Interior/North Alaska Newsletter

Union dissidents challenge their leaders. Sam Goodman and Chris White are a part of a small group building a union reform movement in Alaska

Portrait of a Reform Movement

It was one of those cold nights when you can't leave your car for more than a couple of hours without it freezing up. More than a dozen members of three local unions were gathered in a Fairbanks livingroom to discuss union reform.

The conversation veered erratically, from Congressional inquiries about Alaska's unions to a combined federal Labor Department, Internal Revenue Service and Justice Department strike force investigation; from past efforts to oust local union leaders to possible lawsuits and the limited role attorneys can play on the long, hard road to changing local unions.

During a lull in the conversation, Laborer Sam Goodman turned to the person next to him and asked, "what are the problems in your union?

The reply, with a rueful smile: "How much time do you have?"

Goodman, belly poking out of a work shirt stretched tight but unable to contain his girth, said, "I've got all night if necessary."

The 24-year-old union dissident, who has charged that millions of dollars in Alaska union pension funds are being loaned illegally to Alaska businessmen who are managing those funds, was dead serious. Those who know the burly reformer say he exists on coca cola and union reform; he would talk and listen as long as necessary.

Somebody got up and donned a parka. It was 10 p.m. The meeting appeared to be breaking up. Goodman and his new associate continued talking.

Ten minutes later, engine wanned again, the parka-clad person entered the room, shed boots and coat and resumed a place in the circle. Fueled by coffee and discussion of common problems, the meeting had not yet run its course.

Eight months ago a similar meeting ended early. This time it was different. New people were coming into the group, organizer Chris White later said with quiet elation.

Fairbanks laborer White is secretary-treasurer of Ruled Out of Order (ROOR), which White describes as a rank-and-file union reform group of undisclosed size.

We never give Up," says White. "Our leaders know that. We show up in Washington, D.C., on the floor of the national convention. Maybe we don't win. but we always get up and fight back. And every time we get up we come back harder, because we're more sophisticated. We're learning all the time."

Union representatives have charged the dissidents are trying to destroy their unions. White says ROOR's members....who belong to the Culinary, Carpenters, Teamsters, Laborers and Postal Workers Unions --- are all strong union supporters.

"We just want our leaders to represent our interests and to deal with us fairly and openly," he adds. "In the past they have not done so."

Goodman and White met several years ago when White was handing out leaflets at the Laborers' hall urging fellow members to request full disclosure of union finances from union officials. White recalls that Goodman walked up to him and said. "Why don t you run for business manager?"

White was scratching his head, mumbling he didn't have the money, when Goodman said, 'I'll finance you from Prudhoe Bay." It was pipeline boom time, jobs were plentiful, and during the next year Goodman did just that. In 1978, with $15,000 from Goodman at Prudhoe and $10,000 of his own pipeline wages, White ran -unsuccessfully-for business manager of Local 942.

Later in 1978 the Laborers joined with a handful of dissidents from other Fairbanks unions to form the inter-union ROOR.

These days the reform operation is strictly low-budget. Last week, while ROOR members from five local unions were planning to meet with federal strike force investigators from San Francisco, White was out trying to round up $80 to file a lawsuit against the Laborers Union, charging that Laborers' Local 942 has collected approximately half a million dollars through an illegal three per cent wage check-off instituted by the union in 1978.

According to Laborers' 942 Business Manager Joe Thomas. "the only problem is that people don't read the constitution (of the union )." Thomas thought the union attorney had answered White's questions, but White said the response from the Union did not provide the information he had requested or resolve the issues he had raised.

Thomas declined to go into the details, commenting that, "I don't handle our business in the newspapers."

According to White, July I, 1978 union leaders at the statewide Central District Council meeting replaced a $0.35/hour dues checkoff, approved by union members two years earlier, with the higher union assessment. White says he and other union members never approved the new assessment by secret ballot, as required by the 1959 Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.

Based on average wages and current employment figures, White believes the dues increase has probably netted the union an additional half a million dollars since its institution. White wants the exact figures, which he says the union is required to provide under the same act. He also wants the excess accounted for the returned to the workers who paid it.

One of ROOR's major concerns is the management of union pension funds. White and Goodman believe that time they spent with U.S. House and .Senate investigators in Washington late last year has sent ripples through a sluggish federal bureaucracy.

"We documented apparent pension fund abuses for Labor Department investigators almost a year ago," but nothing ever happened, White says. "Then we went to Washington, some Congressmen fired off some letters. and now we're supposed to be meeting with a strike force from IRS Labor and the Justice Department."

White credits Goodman ;with much of the ROOR pension research. 'After we lost the election in '78, Sam went into hibernation hi a law library. He came out loaded for bear."

Among other things. Goodman found a provision in the 1974 pension reform law the prohibits pension fund managers from receiving pension loans from the fund. He also learned how to use an IRS "bounty" form that provides a 10 per cent finders fee on penalties assessed by the government.

With this knowledge in hand, Goodman and ROOR began pressing union officials and banks for information on pension fund loans. They discovered that the banks that manage funds for Alaska unions had placed some investments with businessmen who were on the banks own board of directors. As directors of the bank, Goodman contends, those parties were responsible for union funds they loaned out.

According to Goodman, the pension law defines this kind of transaction as illegal self-dealing. He has presented documentation to various government officials and filed bounty claims with IRS, charging various Alaska businessmen with violations of federal labor law.

The largest questioned transaction involves Anchorage hotelman Bill Sheffield. Goodman says Sheffield received $5.8 million in two union pension fund loans while he was a member of the board of the National Bank of Alaska, which made the loan on behalf of the unions. Goodman traced a complex path in which one of the loans, totaling $4 million wound up financing Sheffield's Anchorage hotel.

Sheffield told an Anchorage newspaper that, "It's marginal if it's a problem or not.... The labor people have been in our office and checked our records. In effect, they have given US a clean bill of health."

Acting ROOR President Elder Lebert of Fairbanks says flatly, "Those people . . . who are saying the Department of Labor has given them a clean bill of health are lying. They hammer hasn't dropped on them yet."

If the charges stand up, Goodman says. the penalties could total $800,000 ... and ROOR will receive $80,000. "Once the rank and file catches on to a few simple procedures," he says, 'it can fund its own reform effort while deterring further abuses."

ROOR also charges that the Laborers Union made a $530,000 mortgage loan to Fairbanks contractor James Lundgren while Lundgren was employing members of the union. According to Goodman, that is also a violation of the pension reform law.

Union Business Manager Thomas says that to his knowledge the

Department of Labor has not determined transactions like the Lundgren loan are prohibited by law. Moreover, he says, he believes Lundgren's loan was made before the law was passed.

Government officials say they are looking into Alaska union business affairs. but they decline to say what they are finding or what action, if any, they are contemplating

Return to

All original work Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.