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Labour Reform Day

The Union Members' Revolt

By Hugh Finnamore For the National Post

Labour Day is just hours away, but rather than celebrating their fight against the Corporate Agenda, rank-and-file union members are scrapping instead with their union bosses. Many of these union members charge that their leaders are guilty of financial mismanagement, fraud, cronyism, nepotism, inadequate internal controls and undemocratic practices.

For example, United Auto Workers Union (UAW) members employed by General Motors Corp. (GM) in Michigan are this week tripping over each other to get in line to join a US $550-million class-action lawsuit, launched Aug. 7, against GM, UAW Local Union 594 and the national union that represents them.

Their suit follows a widespread federal investigation by the Department of Labor, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office into an 87-day strike in 1997 at GM's Pontiac truck plants. That strike was allegedly prolonged by up to two months by UAW officials demanding more than US$200,000 in bogus overtime and jobs for relatives in exchange for ending the strike. "UAW Concerns," a Michigan-based dissident group headed by UAW member Pat Meyer, prompted the federal probe. "The UAW leaders used the membership for their own personal gain," said the members' attorney and former UAW representative, Harold Dunne.

Likewise, another group of union reformers -- Greensboro, N.C.-based Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees To Insure Change -- wants to clean up corruption within its union. A report prepared by former U.S. federal prosecutor Kurt Muellenberg stated that the union dues collected from the 230,000 members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union in Canada and the U.S. went toward paying for a fleet of Cadillacs for union bosses.

"Officials at the highest level in the International Union enriched themselves by manipulating the leases of luxury vehicles," said Mr. Muellenberg. "This practice enabled them to personally acquire several vehicles for thousands of dollars below the used car wholesale prices and, in some cases, to facilitate sales of vehicles to friends and relatives at bargain prices." He criticized the union because union officers and their wives used a $3-million private jet for personal purposes. "Mrs. Hanley was the only passenger on each of these flights [between her homes in Chicago and Palm Springs] which were apparently authorized by President Hanley," he reported. And there were questionable payments to consultants and organizers who apparently neither consulted nor organized.

Meanwhile, members of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) have spawned three reform groups: Fairbanks, Alaska-based Laborers for a Democratic Union, San Francisco-based Laborers for Justice and Democracy, and Chicago-based Laborers for Justice. The Chicago group pledges "to take back control of our union from organized crime, institute democratic reform, promote fiduciary responsibility and improve the economic and social welfare of all Laborers." LIUNA was the subject of a three-year Justice Department investigation. Its draft civil racketeering complaint accused LIUNA of being controlled by organized crime, and called for the removal of its president, Arthur A. Coia, and a federal takeover of his union. The complaint, which was settled without a lawsuit, said Mr. Coia has "associated with, and been controlled and influenced by, organized crime figures."

These groups exemplify the growing rank-and-file discontent with those who control North American labour unions -- a discontent that is starting to erupt within Canada's labour movement, too. A growing number of Canadian union members are joining reform groups in an effort to recover control of their unions.

For example, Ontario members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) have set up a reform Web site at www.cupewatch.org. They claim that rank-and-file members do not control CUPE, and that there is no respect for the democratic process within the union. They say: "The policies and practices of CUPE are contrary to the public interest and pose a threat to the well-being of ordinary people and especially to unionized, working people." Because CUPE bosses claim a 500,000-member power base, they contend, government leaders set flawed policy based on the belief that the union bosses accurately speak for all of their members.

As well, members of the 1.4-million-member United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) have published several reform Web sites like the ones at www.ufcw.net, which specifically targets Canada's 200,000 UFCW members, and www.reapinc.org, a U.S.-based group. These union members claim they are fighting to restore the union to its members, and to eradicate corruption, minimize bureaucratic control and eliminate authoritarian-style decision-making by union bosses. And like their American counterparts, they are being forced to turn to the law courts to force disclosure and democracy from their leaders. Vancouver-based Members for Democracy (MFD), a UFCW reform group, is within days of filing a court challenge to force financial disclosure, accountability and an "ethical, fair and independently verifiable election process" -- something they allege was not part of their last election.

"While many of our members work part-time and gross $8 per hour, we shell out over $200,000 in salaries and expenses to keep a local union president alone," says MFD member David Brighton. The MFD claims that union bureaucrats, who get top pay from day one in their jobs, protect their huge salaries by negotiating lower start rates for their members and extending the progression from bottom rate to top rate by thousands of hours worked. For many of the mostly part-time retail workforce, it could take up to eight or nine years to reach top rate. Few will stick around that long. It comes to the point where the raises on the top rates affect only the union bosses' salaries. Mr. Brighton says, "some of these UFCW big wigs have deals where they get paid 250% of the top rate in the contract, and then there's huge perks on top of that." Meanwhile, full-time positions and access to top rates for rank-and-file union members have all but disappeared.

In the past, rank-and-file opposition groups would spring up, only to wither for lack of a political base or financial resources. The union leaders, with their built-in political organization and control of communications, always had an enormous advantage, and easily crushed fledgling opposing forces. The Internet and e-mail have changed that.

Robert Fitch, a labour journalist who writes for The Village Voice, speaking last fall at a Metro Labor Press Association convention, explained it best: "We need a lot more than a raise: We need a rank-and-file movement against corruption, one that will reform trade union organization along participatory lines. Orthodox Leftists will argue that workers' protest must be a protest against the factory boss, not the union boss; the factory floor, not the union hall; against objective conditions, not workers' own institutions."

Maybe it's time we reviewed the whole concept of Labour Day. Rank-and-filers' time might be better spent celebrating the concept of a Labour Reform Day. You won't have to look far for a union member who would wholeheartedly support that concept, but you'll probably need a radio telescope to find a like-minded union boss.

© 2017 Members for Democracy