Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Are Carpenter local unions still "labor organizations?"

A discussion by Herman Benson

The question is startling but legitimate. The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act defines a "labor organization" as one "in which employees participate and which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, of dealing with employers concerning grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours, or other terms or conditions of employment..." By that standard, Carpenter locals, totally disarmed under the current union structure, seem to have clearly lost the right to designation as "labor organizations."

In the Carpenters union, locals have been merged into district and regional councils where they are stripped of all participation in negotiating, signing, or enforcing collective bargaining agreements. Full authority over dealing with employers, from start to finish, is arrogated by an executive secretary treasurer, who is armed with extraordinary authoritarian power, not only over collective bargaining, but also over every other sphere of union life.

Council bylaws make clear how sweeping and authoritarian that power is: "The EST shall have the power and authority to appoint and remove representatives for and on behalf of its Local Unions to act as Trustees or all negotiated Employer/Union Trust Funds including, but not limited to, annuity, health and welfare plans... Accordingly, all trust agreements and/or plan documents shall be amended by the authorized representatives of the Local unions to reflect the foregoing appointment and removal process." And just to make it crystal clear: "The Council shall have the exclusive power and authority to negotiate and execute Collective Bargaining Agreements for and behalf of its affiliated local unions, except to the extent the International Union exercises its jurisdiction or authority." Carpenter councils may or may not decide to submit contracts for membership ratification, but that decision involves a relation between the council and the total membership. In such a decision and such a process, local unions are irrelevant.

All business agents, representatives, all personnel that have anything to do with contract negotiation or enforcement are selected by the all-powerful EST. And that power extends beyond the area of relations with employers into every aspect of union activity.

Locals, now walled off from collective bargaining, have been so weakened that they are incapable of doing anything effectively. Most dues money goes directly into the district council treasury. As required by Federal law, locals still elect local officers; but locals are expressly forbidden to pay them salaries or to hire any other staff personnel except clerical employees, no educational directors, attorneys, political action reps, no one. Not one person can hold any paid union position of any kind, except simple local clerical employees, unless selected by the regnant EST.

One carpenter in New York argues on the internet that all local unions in the Carpenters District Council should be abolished because the reorganization of the international union under International President Douglas McCarron has already squeezed all life out of them. As he says, with justification, local unions have been deprived of almost every autonomous right and have no effective constitutionally means of affecting what happens in the union, not even in their own assigned jurisdiction and certainly not in the district. And so he concludes, it is pointless and misleading to continue the fiction that locals still have any meaningful role. But while he describes the facts accurately, his conclusion would make matters worse. Precisely because the international has become so egregiously authoritarian, locals' unions, even in their eviscerated state, have become the only arena left where rank and filers can easily assemble to discuss union affairs, express dissatisfaction, and even just let off steam. Members have lost the right to act through their locals in collective bargaining; but so far, they retain at least the right to talk.

Where does all that leave local unions in the Carpenters structure? In their relationship to the union, they resemble the social committees, educational committees, women's caucuses, coalitions of black trade unionists, or any of the many other committees or subunits that unions create to carry on their activities. Like them, locals have no role in collective bargaining.

Where does it leave the district and regional councils? Since they bypass and preempt the now lifeless locals in collective bargaining, they should be required to fulfill all the obligations imposed on locals by Federal law, including the direct secret ballot vote by members in the election of council officers and in the levying of dues and assessments.

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