The New York City carpenters union has been in trouble with the law for many decades. Organized crime has been endemic with the union for a long time and union chief after union chief has gone to jail over the ties and other corruption. Even shop stewards have gotten into the corruption game with four recently convicted on charges of fraud, conspiracy or bribetaking.
It’s so bad that even the rank-and-file member doesn’t trust the union to legally carry out union business. That distrust was seen again recently with a dispute arising between union members and union leadership over a plan to withhold quarterly benefit checks from members that refuse to sign away greater power to union officials who want to fine members that refuse to fall into line.
The union has a convoluted scheme of taking workers’ vacation pay and placing it in a welfare fund to provide life insurance, hospitalization, medial care, pension and vacation benefits to members. Instead of receiving vacation pay upon returning from a vacation, members are disbursed a quarterly vacation fund check each year. It happened that union chiefs wanted members to sign authorization cards to allow the union to fine any members found not paying into the welfare fund by working jobs off the books.
Many union members, however, are refusing to sign the cards giving the union power to take unspecified and vague “fines” out of their pay.
“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.”
Since many union members were either reluctantly signing or refusing to sign the cards, the union leaders upped the ante by halting benefit payments to any member that wouldn’t sign the card.
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.
Yet, these same leaders that have repeatedly been thrown in jail for cheating the union, stealing union funds, working with the Mob, and any manner of other corrupt practices are claiming the moral standing to fine members for working jobs off the books? It’s these thug union bigwigs that members fear giving the power to begin “fining” members without defined restrictions on what those fines are for. Many members rightly fear that the power once given to the union chiefs will later be misused for any and every reason that those union leaders can imagine.
But, this incident really does show what a union is made of. It proves pretty starkly that union “leaders” don’t care a whit about what the workers want. Even worse, if shows that the workers themselves are afraid of the union itself. These workers are afraid of “retribution” from the leader’s thug armies and from the union’s scorched earth practices.
What sort of “voluntary” organization is it where the members are afraid of the very organization that claims to be speaking for them? Unfortunately, this is the ultimately logical end of any powerful union effort. Eventually, given enough power, all unions end up treating friend and foe alike in an effort to increase its own power.