Democracy arrives for U Teamsters

History is in the making for the University janitors and food-service workers represented by Teamsters Local 320. The union, which acts as collective bargaining agent for some 9,000 public-sector employees across the state and has an operating budget of more than $2 million, has not had a contested officer election in its 25-year existence. Now, in an election that begins when ballots are mailed out on Oct. 11, members will get a chance to pick their top officers from among at least three different slates of candidates.
For years, Local 320 was run as a kind of private fiefdom by dictatorial leaders who gave themselves six-figure salaries, were found to have misused union funds and who discouraged member involvement. Not surprisingly, they also did a poor job of defending the interests of the rank and file. Thanks to the investigation of a court-ordered Independent Review Board and decisive action on the part of reform-minded Teamster President Ron Carey, those leaders were recently forced to step down. Democracy has finally come to Local 320.
Participation in a union is the closest workers in our economy can come to exercising meaningful control over the conditions of their labor. At a time when the University administration has been trying to privatize a number of union jobs and freeze workers’ wages, what sort of leadership the Teamsters on campus decide to embrace will have an enormous impact on their economic well-being.
The election taking place in Local 320 has potential national implications as well. For years, the Teamsters — long known for their ties to the Mafia and cozy relationships with employers and anti-labor politicians — have been torn by struggles between anti-corruption activists and the champions of the status quo. In 1991, grass-roots organizing on the part of reformers culminated in the election of Ron Carey as International Teamster president. Since then, the union has undergone a dramatic transformation. Carey has cracked down on wrongdoing and removed over 200 Teamster officials that were involved with organized crime, embezzlement of union dues and other abuses of their office. More important, he has taken an aggressive stance toward employers, and has started innovative education and organizing programs for members.
But many regional and local Teamster unions remain under the control of Carey’s old-guard enemies who resist him at every turn. And if the members of Local 320 vote for officers hostile to Carey’s agenda, it would be a major setback for the cause of reform.
The de facto incumbents in Local 320’s officers election are led by Sue Mauren, a business agent who was hired and trained by the same officials that the Independent Review Board’s investigation ousted for alleged misappropriation of $250,000 of union dues. In the past, she and her running mates on the Sue Mauren Unity slate have said they support Carey’s attempts to clean up the Teamsters. Her opponents, however, charge that her slate is secretly opposed to Carey’s reforms and would continue the old pattern of bloated officer salaries and incompetence if elected. (Mauren declined to talk to me for this column, claiming that she wouldn’t “get a fair shake.”)
The Unity slate’s chief opposition, the Rank and File slate, is headed up by Mike Turnure, a University food-service worker and longtime labor activist. “Our membership has been dissatisfied and frustrated for some time by the lack of accountability and fighting spirit of the local’s officers,” Turnure said.
The local, he added, “is presently in trusteeship because of the corruption of the former officers. We need a clean break with the past. We need dynamic new leaders who are committed to doing everything possible to fight to save our jobs here at the University.”
Among other things, the Rank and Filers want to slash officer salaries, start a regular union newsletter and initiate an ambitious membership training program. They also want to establish a more effective political action program to counteract attacks on public-sector workers by Gov. Arne Carlson and the state Legislature. And they claim to be the only slate in the election that wholeheartedly and vigorously supports Ron Carey’s various initiatives.
One area of particular concern to the Rank and File slate is preserving Teamster jobs at the University. For instance, they contend that the current leadership has not done enough to fight for the 300 Teamster jobs that are being threatened by the Fairview Health System University Hospital merger.
“The de facto incumbents haven’t done a whole heck of a lot for workers at University Hospital,” said Turnure, “Until we have leaders backed by the strength of a membership who trusts them, every Teamster here (at the University) is constantly in danger of being privatized.”
Turnure’s group has been crisscrossing the state for years, reaching out to disgruntled members, some of whom haven’t heard from their union representatives for decades. “We found out, when we talked to folks from other areas in our local union, that the problems we faced were happening all over,” said Deb Paulsen, a court administrator and Lake County steward who is the Rank and File candidate for vice president. “The only solution to our problems is to elect new leadership who put the members first.”
Of course, the activists backing the Rank and File slate recognize that running against the well-funded, well-connected Unity slate is an uphill battle. But the Rank and Filers think their grass-roots energy, commitment to fiscal responsibility and message of accountability will carry the day. Indeed, everything indicates that the race at this point is neck-and-neck.
In the end, even if the Rank and File slate don’t manage a win, the very fact that they’re challenging the local’s entrenched leadership is in itself a victory for union democracy. And with workers everywhere increasingly getting the short end of the stick, more democratic and effective unions are exactly what is needed.
Steve Macek’s columns appear in the Daily every Tuesday.