Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In search of legal defense against illegal trusteeships

In March 2008, the UHW-W executive board deposited $500,000 into a trust account with its attorney to provide for legal defense of the local's autonomy and of the democratic rights of its members and officers against the imposition of an illegal trusteeship. In scheduling the trusteeship hearings, Stern charged, "This is an inappropriate use of union monies." The charge that local funds may not be used to fight a trusteeship, formulated and reformulated with repetitive emphasis, constitutes Stern's main indictment of Rosselli's local. Catch 22! The UHW faces trusteeship because it established a special fund to defend the local and its elected leadership against an illegal trusteeship!

The puzzling difficulty faced by UHW-W, and which establishing a legal defense fund partially surmounts, lies in federal law which provides that any trusteeship imposed by an international union is presumed to be valid for the first 18 months. Once a trusteeship is established, the international takes over the local treasury so that none of its members or elected officers have access to their own local's funds to defend their rights. Starved of money, they find it almost impossible to mount an effective legal case. Meanwhile, the international officials can dip into the union's ample resources to defend their every action. Unrestrained for 18 months, armed with all the international and local levers of money and power, free to employ fear, favor, propaganda, and persuasion, the international moves to create its own political machine in the local and eliminate its annoying critics. Stern's trusteeship and internal charges are obviously intended to bring down Rosselli and simultaneously to deprive him of any means of effective legal defense.

Is it permissible for a local union to set aside money, safe from seizure by the international, so that it can be guaranteed funds to mount a legal defense against trusteeship? That question has arisen before, not in the SEIU but in the Teamsters union. It has never been adequately resolved.

In 1996, when Ron Carey was still IBT president, some 60 Teamster units had already been trusteed, some by the Independent Review Board and some by Carey. Three big anti-Carey locals, fearing trusteeships, each put money into a kind of escrow fund, totaling $400,000 for all three, held in trust by their attorneys. Like Rosselli's fund in 2008, their fund in 1996 was intended to guarantee that they could pay for legal defense against the trusteeship they feared. Like Stern in 2008, Carey in 1996 charged that the fund violated the union constitution and went to court against it. The controversy was never settled, because the three locals backed off and restored the money to the union treasury. But while the battle was still alive, here is what we wrote in Union Democracy Review [No. 106]:

"...what is involved in this dispute is not the right of the international to impose trusteeships but the right of a subordinate body to an adequate defense against the imposition of a trusteeship that may be improper. By protecting legal defense funds from instant seizure, the local body, at least temporarily, gets its day in court. A valid trusteeship might be delayed, but only to allow for a period of genuine due process.

"What is involved here is a matter of important principle that transcends the immediate situation in the Teamsters union. Carey, we are convinced ... uses the weapon of trusteeship on behalf of integrity and democracy. Even he might err in the future. And anyone is capable sometimes of abusing power, even in a worthy cause. But that's not even the greatest danger. Suppose he is defeated and replaced by an old time dictator. If Carey were to try to defend his local by setting up a legal defense fund for protection against repression by, say, a new gang, surely we would all rise to his defense.

"... the issue goes beyond the Teamsters union to affect the broader labor movement. In most cases that come to our attention... trusteeships are imposed to stifle democracy.... Even with a defense fund initially at its disposal, a local is guaranteed only its first day in court. ... The defense fund makes at least a minimal due process available in trusteeship cases. True, the idea is advanced by a suspect old guard. But if we had thought of it first, it would already have become a minor weapon for union democracy."

Now, twelve years later, while SEIU democracy is endangered, the issue returns.

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