• authored by Bill Pearson
  • published Sat, Aug 2, 2003

Bless me Father for I have sinned. My last confession was years ago. I have to start at the beginning so you understand why I am here asking forgiveness:

Confession of a Union Man

From my earliest days as a carryout in 1964, I knew being Union was a good thing. My dad was a Union man, an engineer on the railroad. He taught me carrying a Union card, paying my dues and belonging was something important.

I graduated from high school in 1966. Got a job working construction that summer. Once again being Union paid off, heck I made more then the guys working full time in the stores. Went off to college with my newfound wealth. Lasted a quarter, realized I could drink as much at home as could away from school. Worked a bunch of odd jobs and then went back to the grocery stores. It was steady, and full time was plentiful.

Like everyone, I paid attention to the Union stuff. In the late 60's, if you were working in a grocery store, you were active and involved in enforcing the contract, and fighting for better wages and benefits. We made great strides. When contracts were voted, we always had about a 75% turnout.

I saw the power of a collective voice and liked the idea of having some control over how we were treated. I served on negotiating committees, was a steward, hand billed nursing homes, and was on the executive board. I saw what the Union reps did, and I wanted to be one. In 1978, a rep died and the president asked me if I wanted the job.

Do pigs fly? Hell yes, and I came on staff at UFCW 789. It was amazing, even from the first day. It didn't take long to see we were in a different position than the members. Our accountability was far less, and the rewards were far greater. I took a cut in pay when I started, but it was worth it. Within three years, I was making as much as assistant mgrs. Better yet, I could do stuff that was exciting. There was no boredom; cause the job was something new everyday.

Of course there were the perks. Occasional trips, weekends off, holidays off, it was all-good. Best of all was the lure of an early retirement. We were in two pension funds. It was clear, if there was a perk that made it all worthwhile, it was the International staff pension plan. After 20 years we could retire with 50% of our high 4 years. On top of that, our health insurance would be paid for life.

Cool, a great benefit, and I was paying for it with my contribution of 5% every week. It didn't take long to see the fallacy of that statement. It became obvious quickly; they kept officers and staff in line with the pension benefit. A portion of the dues was going to support these retiree's benefits. No one in their right mind would jeopardize their future retirement because of a few small indiscretions. We all kept our heads down and our mouths shut. "Don't rock the boat," "Gotta keep it in the house of labor" were the stock answers.

As time passed, the concerns got bigger. Everyone points to the PATCO collapse as labor's downfall. I disagree; it was just another nail in the coffin, just another event in the life of business unionism. The 80's were ugly; we saw the Wynn house deal, the failure to support the Hormel battle in Austin, rising salaries of the leadership and piles of concessionary bargaining. We were ill equipped to deal with employers who quit being our partners. Members suffered, we grew larger.

Somehow we all survived and made it to the 90's. Let me rephrase that, the union leadership made it to the 90s, lots of the members were washed out in sales, mergers and closings. Didn't matter, almost every time an employer went down, a new one opened and they hired a fresh batch of employees, all becoming members, albeit, poorly paid ones. And through it all, we held our tongues; for the good of the organization, you know?

Wynn left, and the new guy Dority was an organizer, surely he'd know the importance of taking care of new members, of not selling contracts on the backs of the yet to be hired. Ya right. It was more of the same, only taller. One of his first acts was to fill the shoes of the secretary treasurer. Talk about making a bad choice. He handpicked Joe Tallerico; it couldn't have been a worse selection. In one of his first speeches addressing the membership, he started by telling an off color joke that was a total embarrassment. Hell, that was one of his good qualities. The others were illegal, as he was carted off to prison with other family members for embezzlement.

If that wasn't bad enough, Dority wrote this glowing letter of support and then gave him over $800,000 in his salary recovery scam they passed for themselves. Seems their salaries had gotten so high, their pension exceeded the government limits, and they wanted all the money they figured they had coming. And still, we all sat quietly by, watching as one bad mistake followed the next.

The classic example of stupidity was the hedge fund investments of 1998. The stock markets were running wild. Some of the more aggressive funds made 25% and 30% returns. Incredibly, the International pension plan for staffers had nine hundred plus million dollars at the start of the year, and at the end of it, had somehow dropped over a hundred million dollars. This was very strange, unbelievable really. If the plan had just done average, they would have had in excess of a billion dollars. That is significant to the future, because it was nearly a 200 million dollar swing. In fact the losses intrigued a handful of California locals who sued the International and their officers for a breach of their fiduciary responsibilities. A settlement was just reached, where a small amount of money was recovered, but it was minimal. The damage to the plan is one of the reasons all the changes are being made today in staff retiree benefits.

At least the vale of silence had been broken. I don't mean to ignore the REAP contingent, but their message never really resonated with the masses. As I look back, more of us should have paid attention to what they were saying. Most of their energy was over the packinghouse industry, and it was easy to dispel their arguments with the changing ownership and structure of the business. The reality is, the grocery stores and the dismantling that is taking place today, closely resembles that of the old packinghouse collapse. Once again, we had the opportunity to challenge the sins of the leadership, but we choose not to.

Fast forward to today. That means we overlook the remarkable growth of Wal-Mart in food sales in the states, but it is the by-product of not taking care of business over the years. Our contracts had become watered down by top end settlements that allowed non-union employers to pay higher starting rates than the unionized employers. We got away from organizing, we tried to protect the long service members, and we ended up with a slew of new members who felt little or no connection to the Union. Then when we saw Wal-Mart start to move into food, they put together a tiny little department to go take them out. Absolute and total foolishness would be a very kind assessment.

It is for that reason, and a host of others, I am asking forgiveness. I watched in silence as this thing called the labor movement was neutered by folks who wanted to have theirs, and by god, they got it. They placed the organization ahead of the membership. Worse yet, in some cases, they placed themselves ahead of the membership. Lets get specific:

  • Today, with the massive problems in Milwaukee, Chicago, and a host of other cities, the UFCW International is celebrating with yet another lavish party in San Francisco. As membership drops, members worry about their future, and employers more brazen than ever in our existence, the Union is passing massive dues increases that will break most small locals. The solution will be mergers, and the outcome will be even less democracy.
  • In Canada, local Union leaders are selling out agreements in tradeoffs for more members. They have already bargained away much of the great contract language they had in exchange for new members, and the latest round will be the final nail in the coffin.
  • At a time of intense financial difficulties, the goal isn't to look at cost cutting measures. Let me rephrase that. They are looking at passing significant increases on retiree health care to those who are gone, and those who will retire in the future. Unfortunately, those making the huge salaries (a number of UFCW Union presidents have taken $20,000 to $50,000 increases in the last three years) are left to continue to feed at the trough. Now that the 415 limits are removed, it means when they retire, they will get uncapped pensions. On top of that, a proposal to stop the $20,000 a year payment to vice presidents never even got out of committee. In most cases, those VP's are the same guys making the massive salaries.
  • Here's where it gets ugly. Remember the terrible investment losses in 1998 that led up to most of our pension problems? Turns out the UFCW president, Doug Dority's daughter is now married to the man who was the president of the investment company (IPS) that lost all the money. I will be very clear and state the marriage happened last fall, some four plus years after the actual investment and subsequent losses. The question of course is, did the relationship have anything to do with the decision to invest? We know UFCW leaders have used their positions in the past to get their family members in good paying jobs. How deep does this matter go? Are there other links around the country, and have those trustees abused their power for their own good?
  • Here's where it gets even uglier. RUMOR has it; Dority will leave before the end of the year, shortly after being re-elected to a 5 year term. A replacement will be named by a select few, all of whom will be in the debt of the chosen one. It gets worse thou, because the RUMOR has it Doug will walk away with cash payment similar to Joe Tallerico's, only far richer; somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars. I guess that's to help him pay for those new health care premiums he'll have to pick up as a retiree.

All of this is mind numbing to me Father. I watch as they leave workers wondering what their future is, as they feed in the best restaurants, drink the best booze, sleep in the most expensive hotels, throw the grandest parties, and act like things are okay. It's wrong Father. It's not a movement anymore; it's a business. I know in my heart the labor movement is a good, no a great thing for workers. I'm just so sorry I didn't do more when I had the chance to speak out and stop the gluttony and the shameless behavior of those "elected" to protect and defend workers, those who put the organization first and the members second or third. I ask for your forgiveness, for not standing up and speaking up when I had the chance. Is it too late for me Father? Will God forgive me?

Bill Pearson is President (retired) of UFCW Local 789 in Minnesota.

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