Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Toussaint in TWU Local 100: How to lose friends and alienate people

Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers Local 100, has perfected the art of how to lose friends. He was elected in 2000 to lead this union of New York subway and bus drivers at the head of New Directions, an insurgent slate, a caucus that had campaigned consistently for more democracy and militancy in the union. Once elected, he did adopt a more militant stance in the face of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the mean and overbearing employer of most of his members. But democracy? That was something else.

From the outset, he began with a reputation as a new, fresh type of labor leader. After leading a short subway strike, he endeared himself momentarily, to some of the more advanced elements in and around the labor movement. He was cheered by a packed crowd of academics at the City University of NY, honored by labor historians, invited to make the keynote address at the statewide convention of the Public Employees Federation.

Chief among those who were favorably impressed was The Chief, New York's civil service weekly, a pro-labor tabloid that provides the main source of dependable information about public employee unions in the city and state. Its early news stories and editorial comments were important in furbishing Toussaint's enviable public reputation.

But abruptly, Toussaint and The Chief have fallen out. Despite its early services, he now treats the paper like a hostile element. His problem is that The Chief, even while acknowledging his virtues, has remained independent and impartial. That's what Toussaint cannot tolerate. That's why he turns friends into enemies in his own union. He demands uncritical, unquestioning subservience.

Promptly after Toussaint was first elected in 2000, the New Directions caucus that propelled him into office fell apart. Although New Directions had campaigned for years on a platform of unleashing the democratic spirit in Local 100, Toussaint, the new president, insisted on exercising the unilateral right to fill every paid staff position by presidential appointment, free of control by the executive board. The founders of New Directions, like Noel Acevedo, newly elected secretary treasurer on the New Directions slate, went into opposition. Even while continuing to credit Toussaint for fine work in administering Local 100 affairs, The Chief reported the views of his critics in its news stories and gave them space in its Letters to the Editor columns. (You've probably never seen anything like these L to E contributions. Writers have extended, even tedious, space for self-expression on anything remotely relevant and are free to denounce The Chief and its editor, Richard Steier.)

So it went. In 2006, when Toussaint ran for reelection to a third term, he faced four opponents. (One opposition ticket was supported by John Samuelsen, a former close Toussaint supporter whom he had excommunicated over some minor disagreement.) Toussaint regained the presidency but without a majority, with only a 45% plurality. The Chief duly gave full coverage to all sides, including Toussaint's rivals, with more, many more, letters to the editor. With all that, Toussaint was still doing fine in the paper's pages.

All went well until the brief Local 100 strike on New York subways and buses at the end of 2005. In editorial comment, The Chief mildly criticized Toussaint's handling of the strike; but relations became really strained in the strike aftermath.

Penalized for violating the state's law against public employee strikes, Local 100 was fined over a million dollars and lost the right to receive dues by automatic payroll checkoff. So the union now campaigned to convince members to pay dues by voluntarily authorizing regular deductions from bank deposits or credit cards. It was rough going. After the first round of appeals, 50% of the members had complied. The Chief found this a poor performance by Toussaint; in our Union Democracy Review, we commented that it was an encouraging beginning. (The glass was half full!)

Now, Toussaint was obviously becoming edgy. John Samuelsen, formerly so loyal a Toussaint henchman, distributed a letter to the Local membership urging them to support the union by paying their dues. But because he had written some derogatory words about Toussaint --- essentially, pay your dues despite Toussaint --- he was summarily removed as job steward. Now, in a pointed editorial comment, The Chief reproved Toussaint for arbitrary, authoritarian behavior: “Mr. Toussaint...has gone too far in stripping Mr. Samuelsen of a shop steward position to which he was elected last month....” A few weeks later, The Chief editorialized “Mr. Toussaint...has stopped talking to us because we haven’t censored his critics.”

Meanwhile, Local 100 continued its campaign for voluntary dues payments. When a Chief reporter called the union to ask how the drive was going, he was told to get lost, a sign of how deeply the union's relations with the paper had deteriorated. Editor Steier explained:

"They told …reporter Ari Paul that there is no reason to supply such data to a newspaper whose coverage of the union they [distrusted] … What seems to have particularly annoyed Mr. Toussaint and his acolytes is a series of letters by in-house critics regarding his leadership and the prominence sometimes given to some of those critics in our news stories…."

A week later, more was to come: In the 2006 election, a Toussaint opponent had been elected vice president of the Private Bus Lines division. But just a few months into the three-year term, he accepted a management job and resigned his union post. Another battle inside Local 100. Members of the division, which had supported Toussaint's critics, called for an election to fill the vacant spot, arguing that the local bylaws required an election, but Toussaint, disagreeing, insisted that the executive board, now under his control, could fill the position by appointment, a position upheld by the TWU international president.

After reporting the straight facts, as usual and at length, The Chief commented in an editorial: "We have no way of knowing which side is right…. But it is untenable for the Local 100 leader to on the one hand demand that members rally to his side for the greater good of the union, and on the other insist that one segment of the rank and file be denied the right to democratically choose their representative on the executive board…."

The Chief started out solidly in Toussaint's camp. You would imagine that any public figure would carefully cultivate that kind of asset. Instead, Toussaint managed to alienate it. That talent for turning friends into critics helps explain how he has succeeded in alienating so many in his own local. Still, after all this, The Chief editor still keeps a small warm spot open for the big man. In July, Steier quoted a former Toussaint admirer "who spoke conditioned on anonymity out of concern about Mr. Toussaint's tendency to react harshly to what he perceived as criticism…said … that for all his flaws he is a cut above most union leaders. 'Roger is a diamond,’ this man said, 'Maybe in the rough, but a diamond.'"

For that kind of comment, you need the protection of anonymity! Maybe Local 100 diamonds must always be called perfect, never rough.

Friday, September 21, 2007

New House cuts back on union democracy

A discussion piece by AUD Director Judith Schneider

Now that Democrats are in control, civil libertarians and workers' rights advocates might expect Congress to strengthen union democracy, that is, the rights of members inside unions. It seems they are doomed to disappointment. Republicans and Democrats may alternate in control; the need to defend union democracy remains. The House recently voted to reduce the budget of only one division of the U.S. Department of Labor, its Office of Labor-Management Standards [OLMS,] by $2.1 million. Most Democrats voted for the reduction, and not because they are in an economy budget-cutting mood. Actually, they voted for an increase in the overall DOL budget by almost a billion dollars to $46.7 billion. Why single out the OLMS?

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, the federal law that protects union democracy and requires disclosure of union finances, assigned enforcement responsibilities to the U.S. Department of Labor. The DOL created the Office of Labor-Management Standards as its LMRDA enforcement division. Union democracy advocates have long argued that OLMS doesn't do enough to fulfill its responsibilities. Now, with less money, it will surely do even less, an outcome that was undoubtedly the intention of its budget-cutters.

OLMS conducts investigations of union elections and supervises reruns. It collects the financial disclosure forms unions are required to file, makes them available for rank-and-file review and audits a small sample (they say only about 4½ %.) It has investigatory authority for civil and criminal violations, refers criminal cases to the Justice Department, and obtains restitution of stolen union member dues. The OLMS is government's enforcement clout supporting the LMRDA. Currently with some 350 employees - it once had over 450 - it now looks like even this truncated operation has been targeted for reduction. A budget cut of $2.1 million- from $47.8 million to $45.7- will be imposed if the House of Representatives has its way. That may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things --- not enough to arouse misgivings. But the administration had proposed that an increase of more than $9 million was needed to enable the OLMS to do its job. It is obvious that if the OLMS budget cut goes through, its operations will have to be reduced

If the demands of economy were not at stake, how explain the OLMS cuts? The AFL-CIO establishment has always been hostile to LMRDA enforcement. Now, that hostility has been reinforced by new DOL requirements of more detailed public financial disclosures by unions. The House majority seems willing to sacrifice the interests of union democracy in order to yield to the concerns of the AFL-CIO top officialdom.

An amendment to restore the funds was rejected on a mostly party-line vote, with almost all Democrats voting against it. The Senate will have an opportunity to restore the funds in September.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A la Nixon: Jimmy Hoffa et al. go to China

When The New York Times interviewed Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. in Shanghai, it reported that, along with other American union leaders, he had come to meet with Chinese union leaders and dine with Communist Party officials. Not that they intended to collaborate with the state-controlled unions but, said Hoffa, "I think a dialogue with them is very constructive. You can't ignore a union that claims to have 100 million workers." The whole 10-day visit was a project of Andy Stern's Change to Win Coalition. The SEIU was there, and Greg Tarpinian, formerly a Hoffa PR rep and now CtoW executive director, was spokesman. It is not likely that Hoffa and C to W hoped to learn from the "dialogue" how they, too, could organize 100 million workers. The Chinese unions, as creatures of the government, enjoy a prefabricated, involuntary membership, a system that is not likely to be duplicated in the United States.

It is curious. What were they doing in China, intermingling with figures and forces so powerful in our global economy? One possible explanation is their hope that somehow some of that power will rub off on them. Or at least lend them the aura of power.

The whole thing seems like another product of the fertile, protean, and somewhat eccentric mind of Andy Stern, president of the SEIU and guiding genius of the Change to Win Coalition. He is preoccupied with creating a new powerful force in America. With a growing base among America's most downtrodden, the unskilled, the immigrants, the minorities, who constitute the growing sector of service workers, he hopes --- by not annoying the captains of industry with individual grievances --- to add them in a not quite defined plan to save the American economy. And to join with Wal-Mart to bring medical insurance --- not quite defined --- to all.

Alan Murray reported in The Wall Street Journal (5/30) that Stern is now cultivating relations with private buyout CEOs. "Mr. Stern told me in an interview," writes Murray, "that he much prefers working with the buyout kings than with their public-company counterparts. 'I've been incredibly impressed,' he said, sharing his impressions of the men, 'Compared with most of my meetings with company CEOs, these men are much more businesslike and have much more understanding of what we are trying to accomplish.'" Just what is Stern trying to accomplish?

And now, somehow to add to the putative mixture, a possible connection with the fastest growing power on earth, the Chinese, what a formidable combination of POWER!

Power for what precisely? That's an open question.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A tale of two Brians -- How do they operate in IBEW Local 3?

When Brian McLaughlin was indicted on charges of stealing millions of dollars from assorted sources, including from the union, he was forced out as president of the NYC Central Labor Council and needed a job while his trial was pending. And so he decided to return to work as an electrician. No problem. He signed the book at the Local 3 hiring hall, waited his proper turn, he said, and was promptly put to work. Everything was in order. He had the right to work. Apart from the presumption of innocence, even if he should be found guilty, he would be entitled to earn a living at his trade after serving his time.

But his experience is quite different from the ordeal of another member of Local 3, Brian Colella. After 14 years as an electrician at the New York Fire Department he was discharged in 2003 (Fired by the Fire Department.) His “offense” had nothing to do with stealing money from anyone anywhere. He was on the department’s hit list, because he was an outspoken leader and advocate of the rights of himself and his fellows, especially their right to payment for hours worked overtime. It took him four years and heavy legal fees to win reinstatement before an arbitrator ruled that he had been framed on spurious charges and ordered him back to work.

Like the other Brian, he had been out of work and needed a job but when he tried to hire out of the union hall, he was not even allowed to register. Union Democracy Review reported the facts at the time, but no one seemed interested except the Chief, that good old civil service tabloid.

The question is, then, how do they operate that Local 3 hiring hall? An explanation is missing. Why does the Brian big shot, even after charges of stealing union money, get fair and first class treatment, while the Brian rank and filer, after being victimized for standing up for workers’ rights, is told to get lost?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

An injury to one? Not my problem!

by Herman Benson

Are unionists’ grievances against their employers an obstacle to organizing? That odd question is brought to mind by Andy Stern, SEIU president, in an interview with Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal (subscription only).

In a friendly account, Maher writes, “Mr. Stern says he wants to remake the labor movement by shedding its old adversarial image and creating more labor-management partnerships.” We have to make some allowance for Stern’s apparent desire to do a soothing snow job on the WSJ’s entrepreneurial readers. Actually, under Stern’s stewardship, the SEIU is embarked on an aggressive ---and effective--- organizing campaign among low-paid service workers, complete with strikes, threats of strikes, and mass demonstrations. The union may be ready to make nice to cooperating employers, but it is obviously willing to be as “adversarial”as necessary to get workers into the union under a good contract. The union has succeeded in rallying community support, especially among religious leaders, for its Justice for Janitors campaign of strike and demonstrations in Texas, Florida, and Connecticut. Under pressure from the SEIU, the New York City Council voted to require developers who get tax breaks to pay prevailing wages for janitors.

But what happens after the SEIU brings those janitors into the labor movement? Stern’s talk with writer Maher helps us understand the philosophy that already shapes the evolving organizational structure of the SEIU and that underlies Stern’s image of the kind of labor movement that he hopes to create. In essence, it suggests that to succeed, the labor movement must bureaucratize. If the banner of union idealists was once: “An injury to one is an injury to all,” the new watchword could aptly be: “An injury to one? Not my problem!” Are the needs of the individual to be sacrificed in the interests of what the leaders decide are higher goals, like employer cooperation and industry management?

As he has said many times in many other places, Stern told the WSJ that he wants friendly relations with employers. This time, he added, “People don’t go to work to have a fight. They go to work to provide a service, to build a community to take care of their family. I don’t hear most people say I can’t wait to go to work to have a fight with that boss.”

Of course, all that is perfectly true. But it is not the only truth.

The union is doing a fine job of raising the wages ---and substantially--- of low-paid service workers it protects under contract, and so raises their standards and permits them to live in greater self-respect and dignity in their communities. But the union has another role, or should have. Workers are not looking for confrontation with the boss, but they do ---and justifiably--- look toward their union to defend their dignity, and self-respect, and security on the job, during those long hours, that big part of the day when they are at work. Those who have suffered abuse from overbearing supervisors, from discrimination, contempt, unfair treatment, harassment ---even high-paid workers with lofty salaries--- know how that kind of experience can knot you in the guts and make those long hours, that unending part of the day, intolerable. In the euphoria that arises out of original wage increases from, say, $7 to $15, that second role of unionism may be waived aside, but not indefinitely. All this is relevant because it connects with Stern’s de-emphasis of “individual grievances” --- he is preoccupied with bigger things --- and it affects any conception of internal union organization.

“We want to find a 21st century new model,” he told Maher, “… that is less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.” This is a conception that already has drastic effects on how the unions are organized, on union elections, on the relations between members below and leaders high above. Stewards are closest to working members. If stewards are elected directly by their constituents, they will necessarily be sensitive to their needs on the job. If they neglect their individual grievances, they risk defeat in elections ---honest elections, that is. Union leaders, way up there who are too busy to be annoyed by individual grievances prefer to appoint stewards and so insulate them from aggrieved members. The appointed job stewards, knowing that those above who appointed them are busy with higher things, learn not to distract their superiors with annoying grievances. Appointive stewards develop techniques for putting members off: evade questions, dissemble, get lost. They cease to represent the members in the union; they control the members for the union. They collect political action money; they urge members out to vote. They can neglect “individual grievances.”

Such is the fate of appointed stewards. But not even elected local officers are immune. Under federal law, local union officers and executive board members are elected directly by secret ballot vote of the membership. But does election by the membership mean control by the membership? Not necessarily. Not under the system that is developing under our emerging new labor movement. The answer depends on who controls their union salaries. Under the newly emerging system, union officers and board members are being reduced to the same dependent status of the appointive stewards.

In many unions today, elected union officers are entitled to salaries by virtue of their election, a sum often fixed in the union constitution. The security of that salary gives those local officers a certain independence. They are free to criticize the union’s top officers and still get paid, a freedom that enables them, on occasion, to express member dissatisfaction with the ruling administration. In our new times, all that is changing. Under the system that is developing and proliferating, no one, not even lower elected representatives, can hold a paid staff job without the approval of the top chief executive officer, usually the president, or secretary treasurer. When the entire professional personnel of the union, elective and appointive, are at the mercy of the CEO for their salaries, he or she is transformed into an uncontrollable autocrat. Imagine the state of democracy in the country if no one could hold a paid government job without permission of the President!

What are unionists to do while their leaders are preoccupied with remaking the world of industry and other massive projects? If their union neglects their individual grievances, will they need some kind of “union” within their union to force it to fulfill its responsibilities to its own members? In this structure of highly centralized bureaucracy, the need to defend union democracy is bound to be as urgent as ever.