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Sometimes A Great Notion: Local Union Reformers Run For National Union Office


Forty years ago this December, members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) did the unthinkable. They elected three of their own–rank-and-file coal miners–to top national positions in the UMWA. The labor establishment was deeply shocked and unsettled.

This kind of thing was just not done–and not a single labor organization (with the exception of the always independent United Electrical Workers) applauded W. A. (“Tony”) Boyle’s well-deserved defeat in his bid for re-election as UMWA president.

Then and now, rising to the top in organized labor normally requires waiting your turn (and, when you capture a leadership position, holding on to it for as long as you can, regardless of the organizational consequences). For trade unionists who are ambitious and successful, upward mobility usually follows a long career track that looks something like this: shop steward, local bargaining committee or executive board member, local union officer, national union staffer, national union executive board member, and then national union officer–president, vice-president, or secretary-treasurer.

Aspiring labor leaders can most easily make the transition from membershipelected positions, at the local level, to appointed national union staff jobs if they conform politically. Dissidents tend to be passed over for such vacancies or not even considered for them unless union patronage is being deployed, by those at the top, to co-opt actual or potential local critics.

As appointed staffers move up, via the approved route, in the field or at union headquarters, they burnish their resumes and gain broader organizational experience “working within the system.” If they become candidates for higher elective office later in their career, they enjoy all the advantages of de facto incumbency (by virtue of their full-time staff positions, greater access to multiple locals, and politically-helpful headquarters patrons). Plus, in the absence of any one-member/one-vote election process, most seekers of union-wide office only have to compete for votes among several thousand usually docile national convention delegates. In unions that provide geographical representation on their board, candidates for regional leadership positions can even get elected, at conventions, with the support of just a few hundred local union delegates. Either way, candidates who are part of an “administration team” usually win over independents and rank-and-file slates (particularly in unions where all board members are elected “at large”).

The MFD’s Unwelcome Victory

In 1972, the Miners for Democracy (MFD) blazed a trail directly to the top, under admittedly abnormal circumstances because the UMWA permits direct election of top officers by the entire membership. Three years before MFD candidates ran, there was a contested race of a different sort, involving two longtime union insiders. Fed up with Tony Boyle’s coziness with coal companies, executive board member Joseph (“Jock”) Yablonski challenged Boyle for the presidency. Unfortunately, the election was stolen by the incumbent, although the results were later overturned by the U.S. Department of Labor. When it came time for a government-supervised rematch, Yablonski was, tragically, no longer available to run. He had been assassinated in the meantime (along with his wife and daughter).

Three little-known local union officers hailing from West Virginia or Pennsylvania–Arnold Miller, Harry Patrick, and Mike Trbovich–entered the lists instead. They had never been on the UMWA national staff or executive board but carried the banner of union democracy and reform anyway. Even though they were running, at the top of the ticket, against a management-friendly incumbent– soon to be indicted for his role in the Yablonski murders–the MFD slate won by only 14,000 votes out of 126,700 cast, hardly a landslide.

From a vantage point four decades later, the choice between Boyle and the MFD should have been a no brainer. But in the rough-and tumble world of trade union politics, the advantages of incumbency should not to be underestimated, in any era. As a grassroots organizing project, mounting an electoral challenge to any candidate favored by the national union establishment is an uphill fight, even when the bureaucracy itself is discredited or split. Competitive elections (aka “this is what democracy looks like”) are far more celebrated in the breach than the observance in organized labor. In fact, within labor’s top officialdom, there’s no announcement more pleasing to the ears than “re-elected by acclamation.” Whether that’s healthy for the labor movement is another question.

To explore the rare but important phenomena of contested national union elections, this article begins with the MFD saga. It then examines the Teamster presidential election campaign of Ron Carey twenty years later and reports on the experience of two present-day local union officers who had the audacity to run for top jobs in their respective national organizations just last year.

A Partial UMWA Revolution

The MFD victory and its tumultuous ten-year aftermath has been variously chronicled by former UMWA lawyer Tom Geoghegan in Which Side Are You On?, labor studies professor Paul Clark in The Miners Fight for Democracy and journalist Paul Nyden’s contribution to a recent Verso collection entitled, Rebel Rank and File. As Nyden notes, the election that thrust three rank-and-filers into unfamiliar jobs in a disfunctional national union headquarters in Washington, D.C., “channeled the spontaneous militancy arising throughout the Appalachian coal fields” during the previous decade. In the 1960s, miners staged two huge wildcat work-stoppages protesting national contracts negotiated in secret by Boyle (with no membership ratification); in 1969, 45,000 UMWA members participated in a statewide political strike which accelerated passage of new federal mine safety legislation and creation of the first West Virginia program for compensation of miners disabled with “black lung.”

According to Nyden, candidates backed by the MFD, a group founded at Yablonski’s funeral in 1970, “succeeded in ousting one of the country’s most corrupt and deeply entrenched union bureaucracies” because they had key allies inside and outside the union. In the coalfields, “wives and widows of disabled miners, the Black Lung Association, the wildcat strikers, and above all the young miners who were dramatically reshaping the composition of the UMWA constituted the backbone of the campaign.” Also aiding the MFD was a skilled and committed network of community organizers, former campus activists, journalists, coalfield researchers, and public interest lawyers, some of whom would later play controversial roles as headquarters staffers for the union.

The UMWA had been run in autocratic fashion since the 1920s when John L. Lewis crushed the last major rank and file challenge to the leadership, a campaign mounted by progressive miners like John Brophy and Powers Hapgood. So when the MFD took over, the institutional context was a smaller scale union version of the political turmoil following recent Arab Spring uprisings or any similar overthrow of a dictatorship in place for many decades.

The new leaders inherited formidable internal and external problems that would have been vexing for anyone in their shoes. They succeeded in the project of structural democratization and, for a time, more competent union administration. But membership expectations in the crucial area of contract negotiations and enforcement were not met. As the 1970s progressed, new UMWA organizing initiatives failed to counter the coal industry’s systematic “de-unionization,” a process that continues unabated today.

An Erratic President

Within the union, the conservative Boyle forces quickly regrouped and maintained their own baleful, disruptive influence. The three top MFD officers fell out among themselves, with the best and youngest of them–Harry Patrick–leaving the UMWA after a single term of office in 1977. Arnold Miller’s weak and erratic presidency became an unmitigated disaster; in 1977-78, 160,000 miners had to battle UMWA headquarters and the White House while shutting down the bituminous coal industry for 110 days . Highlights of that struggle included two contract rejections and a failed Taft-Hartley back-to-work order sought by Jimmy Carter.

To this day, the MFD experience (for those who remember it) remains a Rorshach test for how one views sudden regime change in labor, engineered from below. Some MFD veterans, who were ex-coal miners, blamed (and even red-baited) “the outsiders” for what went wrong. By the late 1970s, most of the collegeeducated non-miners, who were swept into influential positions by the MFD’s victory, left in frustration over the failings or political setbacks of their friends and allies. Some went on to work for other unions, most recently the Service Employees International Union.

Washington, D.C., labor insiders viewed UMWA turmoil as proof that “inexperienced” people should never be allowed to run a major union. On the labor left, the shortcomings of the Miller Administration have always been attributed to its unwillingness to empower fully the rank-and-file. If only “the MFD hadn’t been disbanded” and top officials had been willing to embrace the right to strike over grievances and employed the militancy of the UMWA’s wildcat strike culture, rather than clashing with it, the outcome would have been different.

Some semblance of stability and forward motion was not restored until a second-generation reformer, Rich Trumka, took over as UMWA president in 1982, after defeating a former Boyle supporter who replaced Arnold Miller when he retired for health reasons in the middle of his second term. Trumka gained valuable experience as a headquarters legal staffer during Miller’s first term. Plus, he had the street cred of working underground before and after his initial tour of full-time union duty in Washington, D.C. But even with steadier, more skilled hands at the helm–and an inspiring strike victory at Pittston in 1989–the union has remained on a steady course to near total marginalization; its actual working membership today is only about 12,000.

History Repeats Itself in the IBT?

The most high profile challenges to the leadership of other major industrial unions, in the 1970s and 1980s, did not take the form of pure rank-and-file insurgencies of the MFD sort. Instead, they looked more like Jock Yablonski’s break with Boyle in 1969. In the United Steel Workers and Auto Workers, two dissident regional directors in the mid-west, Ed Sadlowski and Jerry Tucker, challenged their respective union establishments. Both called for reform while serving as national executive board members, after winning those positions in elections that were initially stolen. Both were forced out of top leadership positions after trying to move up or just get re-elected. Tucker fell victim to tight control of convention delegate voting by the UAW “Administration Caucus,” which has ruled his Detroit-based union for six decades. With some former UMWA reformers assisting him, Sadlowski ran strongly, but unsuccessfully, for USWA president in 1977 balloting involving nearly 600,000 of the union’s then 1.4 million members.

A campaign like Sadlowski’s was impossible in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) when that union picked its top leadership at national union conventions heavily influenced by organized crime. As part of the settlement of a controversial Justice Department anti-racketeering lawsuit in 1989, the IBT was forced to hold its first-ever direct election of officers and board members two years later.

Fortunately, the IBT was the longtime turf of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which campaigned for this more democratic method of voting. TDU was launched just a few years after the MFD, as a vehicle not just for electioneering but for long-term rank-and-file organizing. In the IBT two decades ago, there were no credible or trusted defectors from the national leadership like Ed Sadlowski or Jerry Tucker; but, helpfully, the Teamster “old guard” became badly splintered. Two rival slates formed, composed of existing IBT executive board members, wellknown regional officials, and other principal officers of large Teamster locals.

For fifteen years, TDU had been conducting unofficial, bottom-up “contract campaigns” and helping Teamsters democratize their local union by-laws and run for local office. TDU helped assemble a full slate of executive board and officer candidates headed by Ron Carey. Carey was an ex-Marine and militant leader of United Parcel Service (UPS) workers in New York City; his vocal criticism of Teamster corruption had turned him into a pariah among fellow local union officials (only several of whom agreed to run with him). Most of Carey’s running-mates were TDUers who had never held any union position above the level of shop steward or convention delegate.

As Newsday labor reporter Ken Crowe recounted in Collision: How the Rank-and-File Took Back The Teamsters, the 400,000 Teamsters who cast their ballots in 1991 were participating in the largest government-supervised union vote since the MFD ousted Tony Boyle. Carey garnered very little delegate support at the IBT convention where presidential candidates were nominated that year. So Teamster employers, the AFL-CIO, and the mass media were all much surprised when he won the union presidency with 48% of the membership vote. Carey’s largely rank-and-file slate swept all but one position on the union’s executive board.

The Rise (and Fall) of Ron Carey

Anyone who had experienced the MFD years at UMWA headquarters and then spent some time in the IBT’s “Marble Palace” in Washington, D.C., after Carey became president could not help but feel a sense of deja vu. Carey inherited a hostile and disfunctional national union bureaucracy; at the local level, scores of Teamster affiliates were cesspools of corruption, headed by hustlers and thugs of all sorts.

Like the Boyle forces in the UMWA, Teamster regional barons remained bitter foes of the new reform administration. They had been ousted from the executive board, stripped of costly perks, and then deprived of additional paychecks for their multiple union positions by a TDU-backed reformer. Much of the Teamster officialdom, while not corrupt, nevertheless feared and disliked Carey’s strong commitment to rallying the rank and file in contract campaigns and strikes. That approach to union bargaining was perceived as undermining “local autonomy”– i.e. the ability of IBT officials to negotiate any kind of sweetheart deal with employers.

A Teamster counter-revolution began brewing almost immediately. It produced the 1996 presidential candidacy of James P. Hoffa, a lawyer from Michigan who had never been a working member of the union, except in summer jobs arranged by his father when he was IBT president. Hoffa senior was one of the best-known labor leaders in the nation before he was imprisoned in 1967, later pardoned by Richard Nixon, then kidnapped and killed by the Mafia in 1975.

Carey defeated Hoffa in 1996–by a mere 16,000 votes–but in a tainted fashion that sadly turned reform-oriented rule into a mere interregnum in Teamster history. Carey’s career came crashing down in “Teamster Donorgate”–a re-election campaign financing scandal that ensnared many, inside and outside the union, including Rich Trumka, then secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

Trumka took the Fifth when he was questioned before a federal grand jury about the federation’s role in a complicated contribution swap scheme arranged by various Carey campaign consultants, vendors, or union staff members. Most pled guilty, while one, the Teamsters’ political director, was convicted and jailed. Carey himself was forced from office and indicted for perjury; denying any knowledge of the transactions, he was later acquitted. Trumka was never charged.

But, in collective bargaining, Ron Carey was no Arnold Miller. Before Carey was forced out in late 1997, Teamster reformers, working in his Washington and in the field, still managed to pull off the biggest, best-organized strike of the decade. Under Carey, the IBT orchestrated an unprecedented mobilization of 200,000 UPS workers that ended in a widely supported 15-day national workstoppage. It was widely hailed as just what the labor movement needed to go on the offensive again. Unfortunately, when the 1996 election was overturned and re-run, Hoffa won the first of his now four presidential campaigns. In each election, until last year’s race, the local officer running as TDU’s candidate got more than a third of the vote, while agitating for a return to the militancy and membership mobilization of the Carey years. Hoffa and his leadership team have taken a less adversarial path. Much to the dismay of some Teamster dues payers, the current Teamster president has also helped solidify his support by condoning (and contributing to) the collection of multiple union salaries by Teamster officials, a practice that drains the IBT treasury of $12 million a year.

The IBT’s Latest Three-Way Field

Mounting dissatisfaction with Hoffa’s now fourteen-year year reign spawned not one, but two local union challengers, who went the distance in the IBT’s latest direct election battle. Despite more than two decades of federal court oversight, Teamster conventions still reflect the culture of an unrepentant one-party state. So when supporters of Sandy Pope, a local president from Queens, N.Y., and Fred Gegare, a local president and dissenting Teamster board member from Wisconsin, went to the microphones to speak on behalf of their respective candidates (or any other issue) in Las Vegas last June, they were drowned out by the thunderous boos of a pro-Hoffa crowd numbering more than 4,000.

A TDU supporter since the late 1970s, Pope was photogenic, articulate, and a tireless campaigner with a substantive critique of Hoffa’s record. She also had a solid personal resume featuring actual Teamster work experience, followed by years of full-time union service as an effective organizer, international union representative (under Carey), and elected leader of a model Teamster local. Gegare similarly stressed his own rank-and-file background, as opposed to Hoffa’s lack of it; his attacks on “Junior” had the additional bite of coming from someone who was, for years, a Hoffa backer and leading mid-western member of his administration.

\Both Pope and Gegare were, in their own way, intent on forcing an important debate about the future of the union. But, in Las Vegas, where each Hoffa critic was nominated with about 9% of the delegate vote, the pro-Hoffa delegates, alternates, and guests weren’t much interested in listening to them. When the two opposition candidates went to the podium for their 20-minute nomination acceptance speeches, their audience immediately dwindled to their own combined delegation of about 300; everyone else walked out of the hall.

Barnstorming around the country, in a grueling campaign for anyone with local union responsibilities, both fared much better. Their combined anti-Hoffa vote among the 250,000 Teamsters who cast ballots last fall was twice the percentage they got among IBT convention delegates. But, in a blow to TDU, Gegare (who was running with a near full slate of running mates) got 23%–taking more votes away from the reform movement’s past base of support than he did from Hoffa’s constituency.

As a result, Pope–who was running alone, just against Hoffa–placed a disappointing third, with 17%. The 70-year old incumbent was re-elected, with 40 percent of the vote, for another five-year term. As TDU organizer Ken Paff points out, Hoffa’s huge fund-raising advantage explains a lot about the results. The Teamster president “raised $3 million, according to his slate’s financial reports, most of it from officials who owe their positions or power to him,” Paff wrote in Labor Notes. In contrast, Pope raised about $200,000, “could afford a mailing to less than 20 percent of the union’s membership” and relied on volunteer phone banking for her GOTV effort. Hoffa “did multiple mailings to the 1.3 million members, the bulk of them devoted to vicious attacks on Sandy Pope.” Hoffa also benefited from controversial IBT- funded robo-calling that was ostensibly non-partisan and aimed at boosting turnout but subtly reinforced his core campaign message about “unity.” Both Bill Clinton and Danny DeVito taped messages urging Teamsters to vote, which 20% did.

This lowest ever turn-out–and the cost of direct elections every five years–is now cited, by Hoffa supporters, in their revived drive to switch back to the old Teamster method of electing top officers and board members at convention. In response, defenders of “the Right to Vote” note that the twoyear administrative costs of the most recent direct election add up to about the same amount the IBT spends, in a single year, bestowing additional pay-checks on favored officials already receiving one or more for their local or joint council positions. As a percentage of Teamster dues income over five years, argues TDU, “democracy costs less than one half of one percent of your dues!”

A CWA Convention Challenge

A few weeks after the Teamsters vacated Las Vegas last summer, local union delegates from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) came to town to pick their own national officers and executive board members. Although only convention delegates, rather than the entire membership, get to vote on the union’s top leadership, the culture of CWA convention elections is relatively democratic, if still tipped very much in favor of incumbents and de facto incumbents with headquarters connections and backing.

For example, it’s not unusual, although difficult, for the president of a large local, who has never been tapped to serve on the national union staff, to run successfully against an incumbent CWA vice-president in charge of one of CWA’s fourteen geographical or occupational groupings. The odds are better when there’s an open executive board seat, like the one won last year by an African-American president of a large telephone local in Texas. He defeated an administrative assistant to the departing CWA executive board member from District 6, covering a five-state region. In 2011, however, Don Trementozzi, a telecom local president in New England, became the first local union leader to run for a CWA national officer position in thirty years. (The last such challenger, also from Texas, actually succeeded when two headquarters officials ended up vying for the same vacant position as executive vice-president.) Last year, CWA eliminated one of its three top jobs–the EVP slot then held by a former district vice-president and 20-year national union employee, Annie Hill. Hill teamed up with incumbent President Larry Cohen to run for secretary-treasurer, when that office holder retired.

In the normal course of events, the Cohen-Hill “unity team” would have been chosen by acclamation, due to the long political coat-tails of the widely-respected Cohen, who made it known that he plans to retire in 2015. But Trementozzi, like Pope and TDU, wanted to force a debate about issues, in this case the breakdown of CWA bargaining coordination and solidarity within AT&T, the union’s largest employer three years ago.

No Time For Debate?

A 52-year-old native of Rhode Island, Trementozzi is a Verizon customer service rep and former activist in AFSCME and the IAM, who was elected president of CWA Local 1400 in 2002, after running on a reform slate. He was involved in last year’s strike at Verizon and serves as a member of the regional union committee trying to negotiate a new contract covering 45,000 VZ workers from Massachusetts to Virginia. Last February, Trementozzi announced his independent candidacy for CWA secretarytreasurer with a statement redolent of union populism in the past. Dubbing his effort “Save Our Union 2011,” Trementozzi declared that CWA “needs more people in the top leadership who can better reflect the perspective of those of us closest to the membership, who must deal with rankand- file concerns every day.”

In their low-budget campaign, Trementozzi and his backers blamed Hill for AT&T bargaining miscues in 2009. Taking a supportive and conciliatory stance toward the top of the administration ticket, Trementozzi argued that “President Cohen needs a stronger partner in Washington than he’s going to end up with for the next four years if Annie Hill becomes secretary-treasurer.”

Unfortunately, Trementozzi’s appeal for “ticketsplitting” as “the way forward in CWA this year” failed to sway delegates from the union’s flight attendant division, newspaper guild, manufacturing sector locals, and public employee bargaining units in New Jersey that Cohen helped organize three decades ago. Save Our Union (SOU) drew support primarily from telecom locals in upstate New York and New England, plus unhappy AT&T local officers in other parts of the country (including leaders of the largest telecom local in Texas). SOU’s total campaign budget was about $7,000.

The day before the vote, Hill haughtily boycotted a candidates’ forum that Trementozzi had arranged so the two could finally have a face-to-face debate. Taking a leaf from Hoffa in the Teamsters, Hill had earlier refused to make any joint appearance with her opponent, via conference calls or in person, before delegates anywhere in the country. Instead of debating in Las Vegas, Hill handed out a list of “Cohen-Hill supporters” that included the names of more than 70 union staffers, lawyers, and executive board members who were not even delegates or eligible to vote.

CWA convention rules unfairly limited “Save Our Union” speakers to just the two delegates who nominated Trementozzi and then second his nomination. They were granted a total of four minutes to make the case for electing him. There was no time allotted for either secretarytreasurer candidate to address the delegates before the convention recessed so secret balloting could begin.

About 1,100 delegates cast votes based on the membership strength of their locals. Hill received 276, 769 votes (or 74.5% of the total), while Trementozzi got 94,733 (25.5%). While Sandy Pope and other TDUers will be resisting efforts to make the 2011 Teamster presidential race the last one decided by a popular vote, Don Trementozzi and other SOU supporters have a more modest procedural proposal to make. They’d just like to change CWA’s convention rules, in 2013, so any future contenders for top union office get the same twenty minutes to make a nomination acceptance speech that Teamster candidates had. In CWA, they believe, most delegates might even stay in their seats to hear what the opposition has to say.

 

Steve Early retired five years ago after serving 27 years on the national staff of the Communications Workers of America in the northeast. In 2011, he was an active supporter of Don Trementozzi’s “Save Our Union” campaign for CWA secretary treasurer. Early also aided Ron Carey’s successful candidacy for Teamster president and, while on loan from CWA, served on Carey’s headquarters “transition team” in 1992. In the mid- 1970s, he was a headquarters staff member of the United Mine Workers when MFD candidate Arnold Miller was president of that union. He can be reached atLsupport@aol.com   

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