David vs. Goliath: Struggling for Union Democracy

By Corn, David | The Nation, January 9, 1989 | Go to article overview

David vs. Goliath: Struggling for Union Democracy


Corn, David, The Nation


Glenn Berrien and Marion Wright couldn't keep in their chairs. As they spoke, they angrily paced their roomy office in downtown Washington. "They say give up our organization or we'll fight you for it," "claimed Berrien, a former dockworker and now the 32-year-old director of the National Post Office Mail Handlers Union. The target of his wrath was the Laborers' International Union of North America (Liuna), of which the Mail Handiers is a division. Wright, the Mail Handlers' financial officer and another former dockhand, is twelve years older than Berrien and a little less refined. He shouted, "We won't sit back and be kicked in the ass."

They were in a union headquarters truly divided. Twothirds of the dozen or so rooms in the suite are claimed by staff members who take their orders from Liuna, an A.F.L.-C.I.O. affiliate numbering about 400,000 unskilled or semi-skilled laborers who generally perform the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs at construction sites. The Mail Handlers represents 43,000 postal workers, mainly those who do the heavy lifting -loading and unloading sacks of mail. Berrien and Wright are spearheading a campaign to attain greater autonomy for their union. On Berrien's desk sat a proposed new Constitution for the Mail Handlers, which, if adopted, would wrest authority from Liuna and increase the power of the Mail Handlers' rank and file.

The union's attempt to rewrite its Constitution is just another chapter in a bitter, years-long struggle between it and Liuna - a feud marked by competing charges of financial impropriety, the indictment of Berrien's predecessor, accusations of racism (Berrien and Wright are black) and a pending lawsuit over control of the Mail Handlers. But this is more than just a clash of two factions. The fight is also about union democracy and the right to challenge union leadership. Both sides try hard to spin the complex story their way. Liuna maintains it is a parent union acting properly to preserve the integrity of a division run by irresponsible officials. Advocates of the Mail Handlers portray the battle as David versus Goliath: a small, awakening union, led by officials attuned to its members' needs, rising up against a powerful and domineering intemational linked to the mob.

In 1986 the President's Commission on Organized Crime labeled Liuna "a union with clear ties to organized crime." It charged that Angelo Fosco, the union's current president, met with members of Chicago's Cosa Nostra in the 1960s and has named mobsters to union leadership posts. (Fosco, a member of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s executive council, is renowned as a do -nothing Labor leader, famous for keeping his mouth shut during A.F.L.-C.I.O. meetings.) In 1981, Fosco himself was indicted for allegedly participating in an organized crime kickback scheme involving union funds. He was eventually acquitted, but the commission reported that "there is little chance that the Liuna membership will be able to eliminate organized crime's influence, or control their union, if the current leadership . . . remains intact." In the past six months, Liuna officials in New Jersey and New York have been indicted for mob-connected racketeering. Fosco did not respond to requests for an interview.

Relations between Liuna and the Mail Handlers have been strained since the two unions initiated merger talks in 1968. But the present troubles began, by Berrien's account, when the international tried to raise its share of the Mad Handlers' monthly dues in 1985. "We had the feeling that the Laborers were just milking us, taking the per capita and doing nothing," says George Baker, now president of Mail Handlers Local 300 in New York City. According to Berrien, thirty-five of the thirty-seven local presidents voted not to pay the increase; in return, Liuna refused to approve a Constitution with minor reforms passed at the Mail Handlers' 1984 convention.

The dues issue sparked a Mail Handlers revolt. …

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