Las Vegas Review-Journal
Local 872 Has Some Explaining To Do, And The Feds Are Listening Closely
JOHN L. SMITH
Today's topic is the importance of free and fair elections.
Not in war-torn Iraq or some Third World backwater, but inside the doors of Las Vegas Local 872 of Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA.)
Earlier this month, the Department of Labor quietly filed a civil complaint through the U.S. attorney's office against Local 872, alleging its September 2003 elections had been manipulated. That's bad news for LIUNA.
Why so important? After all, the international organization is more than 800,000 strong with a surging political clout on the national stage. Organized labor watchers generally agree LIUNA has made an impressive comeback since its historic 1999 federal consent decree, which it was pressured into entering -- civil RICO suits encourage cooperation -- in an effort to save it not only from government control but from the stench of organized crime that had infected it for generations. Along with that mob influence in Chicago and elsewhere was ample evidence of election tampering.
At the time, LIUNA General President Arthur Coia said, "We will achieve our goal of making LIUNA the strongest, cleanest, most democratic union anywhere. ... There is no goal more important in our union than eliminating all traces of improper influences and past corruption and thereby restoring true autonomy and democracy to our hardworking members."
Coia has since been replaced by Terence O'Sullivan, but presumably the democratic process remains important at LIUNA. And that makes the Las Vegas labor complaint important.
The offices potentially affected include president, vice president, recording secretary, business manager/secretary treasurer, sergeant at arms, three auditors, three executive board members, and three delegates to the district council.
Following the Sept. 18 elections, Local 872 member David Martin filed an official protest with election officer Daniel Clifton, who denied his complaint.
Undaunted, Martin appealed the denial to special elections officer Joseph Guerrieri Jr. By January 2004, Martin tired of waiting and filed a complaint with the Department of Labor. A department investigation found probable cause to believe election violations had been committed after campaign literature and a newsletter containing opponent information arrived after ballots went out to the membership.
"It could have disadvantaged those challenging the incumbents," Department of Labor spokesman Tino Serrano said Tuesday, adding the complaint was "definitely not a technicality."
In a telephone message, Local 872 business manager Thomas White said he will soon be available to clear up the misinformation that has led to the labor department complaint. Problem is, the government already has found Martin's information credible enough to seek a new slate of elections.
White has a sales job to do.
The complaint would be bad enough had Local 872 had a pristine history, but the 2003 election was its first in several years due to previous questions of leadership impropriety. It had operated under the supervision of the international. Previous union officials have run afoul of the rules, and Martin, who admits he backed unsuccessful challengers in the 2003 election, isn't afraid to take shots at the local's hierarchy.
He alleges, "Members were never asked what kind of election they wanted, whether walk-in or mail-in ballots." The eight-year union member says hundreds of ballots from that election are unaccounted for in the 3,000-member local.
Local 872 isn't the largest in the country, but its location and recent history make it among LIUNA's most visible offices. It's obvious from the interest of the Department of Labor and U.S. attorney that a lot of people are watching and don't like what they see.
The union has two choices: Fight the government in court, or pitch the elections and start over. It might be cheaper in the long run -- and an enhancement to its shaky credibility -- if it began anew.
Who knows, some day Local 872 will set a standard for free and fair elections.
Hey, brother, democracy begins at home.
John L. Smith's column appears Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.