Thursday, May 7, 2009

New Fines Pit Carpenters Against Union Leaders


The union representing New York City carpenters, one of the area’s largest construction trades, continues to be roiled by turmoil after years of investigations into corruption and organized-crime influence and, since 2007, the federal convictions of four shop stewards for fraud, conspiracy or bribetaking.

The latest dispute has pitted many carpenters against the union leadership over a plan to withhold quarterly benefits checks from workers who refuse to grant the trustees of their welfare fund a new power to levy fines against them.

Leaders of the union, the District Council of Carpenters and Joiners, say the fines are necessary to deter carpenters from working off the books. Many carpenters say they are reluctant to give the union additional, and vaguely outlined, authority to fine workers.

The increasingly bitter dispute began last summer, after carpenters, joiners, timber workers and other union members were asked by the welfare fund trustees to sign a deduction-authorization card that would allow fund administrators to levy new but unspecified “fines or penalties” on workers’ accrued vacation pay.

The welfare fund provides life insurance, hospitalization, medical care, pension and vacation benefits to union members.

Vacation pay is contributed by employers. Workers pay taxes on the money, but they authorize the welfare fund to collect and to disburse it to them four times a year.

Union leaders tried to calm the waters in October with a letter explaining that the new fines or penalties were meant to deter “cash hounds” — members who illegally work for cash. Still, many members declined to sign the cards out of distrust of the trustees, a panel that includes employers’ representatives as well as the union’s top elected leadership, carpenters said.

“That card was a threat,” said a carpenter who agreed to be interviewed this month only on condition of anonymity because he said he feared retribution. “It was like signing a blank check to let them take out whatever they want, whenever they want.”

About 1,000 of the union’s 18,000 or so working members have not signed the card, a lawyer for the union said on Thursday. Many others signed it reluctantly, several union members said, because they needed the thousands of dollars that accrue each quarter.

“The average guy in this business has a family; he counts on the income from that vacation fund,” said Michael Power, 37, a carpenter and 19-year union member who has refused to sign. “I talked to a lot of guys who said they feel cornered. They didn’t want to sign the card, but they felt like they had no choice.”

The dispute escalated in March, when the union’s welfare fund trustees voted to stop sending vacation-pay disbursements to anyone who had not signed the authorization card, infuriating rank-and-file members.

The legal basis for withholding vacation-fund payments is unclear. The fund’s trustees, comprising five union officials and five employer representatives, voted to stop distributing vacation checks without seeking the consent of the fund’s lawyers, said Stuart GraBois, the welfare fund’s executive director.

Gary Rothman, a lawyer for the carpenters’ union, said, “Trustees have the authority to make reasonable rules as to the distribution of those benefits.” But Mr. Rothman added that since they voted to withhold the checks, the trustees have asked for a legal opinion, to be given at the next trustees’ meeting, on May 14.

Many union members say they have good cause to resist their leaders. Since October 2007, four union officials have been convicted of either taking illegal payments from union employers or cheating their own union’s benefit funds. The carpenters’ union has operated under federal court supervision since 1994.

Herman Benson, the founder of the Association for Union Democracy, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in Brooklyn, said the union leadership’s idea to withhold vacation pay was troubling.

“There’s something particularly outrageous about it, because the money that they’re withholding is not theirs; it’s the workers’,” Mr. Benson said.

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