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From the November-December 2005 issue of Union Democracy Review #159

In the Operating Engineers (IUOE)

Local 18 elected officers of this Ohio-based 14,000-member union in September. Patricia Kohl won a spot on the local executive board as representative from her 2,700-member Division 6, a remarkable accomplishment for a woman running on an insurgent slate in this overwhelmingly male hardhat local. Nevertheless, in the larger interests of her union's democracy, she is challenging the conduct of the elections, even though it could jeopardize her own victory.

Kohl also ran for president of the whole local at the head of an insurgent slate. In a three-way race, she ran second with 27.7% of the votes, beating out the third runner 1,244 to 827. An election protest was filed with the international union by Kohl and six other local members. Among other charges, they argue that an electronic system of counting ballots made it impossible to verify the tally; that an unreasonable meeting attendance rule was unfairly applied to disqualify at least two aspiring candidates; and that other procedural defects violated the law's requirement,of adequate assurances of a fair election. They protest the refusal of the local to break down the election tally for local officers by district.

In Local 2, the 2,500-member union based in St. Louis, Walter J. Russell and Pat Vaughan headed up a Committee for Change and Fairness to participate in the August officer elections. It must have been an audacious move. They report that there had not been a contested local election since the 1960's and that the incumbent business manager had held the job for 23 years.

Neither Russell nor Vaughan ran for office, but the committee which they sparked tried to enter two candidates: Richard Matz for financial secretary and Fred Milleron for business manager. However, too late for a substitute to be nominated, Milleron was disqualified because, Vaughan says, he had been convicted of a misdemeanor many years ago. And so the incumbent BM coasted in without opposition; it may have been have been his lucky day, because Matz, the opposition candidate who remained on the ballot, defeated the incumbent financial secretary, 284 to 203. In a fair and square head-to-head contest, the incumbent BM could have suffered the same fate.

Matz, the successful insurgent, lasted only a month as financial secretary. After taking office, he demanded a "full and independent audit of Local 2's finances." When the local refused, he resigned, explaining," Without a complete and independent audit it may be impossible to determine what actions and decisions were mine and which were my predecessor's." .The local business manager replied that the issues Matz addressed "are being corrected to the satisfaction of the Department of Labor...."

Meanwhile, as chairman of the Committee for Fairness and Change, Walter Russell filed protests before and after the election charging that more than 25% of the membership had not been informed of the nominations meeting and that the meetings were held at a time when it was difficult for working members to attend.

Reviving expulsion for "slander":

Before the LMRDA was enacted into federal law in 1959, a device for suppressing dissent in unions, very popular among entrenched incumbents, was the constitutional provision against slander and libel. Unionists who criticized their officers were simply subjected to charges of slander, brought to trial before committees controlled by the very officers they had criticized, found guilty, and fined, suspended, or expelled. Nothing to it.

But all that changed in 1962 when a federal appeals court outlawed that drumhead trial system; it ruled that union trial bodies were not impartial enough or not sensitive enough to deal properly with slander charges. Aggrieved union officials who sought recourse against slander could file suit in public court like any other citizens; but they could no longer use their power inside their unions to suppress rivals on slander charges. That federal court decision, Salzhandler v. Caputo, gave powerful support to union democracy; it established a firm basis for civil liberties inside unions, which is precisely why those union attorneys who serve the officials, even against the members, are coming up with new device to suppress democracy by evading Salzhander v. Caputo.

In a portent of things to come, at its last international convention the Operating Engineers amended its constitution in an obvious attempt to make an end run around Salzhander and restore the slander charge as a weapon against critics of the incumbents. This may be a little difficult to follow for any normal human being not immersed in the suffocating intricacies of legalese:

Up to now, the old constitution retained the old provision that simply subjected to expulsion "any member....who wilfully [sic] slanders or libels an officer or member of the Organization." Now, the lawyers know that Salzhandler has made this provision void and not enforceable. And so here is how they changed it in the hope of getting around the law: The amended provision subjects to expulsion any member "who willfully engages in slanders or libels where such slander or libel is contrary to the responsibility of every member toward the Organization as an institution or specifically interferes with the Organization's performance of its legal or contractual obligations." Don't be discouraged if you don't understand what's going on here. This is tricky stuff.

Here is what the lawyers surely have in mind: The LMRDA section which protects free speech ends with these words, "... nothing herein shall be construed to impair the right of a labor organization to adopt and enforce reasonable rules as to the responsibility of every member toward the organization as an institution and to his refraining from conduct that would interfere with its performance of its legal or contractual obligations. " And so, they hope that members who criticize their officers can be successfully convicted in the union, not for the "slander" itself, but for the "interference," etc. Will the ploy hold up in court? Probably not. But it could be the prelude to a whole new round of litigation, which, by itself, will chill free speech. Remember: In free speech cases, victimized members, in self defense, must retain and pay their own lawyers. Union officials pay legal fees out of the union treasury.

Other articles on the IUOE:
More on labor’s lasting quest for ethical practices: from the Operating Engineers (9/08-10/08)
Action and inaction in the Operating Engineers (7/08-8/08)
Confronting corruption charges in Operating Engineers Local 3 (11/06-12/06
In the Operating Engineers (IUOE)(11/05-12/05)
Reform breakthrough in Ohio Operating Engineers Local 18(9/05-10/05)
Action in Operating Engineers locals 18 and 66(7/05-8/05)
New voices at AUD construction trades conference (1/03-2/03)
"Women's Project launches Operation Punch List" (10/00-11/00)

 

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