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  • authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Fri, Apr 4, 2003

Democracy Delayed is Democracy Denied

Union member takes on IBT over trusteeship of Local 938

Dave McPherson isn't asking for much. A member of Teamsters Local 938 in Mississauga Ontario, McPherson is seeking the restoration of democracy in his local union.

He'll have to wait a while if the local's parent union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has its way. The IBT recently asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board for permission to extend its trusteeship of the local, imposed on May 15, 2002 to January 1, 2004.

Despite the far-reaching implications of union trusteeships, only two Canadian provinces have any laws that address any aspect of these at all. In Ontario, parent unions are required to notify the Ontario Labour Relations Board in the event of the trusteeship of an Ontario-based local. The length of a trusteeship cannot exceed 12 months although the law allows for extensions with the OLRB's consent.

If the IBT gets its request, the 10,500 members of the province-wide local will be without meaningful democratic control of their local for more than six years by the time an election for their local executive is held - 19 months under trusteeship and almost 5 years under the dictatorial rule of the Local's past president, Ray Bartolotti.

Bartolotti's reign is a shameful reminder that exploitation of union members and union resources is alive and well in Canada. The former Teamsters business agent accomplished much in his almost five years at the helm of the large local. Little of it did the members any good.

Within weeks of being elected, Bart hiked his salary to six digits and arranged for salary hikes for his officers. He then had them kick back a portion of their pay to repay a $70,000 election loan he'd lined up from a mysterious source. He lined up additional pension benefits for himself and his inner circle at a reported cost of over $1 million. He hired a convicted extortionist against the advice of the Teamsters Canadian Director only to fire him shortly thereafter with a hefty severance package. He had little time for the members and went to some lengths to avoid them, moving the Local's general membership meetings to a remote northern community some 16 hours drive from Toronto and otherwise canceling or cutting short meetings with members. Bart did all the things that corrupt union leaders have been doing for decades. What makes him remarkable however, is that he did them so quickly and he got caught out and deposed - thanks mainly to the efforts of a dedicated group of members who would not look the other way.

In the end, even the IBT, which ignored the reformers calls for help for more than three years, made no bones about the excesses of Bartolotti's administration. A report of an internal Hearing Panel dated July 30, 2002, just prior to the imposition of full trusteeship (a temporary trusteeship was imposed in May of that year), puts it this way:

(ii) In particular the panel makes the following findings:

  1. The Executive Board improperly delegated its authority in personnel matters to the Principal Officer, who in turn exercised this authority to a considerable degree.
  2. Monies were improperly disbursed by officers other than the Secretary-Treasurer.
  3. Costly and unnecessary staff appointments and terminations were made, coupled with an absence of financial accountability.
  4. Membership meetings were improperly adjourned, relocated and suspended by the Principal Officer and/or the Executive Board.
  5. Officers retaliated against members who filed disciplinary charges against them.
  6. Staff morale is low as a result of personal and politically motivated personnel decisions made by the Principal Officer, and this in turn has eroded membership confidence in the quality of representation they receive from the local.
  7. A large membership unit was transferred to a sister Teamster local union to avoid a decertification due to lack of proper representation.

A more detailed account of Bartolotti's reign and his contributions, can be found in this MFD article, On the Long Road to Reform with Teamsters Local 938.

When it became apparent that help would not be forthcoming from the IBT, an active union reform movement quickly developed within the Local. In IBT elections in 2001, reformers swept all 13 delegate positions for the Local. Several months later, in elections for IBT executive officers, the majority of 938 members voted against the favored Hoffa slate (which Bartolotti enthusiastically supported). By the beginning of 2002, the air was thick with dissent, members speculated about a possible imminent disclosure about Bartolotti's mysterious election loan and a lawsuit by a former business agent held out the possibility that more unpleasantness might be hung out for public viewing.

Finally, in May 2002, with the pot ready to boil over and Bartolotti off on sick leave, the IBT imposed a Temporary Emergency Trusteeship. The International followed up in August with a full trusteeship. It's that trusteeship that the IBT now wants to extend to the January 2004.

The only obstacle standing in the parent union's way right now is Dave McPherson who earlier this week filed an objection to the proposed extension. McPherson is asking that the OLRB dismiss the IBT request so that elections can be held in time to have a new elected administration in place by May 16th of this year (the 12 month anniversary of the trusteeship). A hearing is expected in the near future. The outcome of that hearing could be significant for union members and their representatives: When can democracy be delayed?

It's not that the IBT doesn't want democracy for Local 938. It says that it does, it just doesn't want it right now. It says that the members aren't ready for democracy and that now is just not a good time.

McPherson disagrees. He and thousands of other members want an election of officers for their local and they want it sooner rather than later. Over two thousand of them have signed a petition to this effect so far. Bartolotti's term was due to expire at the end of 2002. Local elections would have been held in October and many members, although initially supportive of the trusteeship, assumed that with Bartolotti gone and order restored to the Local, this would be the case. The prospect of having to wait another year to regain control of their local is baffling and frustrating. Many are asking "why"?

In its submission, the IBT attempts to answer that question. McPherson's objection takes aim at each one of the reasons and pokes it full of holes. The two documents are quite informative and not just because they set out the positions of each side. They provide a window on the different perspectives of the union's leaders and the union's members about what's important to them, about their relationship with each other and about what democracy means to them. It's a rare opportunity to do this, as trusteeship issues do not come up very often before the LRB. Few union members have gone where McPherson is going on an issue of this kind.

The IBT's submission states that much progress has been made towards the objective of the trusteeship which was "...to deal with the ongoing deleterious impacts of the Bartolotti administration which included low staff morale, the erosion of the membership confidence in the quality of Local representation and an officer group which lacked the experience to handle the affairs of the Local."

It lists various activities that have been undertaken to achieve this objective. Expenditure procedures requiring member approval of all major expenditures have been implemented. Two signatures are now required for minor expenses. An audit of health and welfare and pension plans is being undertaken. A newsletter and web site have been developed to promote communication. A by-law committee has been established and regular membership meetings, run in a democratic fashion, are held monthly.

"The elements of democracy within the Local have been revived", says Trustee Larry McDonald (an International Representative from western Canada), in a report released earlier this year. "Membership meetings occur regularly, debate occurs and decisions are taken. However, meetings are not well attended and it is my view that the confidence of the membership will benefit from further period of regular and effective functioning under the Trusteeship".

But the reasons offered up by the IBT's submission have less to do with increasing attendance at union meetings and more to do with avoiding disruption of the existing order that has settled in at the Local.

A number of major collective bargaining negotiations, some with large employers, are coming up the IBT states. "The introduction of less experienced officers/business agents could damage the interests of the Local..." Business agents need additional training and mentoring so that they develop appropriate decision-making skills. A review of the Local's benefit and pension plans needs to be concluded. Disruptive behavior at a membership meeting attended by all of 81 members in Windsor is evidence of a "rejection of democracy and civility" and "... demonstrates that there remains an element in the Local that ...is prepared to use any means to achieve their political ends".

On the surface these arguments have a certain appeal. They sound practical and businesslike. Who could argue that it makes sense to have well-trained business agents, seasoned union negotiators, properly administered benefit and pension plans and a culture of democracy and civility? But dig beneath the surface and practicality quickly gives way to a self-serving paternalism. Dave McPherson's submission pokes at this veneer of practicality and finds an entirely different motive on the part of the IBT: To buy time for current local officials so that they may prepare for their candidacy in the eventual local election - and win.

In his submissions, McPherson examines each of the IBT's reasons for needing a longer trusteeship, and finds them wanting.

Negotiations with various employers, including large employers, are an ongoing part of life in a province-wide local the size of 938. With 105 bargaining units, there's always something up for renewal and negotiations are often difficult. If this were reason enough to extend the trusteeship, McPherson says, "the trusteeship might never be lifted". He also states that some of the negotiations cited by the IBT are carried out by the Canada Council of Teamsters (and not Local 938) while others are conducted jointly with other Teamster locals. Whoever is going to the table, however, McPherson maintains that Local 938 has a number of seasoned negotiators on staff and access to assistance in bargaining from both the National and International offices.

Similarly, he contends that the Local has a number of seasoned business agents, some with many years of experience. For those with less experience, the National and International offices provide a wide range of training. He refers to a recent election at Local 31 in British Columbia where the members booted out an entire incumbent administration and a mostly inexperienced slate of newcomers elected. Training and support is being provided to the new officers by the parent union and no trusteeship appears to have been deemed necessary. McPherson states the obvious:

"It will always be the case in a democratic trade union structure that elected local union officers may wish to appoint new representatives in whom they have confidence. New representatives will in the usual case have the assistance of their local, national and international union structures in order to carry out the responsibilities of their office."

There is considerable dispute as to what exactly transpired at the Windsor membership meeting. It would seem that the meeting - over a controversial mail-in ratification vote - got quite heated. McPherson refutes, however, the IBT's allegations that Assistant Trustee Ed Hawrysh was assaulted and adds that whatever may have taken place; the behavior of a small group can hardly be evidence of a lack of civility or legality on the part of 10,000.

Concerns about health and welfare and pension plans are a new item on the trusteeship screen. McPherson states that these were never offered up in support of either the temporary or full trusteeship and can be carried out regardless of which administration is in office.

Finally McPherson claims that if indeed the IBT was so intent on fixing the problems at Local 938, it had plenty of time to act and didn't. Members raised issues associated with the Bartolotti administration as early as 1998 (his first year in office). An investigation in 1999 by a Teamster official appointed by President Hoffa is believed to have found sufficient grounds for trusteeship, but the IBT did nothing and continued to do nothing for the ensuing three years. The union did not impose the trusteeship until 2002 and then only after the shameful Bartolotti had gone on sick leave.

According to McPherson, the real reason for the trusteeship and the IBT's desired extension has little to do with the parent union's concerns about the members. It's political. The reform movement that evolved within the local during the Bartolotti era is alive and well and has a good shot at the next local election - provided that it happens within a reasonable period of time. There is no other reason to extend the trusteeship, McPherson contends, no reason that makes sense at least.

Does Trustee McDonald have ambitions to run for Local office? He hasn't declared his intentions but he has taken out a membership in Local 938 recently, a move that would permit him to run for elected office if he chose to do so. Apart from the apparent conflict of interest in such a move, his position as Trustee would afford him a tremendous advantage in an election campaign provided that he has enough time to establish a track record of good deeds in advance. Members report that McDonald is working hard in the good deeds department, spending generously on various events and programs aimed at helping members. His activities might be all well and good, if he intends complete his duties as Trustee and go back to his other jobs with the Teamsters, or they might be singularly self-serving if he plans to run for election or back a slate of favored sons.

McPherson isn't optimistic about McDonald's intentions. An "extension of the trusteeship would serve only to assist the IBT's efforts to frustrate the likely election of [a reform] administration by permitting the Trustee to groom possible candidates" for the election when it is finally held.

The reason at the heart of the extension request, McPherson points out, is in a statement in McDonald's May 6, 2002 pre-trusteeship report to IBT President Hoffa.

"The local's officers election is scheduled for this fall. The current political atmosphere has been so poisoned by the ongoing turmoil that an election is unlikely to reflect the true wishes or best interests of the membership. Consequently, it is imperative that stability, order and membership confidence be restored as a recondition to successful negotiations and a fair and responsible election."

Confidence in who? Poisoned by what? We're going to find out.

A hearing date into the IBT's extension request has yet to be scheduled by the OLRB. Anthony Dale, a Toronto labour-side lawyer, is representing McPherson in the proceedings. Dale has asked that the proceedings be expedited so that a decision can be handed down with sufficient time, if McPherson is successful, to permit for local elections to be held and a new elected administration to take office on May 16, 2003.

According to Dale, the decision will hinge on the OLRB's balancing of the interests of the parent union and the union members.

"The Board will try to assess the likely prejudice that would be suffered by the workers if the extension is granted and by the parent union, if it is not". In his view, the issues raised by the IBT are about the day-to-day administration of the union, not about the governance by the union.

Dave McPherson hopes the Board will consider the interests of the members and the prejudice that they'll suffer if they are made to wait several more months for democracy. Again, he's not asking for much. "All we're looking for", he told MFD, "is to let the members decide".

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