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Sounds nice, but it's antiunion: the labor racketeering bill.

Sounds Nice, But It's Antiunion

The labor racketeering bill now before Congress has juggled the traditional lineup of labor's friends and foes. Among those favoring the measure, formally titled the Labor-Management Racketeering Act, are seventy-five senators, the dissident Teamsters for a Democratic Union and A.F.L.-C.I.O. president Lane Kirkland. Opposing it are leaders of the conservative building trade unions, liberal Democrats in the House and civil libertarians. Under the provisions of the bill, a lawbreaking union leader would be removed from office for ten years upon the date of a trial court conviction; in contrast, current law imposes a five-year debarment only after the final appeal has been rejected.

Last June, the Senate passed the bill by a unanimous vote. The principal sponsors were Orrin Hatch of Utah and Sam Nunn of Georgia; both men consistently draw low ratings for their voting records on labor issues from the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s Committee on Political Education. But Edward Kennedy, who draws high approval ratings, was a co-sponsor of the bill, along with several other Democratic liberals.

With that kind of backing, the bill seemed assured to pass quickly in the House, but it met unexpected resistance in the Subcommittee on Labor-Management Relations. Chairman William Clay and a number of leading progressive Democrats who normally support the labor federation were troubled by the bill's implications and are scrutinizing it.

Hatch and Nunn were reportedly incensed by the delay and have vowed to block Senate votes on any legislation that originated in the Clay subcommittee until their bill gets to the House floor. Meanwhile, some trade unionists have had second thoughts and are disassociating themselves from the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s stand. This group is centered around J.C. Turner, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers, a blunt leader of the George Meany mold but without the latter's rigidity. Turner's reputation for honesty is unblemished.

The term "labor racketeering' immediately puts unions on the defensive. It is difficult to argue against a bill that would prevent convicted union leaders from clinging to power during the lengthy appeals process. Nevertheless, the bill also raises serious questions relating to civil liberties, discrimination and the role of the Federal government in union affairs.

Advocates of the bill call it an important reform, but it is just a slight adjustment to the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959, which first injusted the Federal government deeply into union affairs. That law debars officials who have been convicted of violating the statute's requirement for reporting union finances as well as those who have committed any number of offenses unrelated to union affairs: robbery, burglary, assault, drug violations and the like. The five-year debarment excludes the official not only from his own union but from any other union or "any group dealing with any labor organization.' It is not limited to national union figures; officers and stewards of the approximately 60,000 local unions in the United States are included.

The Landrum-Griffin Act has many other restrictive provisions. The act dictates the content of union constitutions and bylaws. It decrees how dues increases must be implemented. It prescribes internal disciplinary procedures. It establishes the frequency of local and national union elections and procedures for removing union officers, and regulates the conduct of those elections. It gives the Secretary of Labor the power to send Federal agents to investigate union affairs "when he believes it necessary'--a power the Reagan Administration plans to invoke to conduct nearly 2,000 audits of union finances this year, compared with 212 in 1980.

The labor racketeering bill expands the list of crimes punishable by debarment and of posts from which a guilty unionist is excluded. But the bill sets up a double standard for labor and management. While banishing union trans-gressors to the outer darkness, it shows no similar concern for top corporate officials who, though convicted of crimes not related to labor activity, are permitted to keep their jobs. Those corporate labor relations officials convicted of paying bribes, taking kickbacks or signing sweet-heart deals are covered by the bill, but they can simply move to another department in the company to preserve their employment. Union officers have no such escape hatch.

The labor racketeering bill also has troubling implications for civil liberties. Summarily barring someone from union office for conduct that is unrelated to union activities is unjust. What's more, by starting the suspension at the date of conviction, the bill narrows the exercise of judicial discretion in sentencing. For example, the judge who presided in the trial last year in which teamster president Roy Williams was found guilty of attempting to bribe a senator compelled Williams to resign in exchange for a lighter sentence. Finally, civil libertarians criticize the bill's presumption that all judicial appeals are frivolous or dilatory. There are often valid and important objections to a conviction: vague and overbroad statutory language, search and seizure abuses, entrapment and other due-process issues.

The labor racketeering bill makes a passing nod at this problem, requiring the union to hold a convicted official's salary in escrow while his appeal is pending. But that provision forces a union to pay two salaries for one job and raises the prospect of internal union conflict if the appeal succeeds and the union has two individuals contending for the same post.

Kirkland swung the federation's support behind the bill because he is rightly concerned that the labor movement-- already reeling from employee givebacks, plant closings and unionbusting drives--is vulnerable to a broad legislative attack from the White House and the Senate. He and his closest advisers decided to take the high ground on the labor racketeering bill in hopes of warding off future thrusts against labor.

The trouble is that what appears to be the high ground is a morass.

The bill's sweeping language places all union leaders under suspicion. It replays the old themes of big, bad Big Labor, emphasizing the need for more government restraint on unions at a time when the labor movement, in the wake of PATCO's destruction, the Greyhound defeat and massive labor law violations by employers, should be pushing for a public debate on workers' rights to organize and bargain in this society.

As it is, the few rights workers have are not being protected. The National Labor Relations Board has become a tool of management against union organizing campaigns. Moreover, recent hearings by the Clay subcommittee revealed that Reagan's Labor Department has failed to enforce Landrum-Griffin provisions requiring companies to report their use of antiunion consultants, while it has stepped up enforcement of sections of the act applying to unions. Given that record, many unionists question Kirkland's priorities.

Why, ask some leaders of A.F.L.-C.I.O.-affiliated unions, should the federation curry favor with the likes of Orrin Hatch and Sam Nunn when not one pro-labor bill has reached the floor of the Senate since the demise of the labor law reform bill six years ago? Why should convicted corporate officials be allowed to keep their jobs while union officials guilty of the same offenses are punished by debarment? Acceding to this bill is tantamount to saying, Stop me before I kill again! It only strengthens the hand of antiunion politicians and employers who are pushing labor into a corner.

There is no excuse for corruption in the labor movement, but unions need not be defensive. There are more than a hundred national unions; thousands of state, regional and district bodies; and 60,000 local unions, all administering 200,000 callective bargaining agreements around the country. Each of those units has officials responsible for financial affairs. Living in a society whose dominant value is personal enrichment, union leaders are not immune to the temptation to get theirs. What is remarkable is the low incidence of corruption in the labor movement, considering the opportunities. During the Senate hearings on the bill, government witnesses estimated that only two dozen union officials would lose their jobs if the bill passed.

On the other hand, the slightest abuse violates the trust of union members, and many abuses have been more than slight. Charges leveled against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters over the years have been well publicized. They taint its many locals and officials whose honesty and respect for union democracy are beyond question. The teamsters were expelled from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in 1957 for refusing to subscribe to the federation's Ethical Practices Code. Ever since, it has been everyone's favorite villain.

But the rest of organized labor has its own corruption. John L. Lewis once twitted George Meany about the federation's Ethical Practices Committee: "Have you found any ethical practices yet, George?' Lewis may have been overstating the case, but publicized abuses within major A.F.L.-C.I.O.-affiliated unions and the leadership's continued tolerance of corruption within some of the smaller affiliates are still cause for concern. Workers whose unions are controlled by dishonest individuals are blocked from switching to a clean union by the federation's no-raiding policy, which bars associated unions from soliciting one another's members; meanwhile, their unions are untouched by the long-dormant Ethical Practices Committee.

But to accept this bill is to accept the proposition that only the government can clean up corruption in the labor movement. If unionists concede that point, they will admit that they cannot do the job themselves. Indeed, without a fundamental change in direction, they cannot. Only an aroused membership can clean up a union. But the labor racketeering bill substitutes the arm of the government for an aroused membership demanding honesty and accountability from its officers. As long as the members are passive, the same clique from which a corrupt official came will produce his successor. His nose may be cleaner, but that will not change the way the union conducts its affairs. The bill purports to remedy corruption without union members lifting a finger; that is its fatal flaw.

Corruption in the labor movement can be ended only through a drive for militant, democratic, class-conscious trade unionism that mobilizes the rank and file to challenge corporate power. Many of those pushing for the bill shudder at that prospect. They would rather preserve a weak, defensive labor movement than face an activist labor movement and the consequences of a real end to union corruption.

Instead of acquiescing in the government's moves to intrude further in union affairs, labor leaders should demand action on new protections for workers who want to organize and bargain collectively. The government should reform organizing laws, cancel contracts with companies that repeatedly violate labor laws, curb plant closings and runaway shops and end the use of bankruptcy laws to avoid collective bargaining. Obviously, the political climate does not lend itself to such legislation, but labor's endorsement of the racketeering bill will not change that. It will have the opposite effect, reinforcing the notion that corrupt unions are America's biggest labor problem.

The political climate--and unionists' overall fortunes-- can be changed only if labor reasserts itself as a democratic, fighting movement which defends workers' rights. Integral to such a turnaround is a commitment by labor leadership to clean up its ranks and rally behind workers who are fighting for honesty and democracy in their unions. It may appear unrealistic, but there is no alternative. If unions continue to live out a hostage syndrome, grateful to the likes of Orrin Hatch and Sam Nunn for not killing them with union-busting bills but only capturing them with a labor racketeering bill, the labor movement can never mount the challenge to corporate power that is the fundamental condition for its revival.
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Author:Compa, Lance
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 25, 1984
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