg or Governor Pataki for reelection; and they seem to have used their influence to end the strike on terms acceptable to the union. Through the intervention of mediators, the strike was settled without either side proclaiming victory over the other. But the union still faces fines of $3,000,000 and the strikers a loss of at least six days pay. The agreement now goes to the workers for a ratification vote.

Because the transit strike violated the law, immediately affected millions riders, subjected thousands of workers to legal penalties, and inflicted outrageous judicially imposed crippling fines upon the union, all the issues involved were raised to a height of emotional intensity. The dispute over the “unborn,” highlighted by Toussaint, focuses attention on a mounting conflict over the future standard of living of American people.

This issue has been slurred over by a growing concern over the needs of those millions of super exploited workers living and working at the edge of poverty, the racial minorities, the immigrants, the low-paid service workers of every nationality and color. One encouraging feature of American life today, is the growing consensus among decent people of every walk of life, conservative and liberal, religious and secular, an ecumenical agreement that something must be done to lift the poor out of their poverty so that they can enjoy our “American dream.”

However, transit workers fall outside that familiar circle of current interest. True, many NYC transit workers --perhaps most-- are members of racial minorities: blacks, Latinos. And, true, many others are foreign-born, like Toussaint himself. But they are not super-exploited victims, candidates for clucking sympathy. To an important degree they fought their way up, joined mainstream American, and share in that American dream. And more, they are determined to stay there, and defend what they have, and perhaps even improve it. And so, as part of mainstream America, they too face an acute problem: how to make that dream a reality and keep it so.

Ironically, as social forces gather on behalf of the poor, equally powerful forces pull in the opposite direction. There is a growing consensus that those who may once have achieved the dream, or even have lifted themselves substantially above the poverty line, must now reduce their expectations and reconcile themselves to a desiccated version of that dream. That is what is involved in all that talk about the unborn.

Workers in manufacturing and on the airlines are forced to submit to slashing wage cuts. Workers must pay for their own increases in wage rates by givebacks, that is, by accepting a decline in other working conditions. Future workers –already born and yet unborn!— face the diminished standards explicit in two tiers in wages, pensions, and insurance benefits. When these cuts are imposed on weakened unions in private industry, it can be viewed as part of the age-old conflict between capital and labor. But when the same disabilities are accepted, copied, and imposed by government upon public employees, we are faced with a newly emerging consensus on public policy: American workers, starting now and accelerating with the next generation, are supposed to submit to a downward pressure on the American standard of living.

The MTA demand that future workers pay more for their pensions was only a minor element in the final settlement, but it was reminder of larger social issues. In forthrightly rejecting that demand, New York transit workers made an important statement on behalf of others.