Thursday, November 13, 2008

Statement to the SEIU Ethics Commission

After three prominent leaders of the Service Employees International Union were charged with misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars from their local union treasuries, the SEIU set up an ethics commission to recommend measures that the union might take to guard against such misdeeds. The commission includes representatives of the union itself and eminent individuals independent of the union. Herman Benson, for AUD; and Ken Paff, for TDU were asked to submit suggestion to the commission. Benson submitted the following statement to the commission and was interviewed by a commission sub-panel on November 12.

To: Members of the SEIU ethics commission
From: Herman Benson

Since I am unable to attend the meeting in Washington and I know the limits of participating by phone, I herewith transmit my thoughts and suggestions. I would like to thank the commission for this opportunity to participate in its deliberations.

I am not completely clear on what this commission is charged with bringing back to the union. If it is asked simply to bring back a code of commandments that should guide the ethical and moral actions of union officers and members, that task would be easy and should not take long. Codes already proliferate throughout the labor movement; the SEIU has a modest code of its own. The existing codes could easily serve as the basis for elaborating and strengthening an even more impressively formulated code. However, the bare existence of even the best of these codes has had an inconclusive effect on actual life in unions. The neglected problem has been enforcement.

If, on the other hand, the commission aims, not only to suggest a new and better code, but to propose the creation of mechanisms and institutions that might enable the union to enforce adherence to high ethical standards, it takes on a heavy responsibility not easily fulfilled.

In episodic situations, unions have occasionally been able to deal with misappropriation of money and "ordinary" corruption (as far as I know, never with organized crime), but there has never been a successful, sustained, effort with lasting results from within the labor movement itself. In 1957, the AFL-CIO tried with its Ethical Practices Committee and Codes. Recently Ed Stier tried in the Teamsters union. Both were failures. Unfortunately, the labor movement has had to depend upon the U. S. Justice Department to police it against massive theft and organized crime infiltration. Why has the labor movement been unable to adequately police itself? I've thought long and hard about this vexing question.

As I see it now, the weakness of any internal union effort stems from two sources: 1.The power relationships within unions make it politically awkward and inconvenient for even well-meaning union leaders to act against suspect elements in the power structure. That reality permits corruption to fester and makes it difficult to eradicate. 2. In resisting corruption, even with the best will in the world, unions lack the weapons routinely available to law enforcement authorities: wire taps, extensive surveillance, FBI etc. files, subpoena powers, threat of contempt charges.

I mention all this, not to disparage or discourage action but only to make clear how big a job this commission, or any body inside the labor movement, faces. It seems to me, you must be ready to propose measures that go beyond what is conventional in the labor movement or may be downright unpopular. As Obama might say: the old way has failed: we might at least consider the new. In that spirit, I offer my own thinking which I would sum up as follows:

1. We need an authority, within the union which can free itself from internal union politics and can rise above the familiar maneuvering and conflicts for power, prestige, and perquisites. We need an appeals or enforcement institution that is completely independent of any union's own administrative structure, not beholden to any established officialdom, and under certain conditions, free to overturn decisions of the union president or international executive board. 2. Lacking the tools of government law enforcement authorities, we can depend upon the hundreds of thousands of good union activists, whose eyes and ears and dedication to the labor movement, can make them effective guardians of integrity. But for that, we need to create the kind of genuine democratic atmosphere within the union that encourages members to speak their mind without fear of denunciation or retaliation.

In that connection, I offer the following observations:

I: The implementing or enforcement body

Here, the commission can begin by considering the Public Review Board of the United Auto Workers. After the ACLU proposed the creation of such boards in the labor movement, the UAW set up its board upon the initiative of Walter Reuther in 1957; it remains an effective functioning body. The remarkable feature of this move is that it represents the voluntary relinquishing by a union leadership of a measure of its authority to a body composed of individuals outside of the union and independent of its power structure. As an authoritative appeals committee, it offers recourse to members against decisions of the union's highest officers, including the president and international executive board. It is limited only by its inability to review UAW official collective bargaining policy. Its decisions are readily available to UAW members and the general public. (See Articles 32 and 33 of UAW Constitution)

To remain effective, any such a review board must be composed of individuals of unquestioned integrity. If its members were chosen for their deference to the union leadership or dependence upon it, the board would lose all credibility. The UAW has passed this test by selecting people who are pro-labor, civil libertarian in outlook, and eminent their own careers. UAW-PRB members are nominated by the international president, subject to approval by the international executive board, and finally elected at the UAW convention. They serve a term of five years. Any vacancy in mid-term is filled from nominations by the board itself.

I would make at least one suggestion to strengthen the board's reputation for independence. The union president should make his selections from a whole roster of nominations submitted by organizations like the ACLU, NAACP, the UAW Public Review Board, the Association for Union Democracy, the Public Citizen Litigation Group. In that case, while the union retains the right to choose the members of the board, it does so from among panel members chosen by pro-labor civil libertarians independent of the ruling union administration.

After 50 years, the UAW Public Review Board remains unique in the labor movement. (The small independent Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers did emulate the UAW, but I don't know if its Public Review Board survived after the union affiliated with the Carpenters.) The labor movement has remained indifferent at best; some unions have been hostile. The UAW attributed the failure of negotiations for its merger with the IAM and Steelworkers to its insistence upon retaining the PRB. If this commission is to recommend a genuine Public Review Board, roughly modeled upon the UAW's, it must be ready to stand against the prevailing prejudices.

II: The content of any code:

To be taken seriously and be effective, any code must make clear that it is just as concerned to protect membership democratic rights as it is to protect the union against corrupt practices and conflicts of interest. Existing codes spell out, in detail and at length, rules for preserving financial integrity. But where they even refer to union democracy, it is only in passing, briefly, perfunctorily. That imbalance reveals what a union considers important …and what it does not.

The court-enforced consent decree that monitors the Teamsters union calls not only for eradicating corruption, but for encouraging democracy in the union. The Independent Review Board which is responsible for enforcing the consent decree, armed with the power of the court and government law enforcement, has done an excellent job in freeing the union from mob control. But it remains indifferent to appeals from members who complain against violation of their rights. Somehow, democracy falls by the wayside. In the interests of integrity, that kind of neglect should end.

We should be concerned with bolstering union democracy, not only because it is a value in itself or because it tends toward a better and more effective labor movement, but because in the context of this discussion it can be a powerful weapon for defending integrity. Local members and local leaders ---all union activists--- can detect what's happening in their unions sooner and far more effectively than any outside formal investigators. But the atmosphere in the union and the receptivity of the top leadership must encourage them to speak out, knowing that their questions and misgivings will be received, and they need not fear intimidation and retaliation.

It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I feel that this would require a massive change of mood inside the SEIU. The demand that all elected and appointed representatives, top to bottom, speak with "one voice," the heavy-handed denunciation of Sal Rosselli for the very act of criticizing official policy, and the threat to trusteeship his local all run counter to what is required. The need is to change the mood. For this commission to ignore that reality would be to undermine its effectiveness.

III: The scope of any enforcement body's responsibility and authority

Based on what I have learned over the years, I'd like to lay out what I think are the choices.

What should we expect of any enforcement body, public review board or any other? The alternatives, as I see it, are between 1. to act essentially as a review body, authorized to protect due process and fair play in the union by offering appeals recourse against decisions by the union's own officers and committees, or 2. in addition to or instead of the above, to exercise police powers that would require it to initiate investigations, prefer charges, and perhaps to conduct trials and impose penalties on its own authority.

In public government, Federal courts are appeals bodies. The Department of Justice is the policing agency. Inside the labor movement, the UAW Public Review Board hears appeals. In the Teamsters union, the Independent Review Board is a policing body.

As I remember, when the UAW Public Review Board was in formation, --- this was a moment when the McClellan Committee hearings had exposed widespread corruption in the labor movement --- Walter Reuther suggested that the board might take on responsibility for policing the union against corruption. But the prospective board members demurred because they felt it went far beyond their intentions.

The cost of an appeals board is easily within the resources of a union like the SEIU. Retainers for the members, a full time executive director, and a modest supporting staff would do the trick. But to add policing functions would require much more.

The costs of the Teamsters IRB, whose policing responsibilities include investigating, pressing charges, conducting trials, and sentencing, are borne by the union. Because the IRB is appointed by a Federal judge, it has access to government law enforcement and information gathering facilities which would not be available to any SEIU created body.

If the SEIU wanted to set up a special board both to police the union for corruption like the Teamsters IRB and to act as an appeals body to protect members rights, I think it would need an extensive and expensive investigatory and clerical staff. If the commission and the union decided that such a board was necessary, and the union is ready to bear the costs, I would be ready make suggestions for its functioning. However, I am not ready to recommend the creation of an enforcement board with such broad responsibilities. I favor a board more like the UAW PRB.

Obviously, this commission was created because the union felt it proper to respond to the revelations of misappropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars by officers of some West Coast union locals. But no responsible person I know of charges that the SEIU is systemically riddled with corruption. The SEIU is not the Teamsters union. I am convinced that if union democracy is protected and encouraged such problems could be adequately handled within the union's own constitutional procedures for charges, trials, and penalties, with this addition: a genuinely impartial public review board with ultimate appeals authority. (In California, there must have been some union members who blew the whistle. The point is to encourage and protect member like them.)

IV: Addendum on democracy

Without lengthy supportive explanation, I would like simply to list some of the provisions that should be included in any code of democratic procedures. I realize that many (most?) are quite controversial. However, they will indicate what I feel is necessary to lift any formulations above the level of holiday homiletics:

1. As a minimum, the rights provided in the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act with additions and modifications in what follows.

2. Abolish all meeting attendance rules as a qualification for running for office when they automatically disqualify 90% of members. Since the reality is that only about 5% of a local's members attend meetings, these rules serve no real purpose except to help entrench a tiny minority in office.

3. End the requirement of 24 months continuous good standing as a qualification for candidacy in local elections. The rule serves to disqualify good, active, long term union members who inadvertently fall a few days in arrears or are disqualified by manipulations of the local financial records. Substitute a requirement for, say, one or two years membership with the right to get in good standing at the time of nominations.

4. Encourage the election of job stewards

5. Establish "battle" pages in union publications and on union websites where opposing and dissenting view can be expressed. Follow the example of the United Federation of Teachers, which provides whole pages to rival slates in local elections.

6. Allow members to establish their own independent web sites without imposing niggling or repressive restrictions.

7. Give local unions due process and their day in court by permitting the use of locals' own resources to challenge what they feel are the improper imposition of trusteeships.

8. Provide for membership ratification of contracts after full information is afforded to voters with a reasonable period for discussion.

9. Comply with LMRDA Section 105 which requires unions to inform members of their right under the LMRDA.

10. Require exclusively public employee locals to comply with the relevant provisions of the LMRDA.

11. Provide for the voiding of union elections where the violations of fair procedures are so egregious that they make a mockery of the democratic process.


centerfielddj said...

Brother Benson,

In many of their recent consolidations, SEIU is using a pooled voting process. In these votes, an SEIU Local may have all their members vote "NO" to becoming absorbed into a large new Local, but if members of other Locals "outvote" them, those members would be consolidated into the proposed large Local against their will.

Another option, currently being proposed by the International in their fight against UHW-W rank and filers, is to place two different choices on the ballot for future representation, both of which would result in UHW-W members losing their current elected leadership, and "gaining" appointed leadership for a lengthy period. The choice to continue with their current leadership does not exist on the proposed ballot.

In your view, would these voting processes deserve to be voided as discussed in your Provision 11?

Herman Benson said...

The 'referendum' you refer to has many flaws. Mainly it seems like a 'heads I win, tails, you lose' device to undermine if not destroy the critic, Rosselli. I note there is no option 3 for permitting things to remain as they are. This suggests a major reorganization of the union. Members are asked for an opinion. Was there are kind of free discussion on the scale that this kind of implied change obviously contemplates?