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. At a March 1985 meeting of local presidents in Las Vegas, there was talk of an "amicable disaffiliation," Baker said. Disaffiliation is high treason in the Labor movement. "The shit hit the fan, and the Laborers went after the Mail Handlers," recalled one Labor lawyer familiar with the episode. By the end of that year, the Mail Handlers were in a courtapproved trusteeship -that is, Liuna took total control of the division. For two years, Louis Elesie, a Liuna official, ran the Mail Handlers as its trustee. But Labor law limits the term of trusteeships to eighteen months, so in December 1987 the Mail Handlers were able to elect new officers to run their own union. Delegates to a national convention picked Herbert Walker, then president of the Cincinnati local, as national director and Marion Wright as financial officer.

"Prior to the convention . . . Elesie made what he thought was a friendly comment to me," Baker recalled. "He said, 'Everybody in Washington wants to know why you're backing a black man"'- meaning Walker, who was seen as independent of Liuna. Baker sent a letter to Mail Handlers members around the country publicizing the "change. Elesie would not return telephone calls, but a lawyer for the international denied that Elesie had made the remark, which the Mail Handlers saw as a manifestation of the racial tension underlying the conflict. Liuna's membership is estimated to be 50 to 65 percent nonwhite, but its leadership is predominandy white. Most Mail Handlers national officials are black.

Not surprisingly, the transition was not easy. The new officers and Liuna collided over numerous financial issues. The Mail Handlers, for instance, charged that Liuna owed them hundreds of thousands of dollars; Liuna vehemently disagreed. The Mail Handlers' attempt to gain control over collective bargaining with the U.S. Postal Service was rebuffed by Liuna's Fosco. And, indeed, papers subsequendy filed by Liuna in the lawsuit did show that the Man Handlers had previously recognized that ultimate responsibility for collective bargaining-the lifeblood of any union-rested with Liuna. But the Mail Handlers now argued, with reason, that it should control this critical function. Moreover, its new administration believed Liuna had done a poor job in the last round of contract talks, accepting a paltry 1.6 percent pay hike.

The Mail Handlers' lucrative health plan was also an issue. With premiums of more than $1 billion and an enrollment of about 500,000 workers, it is the second largest plan in the Federal sector. (Nonunion members, who pay annual dues of $30 to become associate members, account for more than 90 percent of the participants.) "Ultimately, that's what they [Liuna] want -the health plan -because of the money it generates," Wright charged. In fact, toward the end of the trusteeship Elesie, who had been appointed by Fosco, signed a potentially profitable two-year contract on behalf of the Mail Handlers with the law firm of Robert Connerton, retaining the firm for the health plan. Connerton is Liuna's general counsel and a major power in the union. When the Mail Handlers' new officers later tried to replace Connerton's firm as the health plan's legal representative, Fosco ordered them not to.

One Liuna official, who would talk only if promised anonymity, denied that control of the health plan was a chief issue in the conflict. "The allegation is that this is a great grab on the part of the international," he said. "The historical fact is that since 1968, when the plan came into effect, it was structured by an international staff representative and built up by him-without the Mail Handlers involved." He claimed that Herbert Walker, who later was indicted for criminal acts committed prior to becoming the Mail Handlers' director, tried to snatch control of collective bargaining and the health plan purely for his own gain.

Last spring, negotiations aimed at ending the intra-union brawl began, with Kircher and Phalen, a Cincinnati laborlaw firm, representing the Mail Handlers. According to Walker, Berrien and Wright, at an April 29 meeting a Kircher and Phalen partner reported that Robert Connerton had suggested a deal: If his Washington law firm was given the legal work for the health plan, other issues could be resolved in the Mail Handlers' favor. In effect, they were accusing Connerton, a major figure in the Labor movement whose firm had collected nearly $1 million from Liuna in 1987, of both coercion and engaging in a blatant conflict of interest. Connerton would not talk on the record for this article, but Kircher and Phalen has denied it passed along any such offer. Minutes of the April 29 meeting, however, note that Thomas Kircher did brief the Mail Handlers on the negotiations with Connerton. They also indicate Liuna was willing to transfer contract administration to the Mail Handlers, "with stipulations," but wanted "total control of Health Plan (with their Attorney's being the adviser)" and other concessions.

The negotiations produced no peace. On June 16, the Mail Handlers' Walker was indicted by a Federal grand jury on charges of embezzling nearly $100,000 while serving as president of Local 304 in Cincinnati between 1983 and 1985. On June 20 the division received a letter from Fosco suspending Walker and imposing an "emergency investigatory supervision" of the union, with Elesie back as "supervisor." The division granted Walker a leave of absence and appointed Berrien to fill the vacancy. Four days later the dispute hit the courts, when Liuna sought judicial enforcement of the supervision and won a temporary restraining order that, in effect, put Liuna in charge of the Mail Handlers. On July 28, Federal District Court Judge Oliver Gasch ruled against Liuna's request for a preliminary injunction. "More than anything else," he noted, "this case represents a power struggle between Laborers' International and . . . the Mail Handlers' Division." He questioned whether the indictment of Walker constituted a true "emergency" and added that the Mail Handlers' efforts to achieve democratic reforms had been thwarted "by the total financial control" Liuna sought. Gasch's decision led to an order freeing the Mail Handlers' bank account, which had been taken over by Liuna. Sill under Liuna control, however, were contract administration and the health plan.

In June the Mail Handlers picketed Liuna headquarters. The July issue of the Mail Handlers' quarterly magazine ran an all- out assault on the parent organization. It assailed Liuna's "greed," raised the issue of alleged mob connections and detailed a complicated set of charges involving the relationships between Liuna, former Postmaster General Preston Tisch and a company that administers the health plan, a firm that is controlled by Tisch and his brother, CBS corporate mogul Laurence Tisch. These allegations focused on the 1987 contract talks, when Liuna, rather than negotiating jointly with other postal unions, agreed on its own to the 1.6 percent raise for the Mail Handlers. This move had weakened the bargaining position of the other unions and benefited Preston Tisch, by keeping postal Labor costs down.

The 1987 contract also contained language changes. In sections on grievances and arbitrations, the Mail Handlers' representative was changed from the "National President of the Union"- meaning the head of the Mail Handlers -to the "General President of the Laborers International Union of North America or his designee."The Ma il Handlers were understandably angered by this, since grievance arbitration is a major link between a union's officers and the rank and file.

The Mail Handlers, charging that their union is the victim of some Tisch-Liuna conspiracy, point to the fact that five months after the Liuna-Postal Service negotiations, Elesie, the Liuna-selected trustee, renewed a contract with Continental Assurance Corporation to continue underwriting the $1 billion health plan. C.A.C. is a subsidiary of C.N.A. Financial Corporation, 80 percent of which is owned by the Tisch brothers. The Mail Handlers' plan accounts for 90 to 95 percent of C.A.C.'s business. In 1986, C.A.C. received $52.6 million in administrative expenses and made $5 million in profit processing claims for the plan.

The Postal Inspection Service, the investigative branch of the Postal Service, is currently trying to determine if the postal negotiations were tainted by the Tisch-C.A.C.-Liuna connection, according to one investigator. Tisch, who served as Postmaster General from 1986 to 1988, recused himself from all postal matters related to C.N.A. "I had nothing to do with C.N.A. business," he told the Federal Times. Yet postal inspectors who examined Tisch's telephone records discovered that he made numerous calls to the offices of C.A.C. while he was Postmaster General, an investigator said. "I don't know if it proves anything," he noted, "but it looks bad on the face." Asked about the inquiry, Tisch called it "a crock of shit."He had no comment regarding his phone calls to C.A.C.

In such a generally combative atmosphere, it must be hard to run a union. Nevertheless, in November the Mail Handlers held a constitutional convention in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The 175 delegates approved a greatly revised Constitution, accepting practically all the changes advocated by Berrien, Wright and the other reformers. One characteristic amendment places authority to negotiate with the Postal Service squarely in the hands of the Mail Handiers, not Liuna. The convention also passed a number of resolutions . One urges the Postal Service to offer child care services; another decries drug testing; a third requires the union to hold seminars for locals on mob infiltration of the Labor movement. A resolution calling on the union to poll its members on whether to remain affiliated with Liuna failed in a close vote, 47.1 to 48 percent.

The new Constitution, which calls for elections of national officers in January, boosts the power of the rank and file. For the first time, national officers will be selected by direct vote of the membership -if, that is, the elections ever take place. After the November convention, Liuna president Fosco claimed that none of the Mail Handlers' constitutional reforms can take effect until approved by Liuna including the provision for rank-and-file balloting. Under the previous Constitution, Liuna was given the last word on all amendments. At the Mail Handlers convention, that was the first clause to be amended. But Fosco argued that even that change is subject to Liuna's approval. In the end, the new Constitution is likely to become yet another matter for the court, which has yet to render a final decision on Fosco's attempt to place the Mail Handlers under supervision.

Ironically, the reformers' support for a more democratic union has made them more vulnerable to Liuna, evidence of the insurgents' egalitarian convictions. If the election had been left to the convention delegates, as in the past, Berrien and Wright would almost certainly have won new terms. Now they must campaign for the votes of the thousands of men and women who handle bags of mail, in the hope that the membership will share in the reformers' democratic vision in sufficient numbers. If Liuna can't head off the election, the international's allies in the Mail Handlers may well try to defeat the reformers with their own campaign assault.

The Mail Handlers cause is muddied, of course, by the facts that Herbert Walker confessed to stealing from his Cincinnati local and that Berrien and Wright still speak fondly of Walker because he fought for the Mail Handlers' autonomy. (They even asked his sentencing judge to go light on him.) Still, the reformist Mail Handlers now tilting at Liuna appear genuinely driven by a desire to make their union more democratic and responsive to members. At a time when automation threatens Postal Service workers, when various unions are competing for the available jobs and when working conditions are seen by most Mail Handlers to be deteriorating, those who haul the mail sacks need all the help they can get.

In the end, this intra-union struggle goes to the heart of an ongoing problem in the Labor movement: How can unionists dedicated to democracy and activism confront ossified and sometimes corrupt -Big Labor leaders? Unions should make room for motivated reformers, but that's not likely in this case. Fosco recently tried to impose yet another trusteeship on the division, but on December 19 a Federal court ordered him to stop and handed the Mail Handlers one victory in a fight that will not end soon.

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