Chicago Tribune

 

DEMOCRACY DREAM STILL ELUDES UNIONS

 

REFORM LEADERS SEEK TO REKINDLE PASSIONS

 

 

 

By Stephen Franklin, Tribune Staff Writer.

Monday, April 7, 1997

 

 

James W. McGough straightened the jacket of his well-worn blue suit, rose from a lonely seat by a window, tossed on a thin raincoat and briskly ambled away, mumbling loudly about union democracy.

 

On the way out of the room, the scrawny, gray-haired man breezed by a handful of lawyers and Laborers Union leaders, who were on hand last December at a downtown Chicago hotel to hear the results of the union's first-ever rank-and-file election.

 

A former white-collar worker turned laborer and fervid union activist, McGough was miserable. Only 15 percent of the eligible voters had voted, no dissidents were on the ballot because of election rules and the union's longtime leaders were still in charge.

 

This was not democracy to McGough, a college philosophy major, law-school dropout and former community activist, who had learned his lofty ideals from his Jesuit teachers on Chicago's West Side.

 

Such are the frustrations for the believers in union democracy. Sometimes they win their battles. Often they do not. But, as is the case with the 700,000-member Laborers, the prospects for union democracy are on the upswing.

 

"Compared to 20 years ago things are much better. Some unions have had major insurgencies," said Carl Biers, director of the Association for Union Democracy, a small New York-based organization. The Laborers, he said, are an example of how things have changed.

 

Not only did its members last year choose their president; they voted to require all union leaders to be chosen by rank-and-file balloting. "This is a union that was under the thumb of organized crime for years, where people were murdered and beaten up for speaking up," said Biers.

 

While American unions have long marched under democracy's banner, democracy rarely extended to their own members.

 

Indeed, the government has stepped in a number of times over the years to clean up allegedly corrupt unions. That was true for the Teamsters in 1989 and more recently for the Laborers. Both were pressed to hold direct elections.

 

Yet despite this progress, union democracy remains a dream for a number of reasons:

 

-       Once a faction gets elected, it often stays in power since it has the resources to fend off challengers. The United Auto Workers union, widely considered one of the most progressive unions, has been run by the same slate since Walter Reuther's days 40 years ago.

-        

-       - Some unions make their leaders accountable only to delegates elected at the local level at conventions. The rationale: Most workers are not familiar with or don't care about the issues dealt with on the highest levels.

-        

-       - Historically, most unions have never held rank-and-file elections. Only 13 out of the 79 unions in the AFL-CIO have direct elections.

-        

-       - When unions do hold elections, there can be a stunning lack of interest among the membership. Last year, for example, Teamsters President Ron Carey faced opponent James P. Hoffa, son of the late union leader, in a highly publicized campaign. Together they spent over $3 million. But just about one-third of the eligible Teamsters voted.

 

When Linda Foley ran two years ago for the presidency of the 32,000-member Newspaper Guild, it was time-consuming, tiring and she had to dig into her pocket for campaign costs. But Foley, who won, believes it paid off for her and the union.

 

"I learned a lot about the union by campaigning," she said. Many members told her that they felt good being able to meet and talk with a union leader."It made them feel good about the union," she said.

 

Not everyone agrees, however, that democracy is indisputably good for union members.

 

The 1.1 million-member Service Employees International Union is widely considered one of the most forward-thinking unions. But it does not permit its rank-and-file members to pick its top leadership, a point reaffirmed last year when the union's delegates met in Chicago.

 

"The question that arises in our union and many others is whether or not the ideal of democracy and practical reality have a matchup," said Andy Stern, a reform-minded leader, who took office last year as the SEIU's president.

 

He ticked off a number of reasons why union elections have their drawbacks: They politicize the union's staff, they are costly, they are distracting from the union's business and they often benefit incumbents.

 

"It is hard to make the argument that unions with direct elections better represent their members," said Stern, whose membership takes in a large number of low-wage hospital workers, janitors and factory help.

 

"Our members," he added, "are more concerned about being serviced. That is what I hear about."

 

But with union membership the lowest since the Depression--about 15 percent of the work force—other leaders say that organized labor needs a revitalizing passion, and democracy might be it.

 

In fact, it was a dose of democracy prescribed by the government that brought James McGough to the Laborers Union meeting in December.

 

Two years ago, when the Justice Department unveiled a vast list of alleged wrongdoing within the Laborers, capping a five-year probe, it gave the union 90 days to develop a plan to rid itself of its mob ties. If it didn't, the government said it would.

 

It was a unique plan to let the Laborers, a union long run by leaders from Chicago, clean their own house under the guidance of former federal officials.

 

Bill Rice, a former FBI agent and an official with the union's investigations office, said there clearly have been accomplishments since then. "Many of our investigations are concluded and they are pending hearings," he said.

 

Arthur A. Coia, president of the union when the charges were filed, was re-elected president last year, beating Bruno Caruso, a local union leader in Chicago. He says the reform drive is doing well, and so is he.

 

"I am still here," said Coia, who was linked in the Justice Department's draft complaint to "organized crime figures."

 

"I am still leading the union. I was elected overwhelmingly. If someone accuses me of something and I am still here and alive that says something, doesn't it?"

 

As a sign of their approval, he noted that union delegates last September in Las Vegas gave him a 19 percent raise, hiking his pay to $250,000.

 

The convention also wiped out death benefits for new members, a benefit Coia considered unneeded.

 

As for dissidents, Coia does not think much about them.

 

"They are a couple of groups and very small in number. And they get very, very few votes, which tells me a lot," said Coia, a third-generation union member from Providence, R.I., who largely inherited his leadership role from his late father, Arthur Etore Coia, the union's former general secretary.

 

"I don't particularly like to listen to dissidents. I like constructive ideas," he added.

 

Dissidents have never had much sway over the Laborers Union. An Iowa Laborer, who dared 16 years ago at a union convention in Miami to offer an opposing nomination, a rarity at the time, was brutally beaten to the floor as hundreds watched.

 

But there seems to be a new wave of Laborers willing to raise their voices.

 

"They are kicking out a few gangsters here and there, but they are not restoring rights to the rank and file," griped Chris White, a bus driver in Fairbanks, Alaska, and reform activist in the Laborers for 20 years.

 

Mike Orfelt, editor and publisher of Hard Hat, a San Francisco-based magazine for construction workers, is also convinced the union needs more cleaning up.

 

"My sources tell me there are a lot of complaints that are ignored or not acted upon with vigor," he said.

 

Such feelings are shared by McGough, who was the only worker from the union on hand to hear the election results that day last year. He is hardly a typical construction worker.

 

He was a marketing specialist before one of life's turns led him to a laborer's job 14 years ago.

 

He joined Local 5 in Chicago Heights after a divorce and the loss of a job led him into construction work. He soon discovered it was almost impossible to get a copy of the union constitution to learn about members' rights. So, too, he learned that opposition candidates did not exist.

 

He thought he should take his doubts to the government, where he initially got a cool reception. "It was like telling them the Cubs won't win the pennant again," he recalled. Eventually, government officials heeded him.

 

It is not often, said Manny Ramirez, a special agent with the Labor Department's Office of Labor Racketeering in Chicago, that union members like McGough come forward with complaints.

 

"The primary thing with members is their livelihood and they would rather ignore something or look the other way," he said.

 

Not only was McGough inclined to speak out, but after being hurt on the job two years ago, he had time to throw himself into dissident activities.

 

Living mostly on donations from other union members, McGough often scrapes by, struggling to pay his rent, and steep telephone and computer on-line service bills--the costs of modern-day union politicking.

 

This work has so consumed him that some union activists say he is too driven, and too passionate about it.

 

McGough disagrees. "I feel so good about it. If I don't do it, who will?" he said in an upbeat tone one day when his finances were typically running low. "It gives me self-esteem."


Return to Laborers.org

(c) All orginal work Copyright Laborers.org 1998. All rights reserved..