Printer Friendly

The best and the worst of American unions.


The words of Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, have often been cited to summarize everything that is wrong with unions: "What does labor want? More!' More wages even when profits are declining. More benefits even when generous compensation is pricing products out of competition. More work rules that stifle productivity. More political power to follow selfish agendas. Seldom has a man been misquoted so appropriately.

Gompers's actual statement, made in an 1893 speech to the International Labor Congress, revealed a somewhat broader, more enlightened vision of organized labor. "We want more school houses, and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime,' Gompers said. He appealed for an eight-hour day, improved health and safety, more justice, less greed, and concluded with a somewhat dated but inspirational call for "more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.'

Labor has, in recent years, lived too much by the essence of the abridged quote rather than the loftier one, sometimes because callous management has left it little choice and sometimes because of selfishness. But things have begun to change. In some cases management has mellowed. Just as important, plant closings, concessionary wage agreements, and the rapid rise of union busting firms have forced unions to abandon--often reluctantly--the traditional rules of the labor movement.

The experimentation has taken many forms--a wages-for-power swap at an airline, a union-run supermarket in Philadelphia, a reduction of work rules at an auto plant in California, a union-built homeless shelter in Los Angeles. Unions have also adopted a variety of sophisticated new methods of putting financial pressure on companies beyond setting up pickets outside the closed plant gates.

As unions become more aggressive--strikes were up in 1986 for the first time in a decade--it is critical that their efforts be channeled well. The persistence of corrupt, selfish, shortsighted unions will doom the labor movement.

What is a "good' union? Fundamentally, it is one with a broad view of both what to demand and how to demand it. It is concerned with worker power and conditions and the quality of the product or service. It is effective, clean, non-discriminatory and applies its political muscle not just for itself but for the public good.

Because there are 60,000 union locals in America, some of the most horrendous coexisting in the same national union as some of the most angelic, to definitively select the best and worst is impossible. But drawing on interviews with academics, unionists, and labor reporters, it is possible to identify the unions exhibiting those qualities that the next labor movement should encourage and those it should purge.

The Best

Farm Labor Organizing Committee--Baldemar Valasquez has for the past nine years campaigned with messianic fervor for probably the worst treated workers in America, migrant farmers. But he has succeeded in this difficult area of organizing not just because he preached a compelling gospel, but because he followed the money.

Valasquez founded FLOC in 1967. After years of organizing, it had gained only a few limited agreements with growers in Northern Ohio, and Third World conditions persisted. Pay was often below minimum wage, workers were continuously exposed to pesticides, and most farms had inadequate or nonexistent toilet facilities. He concluded that growers were not budging because they were in no position to. If they raised wages, and therefore tomato prices, the dominant corporate food processors to whom they sold--primarily Campbell's and Libby's--would simply announce they were taking their business to one of the dozens of other growers in Ohio.

So in 1979 FLOC took the unusual step of bypassing the employers by launching a nationwide boycott of Campbell's. Although Campbell's denies the boycotts had any effect on sales, the effort did stain the company's Mmmm-mmm-good image, particularly when the National Council of Churches--an umbrella group representing many Protestant denominations-- and several Catholic bishops threatened to join the boycott.

To broaden its attack, FLOC brought in Ray Rogers, the labor consultant credited with pioneering the modern "corporate campaign' in which unions target the financial lifelines of intransigent companies. FLOC and the churches, joined by unions and progressive groups from around the country, picketed Philadelphia National Bank, one of Campbell's major creditors. One month after FLOC focused on Philadelphia National, sympathetic depositors threatened to pull $500,000 out of the bank. TV and newspaper accounts referred to Campbell's role in maintaining the deplorable conditions. The stain on the company's corporate image grew darker. "You had these little nuns get up at stockholders' meetings saying I have one share and you're a dirty so and so,' says John Dunlop, secretary of labor in the Ford administration, who was involved in the FLOC battle.

Dunlop chaired a commission that was instrumental in pressuring Campbell's to negotiate. Established originally at Campbell's request to set up anti-proverty programs, not collective bargaining agreements, it soon began acting as a private National Labor Relations Board. (The federal NLRB doesn't have jurisdiction over farm workers, a testimony to the power of agribusiness.) The commission included Douglas Fraser, former president of the United Auto Workers, a prominent Catholic leader, an Agriculture Department official under two Republican administrations, and the president of one of the Midwest's largest agribusinesses. The group was too respectable to be ignored.

The turning point came in the fall of 1985 when Campbell's officials, after prodding from the churches and the commission, took an unprecedented step. They agreed to negotiate with the migrant workers--people who didn't work for them. The migrant workers, growers, and Campbell's announced a three-way pact in February 1986 in which the growers agreed to give limited medical insurance, a paid holiday, and an increase in wages from an average of $3.95 an hour to $4.50 for workers on mechanized farms. (The wages for the lower-paid handpickers are still being negotiated.) That was possible only because Campbell's agreed to purchase a fixed portion of growers' crops, a guarantee that allowed them to increase wages without fear the giant processor would take its business elsewhere. The precedent set, the H.J. Heinz company settled with FLOC in April. And 23 of the largest cucumber growers in Ohio and Michigan have also signed agreements. Over the past 15 years, FLOC has also persuaded about 80 percent of growers to install toilet facilities.

The lesson for other unions? "If you follow the money,' says Valasquez, "you'll get to the people with real financial power.'

Los Angeles County Labor Federation--The labor "bosses' of Los Angeles seem to have city hall in their pockets. The Federation's executive secretary is a close advisor of the mayor and president of the Park and Recreation Commission. Another top Federation official is chairman of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency; the vice chair of the Federation is on the City Planning Commission. But what earns the federation praise is that it has shown that union political clout can be as noble as it is effective.

In January 1985 the Federation organized a volunteer effort to construct a 138-bed temporary homeless shelter, arranging for contractors to donate some materials, and purchasing the rest itself. Most important, about 300 union workers spent a week constructing the shelter on a vacant city lot. "I told them, if you think you're going to put it up in a week you're crazy,' Andy Raubeson, president of the SRO Housing Corporation, told union leaders.

Not only was the shelter ready for occupancy in ten days, but the well-connected union leaders were able to cut through reams of paperwork in 72 hours, even receiving an exemption from the distinctly L.A. ordinance requiring the shelter to have a parking lot. In addition to aiding the homeless, the Federation has helped restore a fire-damaged hospice for battered women and worked with the Los Angeles archdiocese on other community projects.

The Federation's efforts are particularly impressive given the traditional reluctance of construction-related unions to participate in or even allow poverty programs that require volunterr or low wage labor. The New York building trades unions, by comparison, recently stalled an effort to build permanent housing for the homeless because, for cost reasons, it would have used prefabricated materials, which require less labor than housing built from scratch, although more than that not built at all.

Though their hearts might not be in it, the New Yorkers might consider that the Los Angeles approach has a pragmatic side to it. As Bill Luddy, spokesman for the Federation, said, "If you have a favorite charity and you find out the union built a new wing for it, then the next time you go into a store that's non-union, you might think about it.'

United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, Local 277--The traditional union answer to a plant closing has been to curse the darkness instead of seeking the light. The local representing the Morse Tool Cutting Plant in New Bedford, Massachusetts has shown that unions can help save jobs in even the gloomiest cases, if they are savvy, persistent, and resourceful.

For about a hundred years Morse was the name in cutting tools. In 1968, Gulf and Western bought the company, and operated it profitably into the eighties. But in 1982, the conglomerate, citing declining profits, demanded a 20 percent wage and benefit cut. The union responded with consultants' studies showing that Gulf and Western had invested little in plant modernization compared to its competitors. The union went on strike and launched a community-wide "Stop Milking Morse' campaign. After 13 weeks, Gulf and Western dropped the concession demands, but only hired back 375 employees, roughly half the workforce. The company still refused to invest significantly in new equipment.

In 1983, the company announced it was going to jettison the plant, but showed no interest in finding a buyer who would agree not to close it. The union again organized a community effort to keep it open, gaining a crucial promise from the mayor to seize the factory under the powers of eminent domain if necessary. When the accountants at Gulf and Western calculated that selling to someone who would keep the plant open was more lucrative than letting the city name its price, they quickly found a private investor, James Lambert, who made the promise. The union took a wage freeze and gave up three weeks vacation to help out the new boss.

Their while knight turned out to be the village pauper. In January, Lambert, who had financed the purchase mostly through debt, declared bankruptcy--the union claims he didn't invest in modernization either--and put the plant on the auction block. The first bid came from the Harbour Group tool company, which already owned several tool plants. Harbour wanted to close the plant, take some of the machines, swipe the customer lists and, most important, elope with that prestigious Morse name to use for its own tools. The union wasn't thrilled with the offer. It argued that since Morse still had a reputation for high-quality products, the plant could turn a profit if only an investor would help modernize it.

The union again hijacked the financial dealings. It appealed for another bidder and got one, International Twist Drill Holding Ltd. of Scotland. To help Twist Drill, the union gained promises of city and state aid, discussed the possibility of more wage concessions, and organized rallies featuring kilt-clad bagpipe players.

In June, a bankruptcy court sold Morse to Twist Drill. Twist Drill has promised not only to keep the plant open but to make multi-million dollar modernization investments. "This shows that if someone announces a closing you just don't have to sit back and take it,' says Tom Medeiros, a member of the union. "We really believe that no matter whose name was on the plant it is our plant.'

Association of Flight Attendants--The first president of what is now the Association of Flight Attendants was fired in the middle of her term in 1946. Not for leading some disruptive strike that left thousands of untanned vacationers stranded on a runway. United Airlines dismissed her for getting married. Not only could flight attendants not marry then, but they couldn't get pregnant, be older than 32, be black, have improperly manicured fingernails, be even slightly overweight, or have children. Most of these policies have been eliminated or relaxed, in large part through the efforts of the Association of Flight Attendants, the oldest and largest union of flight attendants and the first AFL-CIO union run by women.

As a result of law suits and collective bargaining in the sixties and seventies, the age restrictions and marriage bans were lifted and maternity leaves were introduced. Blacks are now employed, as are men and some slightly Rubenesque women. The removal of discriminatory barriers along with improvements in wages, benefits, and work schedules have helped transform the "fly girl' job into a career. In 1967, flight attendants stayed a year or two; the average tenure today is ten years and climbing.

The flight attendants are still judged by some rather unusual employment standards. Most airlines have weight requirements which, though less strict than in earlier years, are extreme compared to most other service-oriented jobs. Moreover, flight attendants have not fared well since deregulation. To its discredit, the AFA, along with the other flight attendants unions, in 1982 accepted a two-tier wage system that passes the burden of concessions on to future members. While an entry-level union job paid $1,314 per month in 1982 it now pays $1,198 a month for 150 to 225 hours of work, a grueling schedule even if you get five hours off to see downtown Toledo. The unions have been lucky to hold on to what they have; intense airline competition has put many flight attendants in the same position as steel workers: accept concessions or lose jobs. The threat is effective not just because many of the companies are in shaky financial condition but because each opening for a flight attendant job is met with a flood of applications. When Karl Marx wrote about the army of unemployed suppressing wages he probably had not envisioned a battalion of 21-year-old women yearning to see Hong Kong, but the effect is the same.

But while they have slipped on wages in the past few years, they have excelled in other areas. They have, for example, aggressively lobbied the Federal Aviation Administration to require nonflammable cabin materials, maintain an adequate number of emergency exits, and reduce carry-on luggage, which sometimes falls on people. "They have been very effective in keeping the safety issues up front,' says Patricia Goldman, vice chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. In addition, they initiated an Employee Assistance Plan that is considered a model by experts in workplace health because it emphasizes teaching flight attendants to refer troubled colleagues to medical treatment or psychological counseling rather than relying on supervisors to do it. While this type of Employee Assistance Plan is unique among unions, it is typical of the AFA's insistence that flight attendants be treated with sensitivity rather than as sex objects who are there mostly to lure businessmen aboard.

American Federation of Teachers--Most education reform is a potential threat to teachers. Merit pay can be used by principals to punish dissident teachers. Giving schools the power to fire incompetent teachers can undermine the job security of good but feisty ones. Teacher exams can be an arbitrary and demeaning way of judging talent. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has made a major contribution toward improving education by viewing these potential problems as hazards that need to be overcome, rather than as justifications for blocking reform.

When Texas passed its comprehensive education reform package in 1984, three teachers' associations opposed it and one supported it-- the state affiliate of the AFT. In Tennessee, the local chapter of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers union, opposed the state's nationally acclaimed education reform. The AFT affiliate supported it. The same pattern was repeated in Arkansas.

Not only has the AFT been consistently ahead of its larger rival, the NEA, it has made educational improvement a top priority and, in some cases, has been down right innovative. The AFT has campaigned for a national teacher exam for new teachers and for starting education earlier. It has endorsed some forms of peer review, a career ladder that adopts elements of merit pay, and special programs to attract talented new teachers. The Toledo, Ohio, affiliate has even instituted a program to weed out incompetent teachers, perhaps the trickiest reform for teachers or any other unions. Recognizing that bad teachers affect both educational quality and morale, AFT officials in Toledo helped devise a system in which teachers could be fired if both the principal and a peer review committee agreed they were incompetent. Since 1981, 26 teachers have been singled out under the program; 15 are no longer teaching in the city.

AFT has also pushed hard, along with the NEA, for perhaps the most important reform-- higher salaries. Between 1980 and 1987 the average teacher salary, in constant dollars, jumped from $21,673 to $25,240, in part because of teachers union lobbying.

Albert Shanker, the AFT president, has the flexibility to take bolder positions than the NEA's leadership in part because he is an autocrat, but there are still issues he has held back on. Most significantly, in emphasizing "professionalism' he has continued to insist teachers should take a series of often useless education courses before they are fully certified. Moreover, his hawkish views on foreign policy and his leadership of a racially polarizing New York City teachers strike in 1968 have made some liberals reluctant to join hands with him.

But Shanker is not likely to retreat on most reform issues. In a recent article, he offered hope--and a threat. "If things get only slightly better--or if they get worse--all the powers we can exercise at the bargaining table or in the legislative arena will not be enough to stop an angry public from getting even with the public schools. But even if we could fool the public we cannot fool ourselves. Nor would we want to. In the end it is we who must serve as the protectors of our students and our profession.'

United Auto Workers--One might have expected it from a hippie-turned-entrepreneur or from desperate workers faced with an immediate plant shut-down. But ten years ago it seemed unlikely that the union fighting hardest for a creative, flexible workplace would be the one that had fought most ferociously for stifling work rules and don't-tell-me-about-declining-profits wage increases. But with UAW president Douglas Fraser's appointment to the Chrysler board in 1980, the union adopted a radical principle: unions can take responsibility for economic growth.

For example, Ford's Employee Involvement program, credited with helping the company's dramatic financial turnaround, not only brought workers in on shop-level decisions about production and work conditions, but gave workers the authority to stop assembly lines to cut down defects. The program also eliminated many job classifications. In other industry plants that have more than 100 rigid job classifications, a few absentees can cripple an assembly line and worker tedium is unrelieved.

The contract bargained with the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI), the joint General Motors-Toyota venture in Fremont, California, created a similar system of small teams, with each worker trained at many tasks. After years of labor-management relations so bitter that the plant was referred to as "the battleship,' introduction of employee control dropped the absentee rate from 20 percent to 2.5 percent today. Grievances went from thousands to dozens. And NUMMI's product, the Chevrolet Nova, has received good reviews. "Nobody thinks we died and went to heaven, but when we have a problem we talk it over and we solve it,' says Gus Tilly, vice president of the local. "Quality is up. Last month we had one of the best orders yet. People feel like they're listened to.'

These agreements also include incentive pay plans that tie some wages to company profits. The UAW and the auto companies have also set up a $1 billion job bank to retrain and reassign workers who lose their jobs due to new technology, plant consolidation, or other efficiency measures.

Another area in which the UAW has forged ahead is in protecting workers' health and safety. Historically, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union has been the most vigilant and sophisticated in protecting worker health and safety. But occupational health and safety experts around the country agree the UAW is now the leader. UAW's most important innovation was dropping the assumption that OSHA would protect workers or, more importantly, that company doctors would honestly report health and safety problems. (The history of asbestos workers shows that company health officers know who signs their paychecks.) There are now more than 300 health and safety representatives around the country paid for by the companies but hired by, and answerable to, the UAW. The union now has both legislative and contractual rights to investigate many health and safety problems without management approval. In 1984, it negotiated a clause under which the auto companies contribute two to four cents for every hour worked into a huge pool, now totalling $30 million, for research and worker health and safety training.

On a national level, the UAW health and safety staff not only sets policy but sponsors detailed epidemiological studies to pinpoint problems. One such study, for example, found that employees working with hot tar had a ten times greater incidence of cancer than others at the plant. The union got the company to use containers that reduced the tar fumes and dramatically cut the risk. "For several years we had mentioned the tar problem,' says Michael Silverstein, assistant director of occupational health and safety. "But they had never done anything until we came with concrete mortality studies.'

The UAW is not without its serious defects. It has increasingly exhibited the worst elements of Big Labor thuggishness toward the rank and file. For example, Jerry Tucker, former assistant director of the UAW and a talented organizer, was fired by the central leadership for challenging the UAW-leadership-backed candidate for the regional directorship. In addition, the union has allowed industry-wide bargaining to disintegrate, in some cases setting off "whipsawing,' when a company has used the concessionary agreement of one local to justify concessions from other locals.


International Brotherhood of Teamsters--By far the most common response when I asked, "What are the worst unions?' was "well, besides the Teamsters, there's . . ..' On no other point was there so much agreement.

The Justice Department is even planning the drastic step of trying to place the international union in trusteeship--a move the Reagan administration was less eager to make when it needed the union's political support; they were the only union to support Reagan twice and one of the first groups to receive a presidential courtesy call in 1981. Is the Teamsters's reputation really deserved? Look at it this way: on average, from 1979 to 1984, a Teamster official was indicted by federal authorities every eight days. The 225 indictments ranged from racketeering, arson, and aggravated assault to extortion, bribery, and pension fund embezzlement. Just a few bad apples? "Every big Teamster local union had some connection with organized crime,' Roy Williams, a former Teamsters International president, has testified. In fact, the President's Commission on Organized Crime report, in a chapter on the Teamsters titled "The Most Controlled Union,' estimated that the majority of Teamsters members are in locals controlled or influenced by the mob. Three of the past five Teamsters national presidents have done time. One of the "clean' ones, the current president, Jackie Presser, is currently under indictment for putting mob-tied "ghost employees' on the payroll of his Cleveland local.

But maybe you think the most important question is not a little corruption here and there but whether the Teamsters helps its members. Unfortunately, while its members probably have higher wages than they would if they weren't in a union, several of the organized crime schemes for involving labor unions have stung workers' wages and pension funds. For example, the federal government placed the Central States Pension Fund--also known as the mafia bank--in trusteeship after the Teamsters spent millions from retirement benefits on mafia-related loans to Las Vegas casinos. Organized crime also profits from sweetheart deals in which mob-tied union officials allow companies to pay lower wages or benefits for kickbacks. In the seventies, for example, corrupt local union officials got kickbacks for working with Eugene Boffa, a mafia associate who employed Teamster truck drivers and warehousemen. Boffa would arrange to have corporations fire their workers and hire his at reduced wage or benefit levels. Boffa got an extra percentage and the company got lower labor costs.

Even when they're not flouting the law, the Teamsters leadership serves its members badly. Since 1983, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reform group within the union, has led a successful campaign to reject three contracts, including one in 1983 that set up a dramatically lower wage for new employees. A two-tier contract "not only cuts the wage bill for the employer, it divides the work force,' TDU literature argued. "It sells out the union's future, in the form of the new hires, the younger workers.'

Teamsters rank and file are also ripped off when their dues go to pay for the lavish salaries of union officials. There are more than 100 union leaders in the Teamsters who earn more than $100,000, according to TDU. Teamsters president Jackie Presser nets more than $500,000 from his various union jobs, more than twice as much as the next highest-paid American union leader, Weldon L. Mathis, secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters.

There are, of course, honest, effective locals within the Teamsters--many of them work in areas not traditionally associated with the union, such as government sector employees. In fact, only 10 percent of the union's members are now truckers. That might be a hopeful development since organized crime originally thrived in the Teamsters in large part because truckers have natural leverage--companies depend heavily on getting their goods in a timely manner. But diversification has its troubling side too: the Teamsters now represent the Flint, Michigan police department and are organizing others. Moreover, the union's outreach effort has tended to take the form of stealing workers from other unions rather than organizing the non-unionized.

Presser has made a valiant effort to change. To improve the union's image, for example, he has virtually abandoned his customary black shirt and white tie in favor of business suits. But such reforms notwithstanding, cleaning up the Teamsters is no easy task. On the first day of the 1983 convention of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the Brotherhood of Loyal Americans and Strong Teamsters (BLAST) chartered nine buses from around the country, went to the site of the meeting, pushed aside local police, chased the group's members out of the hall, tore down banners, and took over the convention. The raid party included not just rank and file, but two local presidents, one vice-president, two secretary-treasurers, three organizers, and at least ten business agents. Jackie Presser was touched. He told a Teamsters meeting in Cleveland: "I could have imagined a lot of stronger, tougher guys going there, and tough truck drivers, but I was looking through the pictures, and you know who was in the front line of a real wild fight with state highway patrolmen and police there? The secretary-treasurer of our joint council, Bill Evans, who's had two heart attacks . . .. Bill, I want to tell you, you're a hell of a guy to take it on yourself . . .. I'm going to tell you something. We should be doing more of that. I'm going to tell you, I'm not going to let up on these people.'

If there's rank and file discontent with Presser it's difficult to tell since his rise to the presidency has rarely been inconvenienced by a democratic election. Presser's union career began when his father, a national Teamsters official, appointed him secretary-treasurer of local 507 in Cleveland. (That local hasn't held a contested election in 17 years.) In 1981, the Teamsters general executive board appointed Presser a national vice president and in 1982 made him president. He wasn't "democratically' elected until last June at the quinquennial national convention. If the power of incumbency weren't enough to assure his election, the dominance of delegates from mob-dominated locals made him a formidable candidate.

Despite the odds, the reformist TDU has made some progress, scoring victories in scattered local elections in addition to contract votes. One of the most hopeful events occurred in 1985 when Linda Gregg, a forklift operator from Denver and a member of the TDU policy board, was elected secretary-treasurer of the Denver local. Not surprisingly, the national Teamsters board overturned the results and ordered a new election. The second time Gregg swept the entire TDU slate in with her.

Sheet Metal Workers' International Association, Local 28--The building trades have always been--and still are--among the least racially integrated jobs in the country. To a great extent this isn't because of racist companies or indifferent government officials. And it's not because the jobs are too highly skilled: the percentage of accountants that are black is higher than the percentage of carpenters who are. It's because of unions. One of the worst examples is New York City's Local 28, which has shown unparalleled creativity during its long history of keeping out blacks.

Efforts to force Local 28 to integrate began in 1948, when the New York State Commission Against Discrimination ordered the union to drop its "caucasian only' contract clause. The local changed the words, but not its process of selecting apprentices, the first step toward full union membership. All new apprentices had to be sponsored for membership by current ones. All of the current ones, of course, were white. And all construction hiring came through the union. By 1964, there was still not a single black worker in the union. When the state Commission on Human Rights and the state Supreme Court ordered Local 28 to admit some blacks, the union refused.

Over the next 22 years, various courts held the local in contempt of court orders and civil rights laws, but the union discovered other ways to keep out blacks. It administered entrance exams that tested knowledge of classical music, Shakespeare and, in one case, asked which president was assassinated by Leon F. Czolgosz (it was McKinley). The union then refused to abide by the scores when minorities received "unfair tutoring' and passed in unreasonably high numbers.

The local also defiantly ignored city attempts to integrate the construction trades. In 1968, the city delayed 26 contracts worth more than $6 million because Local 28 had not supplied city contractors with a single non-white worker. Two years later, the city began requiring contractors to employ one minority trainee for every four journeyman members. One local refused until the end to comply: Local 28. In early 1974, the city tried to assign six minority trainees to sheetmetal contractors working on city projects. Local 28 members put down their tools and stopped working in protest.

By 1974, only 3 percent of the union's total membership was non-white, even though the available work pool was 29 percent minorities. A year later another court ruled the low rate was part of a concerted, often elaborate, effort to keep minorities out. When demands by blacks for membership increased, the union simply restricted its total size. During labor shortages, rather than take on new blacks, Local 28 recalled retired workers, who brought doctors' notes attesting to their fitness, or went to other unions. Not to the Sheet Metal Local 400, a predominantly black local, but to the mostly white plumbers, metal workers, and carpenters unions or to sheetmetal workers unions outside of New York City.

By 1982, several court orders later, the minority membership was up to 10.8 percent, but the union was again found in contempt of civil rights laws because it continued to seek whites from sister locals, had restricted use of the apprenticeship program through which blacks were supposed to enter the trade, and refused to publicize membership opportunities. The next year a court found it discriminatory and ordered various affirmative action measures taken. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that because of the "egregious' history of discrimination and "patently contumaceous' refusal to abide by court orders, an affirmative action goal of 29 percent was justified.

International Longshoremen's Association--The mafia may rob pensions, break kneecaps, and murder critics, but according to the President's Commission on Organized Crime, the mob "continues to display an adaptability to technological innovation on the waterfront.' The commission's report last year pointed out that when modern containerization techniques for unloading greater amounts of cargo were introduced, organized crime immediately moved in to profit from it.

The speed with which ships must be unloaded historically lent itself nicely to extortion plans as well as legitimate union organizing. The ILA probably has the highest ratio of indicted officials to members--115 officials of the 69,000-member union faced charges between 1979 and 1984. The union is allegedly dominated by the Gambino crime family, one of whose former chiefs, Carlo Gambino, once described himself as a "labor relations consultant.'

But it's not just mafia control that earns the ILA a spot on the worst list; the union has also made a major contribution to the disintegration of New York's ports. In exchange for agreeing to containerization, the ILA negotiated an agreement under which members were paid a guaranteed annual income of roughly $32,000 whether they worked or not. In New York, the system was paid for in part by an assessment on ship tonnage, a tax that drove many shippers to other ports.

United Food and Commercial Workers--All wage concessions are not created equal. No union wants to take paycuts, but when they become unavoidable, unions can help construct giveback plans that spread the burden fairly. The UFCW provides the model for the wrong way to do it.

Representing both meatpacking and retail grocery clerks, the one million-member UFCW is diverse and includes many wise and strong individual unions, most notably Local 1357, which established worker-owner O & O supermarkets in Philadelphia. Indeed, over the past few years the UFCW has organized more new members than any other AFL-CIO union. Unfortunately, the union has also led in the creation of two-tier wage contracts.

Multi-tiered systems are one of the most insidious concessions management has devised and unions accepted. Seniority arrangements, for all their benefits, have always lowered the status and opportunities of new workers. Multi-tiered systems take that to an absurd extreme by imposing the largest burden of wage concessions on new workers. Within a few years, you have employees working side by side, doing the same job, with virtually the same experience, getting paid dramatically different wages: a perfect recipe for low morale and division in the workforce.

UFCW supermarket workers began switching to two-tiers in the late seventies. The Kroger supermarket chain has workers with five different wages ranging from $6.34 an hour to $10.02. Granted, in many cases local unions had to make concessions because of intense competition from non-union chains, but they didn't have to agree to two-tier contracts. The UFCW has negotiated more such contracts than any other union; from 1983 to 1986, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, it negotiated 107 two-tier contracts, 30 percent of all such contracts. Even those in industries battered by low-wage foreign competition fared better. Moreover, while some unions have negotiated agreements in which the tiers merged after five years, many of the UFCW's allow for permanent castes. "We made a trade-off,' a local leader explained after one such agreement was made for a grocery chain in the Washington-Baltimore area. "We traded the new hires to preserve things for our existing people.'

Ironically, these contracts may backfire against the senior members who endorsed them since management now has a great incentive to squeeze out better-paid workers and hire in at the "Bscale.' "If a contract allows you to do certain work at $8 an hour or at $12 an hour, you're not very smart to use the $12-an-hour workers,' Eugene Brown, an official at Ralph's Grocery Co. in Los Angeles, told The Wall Street Journal. Ralph's laid off, or demoted, 1,800 high-paid clerks so it could use more lower-paid clerks.

To stop the spread of these contracts would have required not just the right policy position-- in 1985 the UFCW national leadership came out against two-tier contracts--but political courage on the part of union leaders and selflessness from the rank and file. After all, if concessions are needed and you don't want to stick it to future workers, then current union members will have to take deeper pay cuts. "We think [two tier contracts] are abhorrent,' says Al Zack, spokesman for the UFCW. "We think they're stupid. But the fact is that in elections people are going to vote their own self-interest.' No example has been set by William Wynn, UFCW president. Over the past six years, as wages in supermarkets and meatpacking plants plummeted, his salary nearly doubled to $200,000.

International Union of Operating Engineers and the Laborers International Union of North America--These two unions represent the two ways organized labor has poisoned the construction industry: featherbedding and corruption.

In an industry known for preserving remarkably cushy, high-paid jobs, the operating engineers still maintain the most ridiculous assortment. For example, Local 14 of the Operating Engineers in New York demands that one person, a hoistman, be responsible solely for pushing the button that operates cargo elevators. (Another worker, from another union, must also be present to push the button when people, instead of materials, are going up the elevator.) Such a job pays about $50,000 a year in wages and benefits. Then there is the fellow who turns on the switch for the compressors and pumpmen who turn on pumps. Each can do nothing else. They also get paid about $40,000. The nicest work, if you can get it, is the job of master mechanic, who gets overtime pay--sometimes in six figures--as long as another member of his union is doing overtime, even if the master mechanic is home in bed. "There's no question the operating engineers have more featherbedding positions than any other New York City construction union in the city,' says James McNamara, a construction expert in the city's office of employment. Electrical workers and the Teamsters also have a high proportion of such jobs on construction sites, he said.

While not known for featherbedding, the Laborers union, which represents the people who clear off construction sites, is considered one of the most corrupt unions in the country. New York City local 6A representing cement workers last year gained the distinction of being the first AFL-CIO union to be placed in court trusteeship because of thorough mafia infiltration. Angelo Fosco, the longtime national president, has appointed several "special international representatives.' While they have not yet negotiated groundbreaking trade agreements, the quality of the appointments is undisputed: Al Pilotto distinguished himself as Chicago territorial boss of La Cosa Nostra, while Matthew Trupiano gained similar experience in St. Louis. Just as featherbedding increases the cost of construction, the shakedown has been factored into the price of doing business. Contractors go along with both practices to buy labor peace and avoid costly delays. The President's Commission on Organized Crime estimates that the mob adds about 20 percent to the cost of construction in New York.

While society pays for the featherbedding and corruption through higher rents and building costs, the workers suffer when organized crime negotiates sweetheart deals, allows health and safety standards to be ignored, or raids union pension funds. In one case, according to the President's Commission, a union official helped the mob siphon hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Laborers dental plan. Only 32 percent of the contributions to the Central States Joint Board Health and Welfare Trust Fund dental plan went to members' benefits, a rather inefficient administrative cost ratio. Nevertheless, Fosco keeps his presidency by regularly informing the membership of his record and, according to a former union vice president, by threatening to kill his opponents.

Photo: James Hamilton, The Village Voice
COPYRIGHT 1987 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Waldman, Steven
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1987
Previous Article:Gandhi's girls.
Next Article:The hospital without patients; a triumph of her majesty's civil service.

Related Articles
Resurrecting road kill.
This Time, Labor's Ready.
Hard labor: scholars chronicle the relationship of African Americans to unions and the industrialization of America.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |