On the Long Road to Reform with Teamsters Local 938
In March of last year, members of Teamsters Local 938 elected a slate of delegates. This may not seem like anything extraordinary but at Local 938 it was, for a number of reasons. The March 2001 election marked the first time in the thirty-year history of the local that delegates were actually elected. In the past, the executive board always got in by acclamation. Then there was the fact that it was a reform slate that was elected. The series of events that spurred the reformers to run their slate will shock anyone who believes that unions are fundamentally democratic organizations but will come as no surprise at all to thousands of union members who belong to very real, very undemocratic unions.
Based in Mississauga Ontario, Local 938 is the second largest Teamsters local in Canada. Its 10,000 members are located across Ontario, with the majority in the Greater Toronto Area. Most work in transportation and related industries. In 1997 an election was held for the Local 938 executive board. Former Local 938 business agent Ray Bartolotti (who held other positions with the Teamsters Union at the time) entered the race along with a slate of supporters. Bartolotti must have wanted to win the election badly. Reformers at the local allege that he obtained a loan of $70,000 from sources outside the local to finance his campaign.
Bartolotti and his slate were successful in their election bid and took office early in 1998. With the election behind him, it was time to pay back the election loan. Seventy thousand dollars is, as you will probably agree, an awful lot of money but Ray found a way to scrounge up the funds. According to sources within the local, beginning in February 1998, Bartolotti granted himself and a number of local officials very generous pay increases. His own salary jumped from $75,000 to $106,000. The other staffers received increases of $20,000, bringing their salaries up to from the low $60,000's to between $80,000 - $96,000. Bartolotti had more than staff morale in mind when dished out these pay hikes. The officials were promptly informed that six of them would be required to contribute a portion of their increases to the repayment of the election loan, some $400.00 per month. Not knowing what else they could do, they complied with this request. Only later, when they became aware that the 70K had in fact been repaid through some other outside source did they begin to question what was going on. Apart from the fact that the kickbacks Bartolotti arranged would, in effect, mean that union funds were being used to finance his election (something that is prohibited under the Teamsters Constitution), the exorbitant salary increases were never approved by the membership.
But dipping into the local's treasury didn't stop there. That same year, Bartolotti arranged for a new pension plan for the officers of the local. This benefit improvement cost the local $1.2 million ($895,000 went towards the purchase of back service credits for five local 938 officials all of whom were already members of other Teamster pension plans).
In addition, Bartolotti arranged for the sale of the union hall. Some $140,000 worth of furniture found its' way into the sale at no additional cost. A new hall was purchased and $160,000 worth of renovations performed by contractors who are believed to be Bartollotti's acquaintances.
Over the objections of senior Teamster officials, including Canadian President Louis LaCroix, Bartolotti hired on as a business agent, ex-Teamster official, Sean Floyd. In the early 1990's Floyd made the local headlines when he was convicted of accepting bribes from employers and ended up doing jail time for his efforts. Not long after bringing Floyd on board, Bartolotti parted company with him. It is believed that Floyd left with a golden handshake.
Bartolotti attempted to amend the local by-laws to place more control in the hands of the President and executive board. He moved the location of the general membership meeting from the Greater Toronto Area (where the majority of members live) to Thunder Bay, a small city in Northwestern Ontario, some 16 hours away and home to about 400 members.
A formal complaint about these and various other activities was filed with the Independent Review Board (an agency that governs union affairs in the U.S.) in New York in December 1999. A year and a half later, nothing has happened. The complaint has not been investigated, no hearings have been conducted and the reformers who filed it have heard nothing. Various other complaints have also been filed on related issues. Some have been granted and some denied. These have been dealt with but the big one has not.
All of this prompted a group of members to run a slate of delegates in 2001. Within the Teamsters Union, delegate elections occur every five years. Locals are allotted numbers of delegates based on their size. Local 938 is entitled to elect 12 delegates plus one alternate. The reformers slate called the "Local 938 Canadian Unity Slate". Their campaign commenced in the fall of 2000, and focused on the multiple pensions and multiple salaries of local officials, the pension service buy backs, the sale of the union hall as well as the general abuses of their union dues. The reformers had no mysterious backers. Their campaign was financed entirely through local fund raising activities; ticket sales, raffles and the like. They knocked on doors, visited members at their work sites - US Teamsters Union reformer, Tom Leedham, spent a few days on the campaign trail.
The emergence of the reformers did not sit well with the local executives who were accustomed to winning delegate elections by default. The Bartolotti slate, calling itself the "Hoffa Canadian Unity Slate" (a name that sounded confusingly similar to the reform "Local 938 Unity Slate"), was found in a number of instances to have violated the Teamsters Election Rules. In one documented incident Bartolotti berated and threatened a group handing out literature after a union meeting. In another, local office equipment was used to generate and distribute campaign literature. In still another, literature from the local's insurance broker was sent to members urging them to support the Bartolotti slate (Bartolotti was ordered to compensate the reform slate for this breach). If this wasn't bad enough, in the run-up to election day, members began receiving telemarketing phone calls from the US, urging them to vote for Ray Bartolotti and the "Hoffa Unity Slate". In March of 2001, the results of the mail in ballot were released. Despite their underdog position going into the campaign, the reformer slate won by a margin of 2 to 1.
The reformers have made their presence felt at the local. Executive elections are scheduled to take place later this year and there are indications that the current executive is nervous. There is speculation about a possible merger between Local 938 and a number of other large Teamster locals; a move that would make the exec elections much tougher for the reformers to win. In anticipation of getting the boot, Bartolotti has installed a severance package that reformers believe stands to give him about $118,000.00 if he loses the election or retires. That's in addition to his annual salary of $105,000.00.
Whatever the Local execs may have in mind, the issues aren't going away and the reformers are continuing with their efforts at reforming their local and their union in general. Questions about the alleged 70K election loan persist. Why would anyone invest that much money in a run for local union office? What made the presidency of the local so attractive for Ray Bartolotti? Where did the money come from and who paid off the loan? One theory is that it came from officials connected with another union or unions. If that were the case, why would one union finance a candidate's election campaign in another union? Whether the source of the money has a labour movement connection or not, the concern about this aspect of the local 938 story is: nobody lends you $70,000 out of the goodness of their heart. Who does the local executive owe and what do they owe?
By now it should be apparent that these Teamster reformers have a lot of common ground with UFCW reformers: There are the multiple salaries and multiple pensions of union officials who seem to come out of nowhere and become kings for life. The use of pension plans to further subsidize the already bloated compensation packages of certain select union officials. Local by-law amendments to concentrate power in the hands of the local President and executive board rather than the members. Real estate dealings that appear to benefit presidential associates. The list goes on. The wheeling and dealing even involves some of the same characters. The same man who facilitated a similar arrangement at UFCW Local 1518 brokered the pension deal that was put in place at Local 938.
Reformers, although you are from different unions, you have a lot of common ground. Your leaders talk to each other, you should do the same. You may be surprised what you'll find out.