Giving Unions a Bad Name

Organizing Matters

Volume CIX, No. 5May, 2009

Joel LeFevre

Having worked 30 years as a full-time staff member at various unions, I have had to confront the stereotype of the corrupt and inefficient union.

One doesn’t remain a union organizer for very long unless one can ignore that particular form of criticism, but once in a while it is beneficial to take the blinders off.

It helps to admit that, in some places, the stereotype is true and in others, while it may not be fully accurate, the reality of the situation is such that members and outsiders can draw the wrong conclusions to the detriment of the organization and its members.

When it comes to organizing, the mere allegation of inefficiency and incompetence is enough to destroy the process.

When you are in my line of work, you expect employers to try to defeat union campaigns; you even expect some workers to be misled into joining efforts to defeat union organizing campaigns.

You don’t expect it from union leaders.

It is a form of corruption for union officials to prefer economic or political success for themselves rather than anyone else, including unorganized workers.

My first encounter with this type of betrayal was during my time in the Teamsters union in 1987.

Forty-five of 51 people in a bargaining unit had signed cards for the union and the employer had agreed to recognize the union.

Bargaining was about to begin when another Teamster official demanded a “transfer of jurisdiction” to his local.

The transfer was endorsed at a high level in the union; I had to walk away.

At another point in my years with the Teamsters, I was appointed as trustee to run a local found to be corrupt by investigators.

My brief was to bring democratic reform, resist mob influence in the local and bring honest representation to the members.

Ironically this local had, some 20 years previously, bargained contracts for the house bands in busy Long Island catering halls.

During that period, the same union official acted as the collections manager for the health benefit fund.

Although the claims were simply forwarded to another company for processing, his salary was $7,000 a month.

Under his supervision, millions of dollars that should have gone to benefit union members were lost.

The business agent in question died while incarcerated in a federal penitentiary.

He was also the same official who had quashed my organizing campaign years before.

And what was done with my organizing campaign? He failed to conduct negotiations for a year and the employer withdrew recognition.

Whether money changed hands is only speculation, but a majority of the people who signed cards were let go and the work remains nonunion to this day.

I know from this experience that, when union leaders attack organizing efforts, there is another agenda at work.

But why does this matter to us? The AFM isn’t delegating our organizing to other locals and there isn’t any skimming going on at our health fund.

Why should you care about my experience at the Teamsters?

“Organize or die” has been the mantra in the AFL-CIO for over 15 years.

The leadership of Local 802 for the last 25 years or more has pursued organizing with more vigor than any other local of the AFM.

That is the only wise course for a union whose membership is aging at an alarming rate and whose pension fund already has less than one active worker for each retiree.

“Organize or die” should be a rallying call for all 802 members, yet our first organizing victory in years came under attack before the ink was even dry on the page.

Instead of celebrating that we at last have a foothold in a nonunion industry, some have decided that, if we can’t immediately go from cash (in effect, a buyout) to full scale with residuals, we should do nothing.

Adding to the problem were efforts from outside Local 802 to derail the agreement. Those efforts came from opposition groups, seemingly at war with the AFM, which sought to drag our members into that fight.

These groups had no investment in the outcome and promoted the idea that anything is possible if you are just militant enough.

Fortunately, in this case, the contract was approved and we can build for the future. But if we do not learn to ignore those who insist that perfection is the only acceptable outcome of any negotiation, we risk missing opportunities that are available to us and become accomplices in our own demise.

Just as was the case in my experience with organizing in the Teamsters, the organizing effort at “WonderPets!” was almost undone because of personal agendas interfered.

The lesson: the combination of self-aggrandizement and ultra-militancy without effective strategy can get you the same result as corruption.

I’ve lived though it in my own professional life.

I hope you will take it from me the next time someone tells you to turn down the moon if you can’t have the stars, too.

For more information about the “WonderPets!” contract, see the April issue of Allegro.