“We’ve been through hell together”

Most names of individuals and organizations and businesses have been changed.

The first part of this story was told to us as labor educators when we were invited into Local 721 of an un-named International to provide contract bargaining and contract campaign training by the new leadership team prior to the contract re-openings. The events described here took place in the fall of 2001. It was told to us as background information, in order to prepare us for carrying out the training.

I include this here, in this blog about getting ready to go to Vietnam and teach “ Leadership” alongside Joe, who will be teaching “Social Influence and Persuasion,” to get into the nitty-gritty of what local union leadership can involve and the kind of courage that it takes to step up and actually do it. And also the vested interests that quite naturally, due to human nature, would prefer that you not step up.

As of the time that we were invited in, none of the new leadership of Local 721 had as yet stood for election in the positions which they now held. Instead, they expected that their positions would be confirmed at an upcoming General Membership meeting. Elections in this local were every two years, so the first full membership election that this group would face was scheduled for Fall 2003. In the next 18 months between the time we were invited in and that first election, these new leaders were looking ahead at major contract bargaining with most of their employers. This meant that they would be negotiating without having confirmed the members’ support for them as representatives through the test of an election. This made them want to implement a lot of membership involvement strategies in their upcoming negotiations. That’s what they called us in to help with.

Chicago at that time had a substantial candy manufacturing sector, making candies that were famous all over the country. The candy business was a hotbed of mob infestation. Up until at least 1989, Local 721 in Chicago, which has members in candy manufacturing and warehouse work, was a mob union. The PO or Principal Officer of Local 721 was a man named Rosetti. He was married to the granddaughter of the head of the Chicago mob. The mob used the union as a place to put their hit men; the hit men got jobs as business agents for the union, which meant that they got their health benefits and retirement plans through the union. When it came time to negotiate a contract, the hit men, accompanied by their bodyguards, would walk into the warehouse or the plant and things would get settled and the workers would find out later what they were getting or not getting.

It is important to understand that the mob was not pro-union. This was not about Robin Hood. The mob had their people on the management side. At one well-known candy manufacturing company, Miko Candy, for example, there was mob on both sides.

I was once shown a copy of a mob contract. It had an interesting clause in it that I’d never seen before. It was called a “security clause.” This didn’t mean union security, the clause which means that all workers in the bargaining unit must pay fees to cover the cost of representation even if they don’t choose to join the union and pay dues. This “security clause” said that the employer had to pay $250 per month per worker directly to the union for “security.” The money would go into a union fund. If you have 100 workers, that’s $25,000 per month. The union has complete control over that fund, whatever they decide to call it. Nothing in the contract says who has access to the money in that fund once it gets to the union. One way that an employer can cope with a contract like that is to note that the union has probably not made an effort to negotiate good wages for the workers, so it all comes out even anyway. You can save more than $25,000 per month by paying 100 workers $8.50 an hour instead of $10.00 an hour. Plus you save on payroll taxes. So as long as the union doesn’t push for decent wages, the employer probably won’t complain.

The membership of Local 721 did not have much experience of union democracy. Labor educators value union democracy. We tend to think that good, clean, active union democracy will both honestly earn the trust and commitment of members and mobilize the membership to fight collectively for good working conditions. Ultimately, we believe that “they may have the power but we have the people,” and the people are really the ones with the power. Also, labor creates all value, in case you were wondering. We also believe that in order for union democracy to work, a tremendous amount of education is required. In the critical moment when members decide what to do and what not to do, there is not a lot of time to ask or answer questions. The thinking and learning has to go on continuously, even if there is no crisis to confront. Leadership development has to go on all the time, at all levels. You need a deep bench of stewards, committee persons, organizers, volunteers – and that’s not even talking about executive board members or contract negotiators, to say nothing of presidents. So labor educators spend a lot of time setting up situations in which people can think and talk things over with each other and learn from each other and from people the union can connect them with.

Local leadership in the new reform context

Two of the people who will figure importantly in this story worked at Miko Candy during that time. One was Linda Brown and the other was Jose Lauro. Jose Lauro was a machine operator.

There had been a lengthy Justice Department investigation of this union, especially among the Chicago locals, that led in 1989 to a consent decree, requiring a direct election by the entire membership of the next President, which in turn led to the election out of which a reform candidate became International President. During this period, the FBI had taps on many phones in local union offices. One day in 1991, Rosetti, the Principal Officer of 721, was talking to his bookie when the FBI was listening. Usually this wouldn’t have mattered, but under the new reform International President, once he got caught, that was the end of him.

Local Union 721 then was put into trusteeship, or taken over, by the International and a man named Robbie, from another Chicago local, Local 703 was put in charge as Trustee. Robbie hired a man as Business Agent who had been a BA under Rosetti but who had been fired; his name was Simon Warren. It is not clear if Simon was mob or not. Simon’s wife Donna became the office manager at 721and bookkeeper.

Robbie also hired a young woman named Rhonda Hamilton who had been working for another big union, not the same group of unions that Local 721 was part of, as a business agent. She had both a college education and union experience and was well-known to be a good, activist person around the labor movement in Chicago. Maybe Robbie hired her because it would make him look clean. She says now that they told her, “You don’t get many chances to be a member of X union.” It seemed like a challenge. Getting hired would also make her a member, which gave her a vote and would allow her to run for office, which is the kind of thing someone might take into consideration. So she took the job.

Some people at 721 were concerned that Local 703 might move to merge Local 721 into it and swallow it up. Local 703 is a big local; it also represents warehouses, as do many of the 22 Chicago Joint Council 32 locals. So Local 721 was vulnerable. That made it even more important for the contract negotiations to go well so they would look strong and hard to swallow.

Robbie groomed Simon Warren to be the successor to the Principal Officer position when they came out from under the trusteeship. He gave him access to insider information, visibility to the membership, and other typical advantages. When it came time for the election there were other slates – in fact, there were four slates – but Simon won.

Simon had recruited Jose Lauro to be on his slate. Simon needed a Latino and someone from Miko Candy. Jose had only been to one union meeting before he joined Simon’s slate. He knew next to nothing about unions in the United States. He was from a region of Mexico, Durango, where a lot of Mexicans in Chicago came from. Jose was a very good-looking man in his early thirties. The first time Simon asked him, Jose turned it down. But the second time he accepted, and he was on the winning slate.

Simon had also recruited a woman from Miko to be on his slate: Linda Brown.

Simon Warren’s slate won that first election. But two years later, when it was time for the next election, the slate ran again; this time, Jose was the top vote-getter, above Simon. Then again, two years later, the top vote-getter was Linda; Jose was second, and Simon third.

In the culture of this union everyone was aware of the oversight of the reform International President. He came out of the big local in New York. His local had led a successful strike against a major company in 1997 that made national news for months and is still regarded as an example of a well-run strike and campaign. Under this new President, not only Local 721 in Chicago but several others of the big Chicago locals had been put into trusteeship: Local 743 and Local 705 among them. The leadership of these local unions, who were reportedly connected to the mob, hated the new President and everything he did. There was both fear and hatred involved, and the forces in Chicago that were opposed to anything the reform President did were substantial.

Simon Warren and the Local 721 treasury

Under Simon’s leadership, the cash reserves of Local 721 had been drawn down from $3,000,000 to less than $500,000. This was primarily because of the hiring of staff; the local union staff was up to 12 at this point. But Simon’s salary was $98,000 per year as well. Between him and his wife Donna, who was the bookkeeper and office manager, they were taking about $150,000 a year home from the union.

In addition, Simon had bought a new building for the local offices and had it remodeled. Up until then, they had had offices in a big high-rise building on the West Side where a lot of unions had their offices. The new building at 9231 Ogden was a small, tight, good-looking brick building and closer to many of the warehouses where members worked, but buying it and fixing it up wasn’t cheap. It had a nice sky-blue meeting hall that could squeeze in several hundred people, with a kitchen along one side. It had an executive meeting room with an oblong wooden table and some soft chairs. It had offices for the Business Agents and a central office with a bullet-proof glass window and a door that opened with a buzzer. It had diagonal parking along the side of the building and was on a commercial street that ran along a nice neighborhood of bungalows with green lawns, trees in the parking strip, little restaurants and shops. The nearby main street, West Archer, had occasional McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts but more local shops than chains and some good ethnic restaurants and bakeries. In the near distance, planes from Midway Airport took off and landed.

The executive board (which included Jose Laura and Linda Brown, remember) was aware of this sinking of the cash reserves, but had not done anything about it except to ask to see the books. Simon’s reply had been, “Don’t you trust me?” As Simon’s wife Donna was the bookkeeper, there was no way to go behind him to look at the books. Rhonda Hamilton, who knew how to do this from her work at another union, had noticed the way the money was pouring out of the hole in the budget and had drawn up some charts that illustrated what would happen if they continued to spend money at this rate. She presented these charts to the E-Board at a meeting. No one said anything, but everyone noticed and remembered.

The Dues Assessment Issue and What it Led To

In fall of 2001, Simon called a general membership meeting to make a proposal about union funds: he wanted to raise dues and take a $5 a month assessment from the members. There was no doubt that the treasury was low; Rhonda’s charts had shown that. But a dues raise was likely to be controversial; while the warehouse workers made pretty good money ($18 per hour), the manufacturing candy workers made much less, between $9 and $12 per hour. However, according to the constitution and by-laws, a dues assessment had to be submitted to a general membership meeting. This general membership meeting was to be held on a Tuesday night.

At this point, the executive board of the union consisted of: Simon Warren, Principal Officer and Secretary-Treasurer; Jose Lauro, President, from Miko; Linda Brown, from Miko; Alonzo Marks, who was the son of a previous Principal Officer, prior to Rosetti; Lorena Arrigo, who worked at Waldo Pickle; Barbie Tolman, who had worked at Grassy Dairy and now worked at Red Devil Sauces; Alberto Fosco, also the son of a previous PO, who had worked at Major Wholesale Grocery Warehouse for a couple of years before becoming a business agent and who came from the famous Fosco family which had ruled a different union for generations; and Ron Derber. All the members of the E-Board were also business agents; this means that they stayed in touch with the members by doing representation work. As business agents, they made good money – many twice or three times as much as they made in their “day” jobs. It also meant that if they got fired as business agents (which Simon, as PO, could do), they would have no livelihood. So they were indebted to Simon for their livelihood.

On the Thursday prior to the general membership meeting Simon called a staff meeting. When he told the staff about the dues increase and assessment he was planning to present at the general membership meeting, Rhonda said in a whisper to Linda, who was sitting beside her: “This isn’t right. I’ve got to do something. You don’t have to stand behind me, but I’ve got to do it.” And then she stood up and told Simon that it was wrong for him to be taking home $98,000 per year and Donna taking home another salary on top of that, and wrong for them not to show people the books, and at the same time be asking the membership to pay increased dues and an assessment. Linda stood up beside her and agreed with her.

Simon blew up and adjourned the meeting.

After this meeting, Julio, Loretta, Alonzo and Alberto got together with Rhonda at the Dunkin Donuts across the street. They knew that this was a moment that they had to move forward or lose everything; Simon could fire all of them in an instant. They contacted a lawyer, got some advice, and made a plan. It was a complicated plan that involved a lot of preparation and a confrontation.

The Good Guys Win

Simon then called an emergency meeting of just the E-Board on Sunday afternoon. Although she had the right to vote, Rhonda, who considered herself somewhat of an outsider, since she had been hired from another union, did not go. This was part of their plan. She waited at a restaurant down the street.

At the meeting, the action went like this: There were seven people at the meeting. They were Simon, Julio, Linda, Alonzo, Alberto, Barbie and Ron. First, Simon called the meeting to order. Then, Linda pulled out her tape recorder, put it on the table in full sight of everyone, and turned it on. Then she made a motion that the power to fire or suspend business agents or staff be transferred from Simon as PO to Jose as President. Someone else seconded it right away and someone else called “Vote!” and before anyone could say anything, there was a vote, four to three. Barbie and Ron voted with Simon.

Simon was dumfounded.

What had changed was that now, Simon no longer had the power to fire the Business Agents. So they were free to do what they thought was right without fear of what he could do to them.

Then Jose showed him a list of charges that they had drawn up against him: financial mismanagement and other things. Jose told Simon that they wanted him to resign, and if he didn’t resign, they were going to file those charges with the International.

Simon took a look at the charges and exploded and then stormed out of the building, with the two Business Agents who had voted on his side, Barbie and Ron, with him.

There was a moment of quiet.

Then someone phoned Rhonda who was still waiting in the restaurant. No one knew quite what they had done or not done. Rhonda was the one who from her experience in other unions had probably the best idea of strategy, although even she felt she was a bit out of her depth here.

Rhonda then came back to the union hall from the restaurant and joined the others. This was unfortunate, because until then Simon had not had any evidence that she was part of this plan. While she was sitting with the rest of the four, Simon stormed back in, raging at them all. Sensing that this was a moment when things could go either way, Rhonda acting on instinct, stood up and screamed at Simon. It worked. Simon then left again.

Now the five people sitting in the Executive Board meeting room had a lot to do. They called a locksmith and changed the locks on the union hall. They went and got the computer that was in the business office and brought it into the meeting room where they took out the hard drive. They called Simon’s wife Donna at home and tried to tell her what they had done, but Simon had obviously contacted her already she was by now drunk and wailing for sympathy.

Ron, who had walked out with Simon, came back to the hall later that afternoon while they were still there. He felt angry that he had not been included in the plan; they had to explain to him that they didn’t know him as well as they knew each other, and so they didn’t know whether he could be relied on or not. But now he joined them.

At this point, looking back on it, you could say that they had won. They got Simon to resign and they got back in control of the finances. Soon enough, Simon’s lawyer called them and they arranged a settlement.

Now they still had the general membership meeting to face; it was two nights away, Tuesday night.

The General Membership Meeting

The new leadership group worked hard together to prepare detailed explanations of what had happened so they could talk sense to the members, who either knew nothing about what had happened or else might have heard rumors.

When the members arrived, they were met by the new leadership group. The new leadership told them what had happened. Their explanations were clear and kept it simple, without blaming anyone. Simon didn’t show up and his wife Donna seemed to be gone for good.

Without much fuss, Jose, who had already been President from the last election, was confirmed to take over the role of Principle Officer and Secretary-Treasurer; Alonzo became President; Lorena, Linda, Ron, and Alberto (called “Berti”) were the E-Board.

Oddly, the members didn’t seem to care much about the change in leadership. Most of the people at the meeting were workers from the candy factories who had heard that their plants were going to close. When it came to their place on the agenda, they wanted to know about whether they’d get any severance packages and what was going to happen to their meager health benefits. They looked tired and worried. When they spoke from the floor, they talked about how they were afraid of being laid off and having no income at all. Many were grandparents who had worked at their companies for twenty or thirty years. They hadn’t earned enough to have any savings. One of them had been chosen to speak on behalf of the others, and he pleaded with the new leadership to try to negotiate good severance benefits for them. Jose, who was now PO, listened to them and said, “Trust me.”

Facing contract negotiations.

The overall goal of all the confrontation with Simon had not actually been to get an investigation at the level of the International, even though they had written up the charges and threatened to file them. There was too much anger and bitterness throughout Chicago against the International, in other words against the new reform President, who in the name of cleaning up the Chicago locals had put several other locals into trusteeship. This made Local 721’s new leaders hesitant to bring down the International on them. It might have, for example, isolated them from other locals that were more actively trying to resist the President but which had a lot of local influence. The goal of this group was much more short-term: to get Simon to resign and get back into control of the local’s finances. That goal they had accomplished. So they almost felt they could take a breather.

But now the new leadership began to appreciate the other challenges that lay ahead of them.

The problem of getting decent severance packages for the workers in the candy factories was almost overwhelming. That whole industry was going overseas, leaving empty brick buildings on the upper West Side, full of rusting equipment. The severance clauses in the contracts were pitiful. Maybe there was a way to invoke the WARN Act, though, and get some retraining money for these workers — although the workers had been worn down by years of hard, badly compensated work and were not eager to learn new trades.

At the same time, the new leadership was looking at the expiration of seven warehouse contracts: Home Bargains (represented by Jose); Wasau (represented by Alonza); Certified (Alfredo); National Foods in Glendale (Afredo); National Foods in Bensonville, also known as Wizard (Berti); Better Foods (represented by Berti), and Major Foods (represented by Ron.)

Would they be able to put together campaigns that will enable them to negotiate these contracts from a strong position? For example, Major Foods – which is the huge food supply company whose trucks you see all over the highway, that provides mass food to hotels, universities, and restaurant chains – has initiated an “incentive” system that is likely to tempt workers to compete against each other for speed in the warehouses, resulting in more injuries that will be hard to document, retirement of older workers who can’t or don’t want to keep up, and sooner or later, the establishment of new, higher work targets because Major Foods will say that the work targets achieved under the incentive system are “normal” and “minimum,” not targets at all. Think about how much investment in time and energy it will take to get these workforces to be able to bargain from a strong position under those circumstances!

Could the new team work well together? These were people with very different backgrounds and some very different characters, but they worked together. Rhonda was hopeful. She said, “We fight and argue, but it’s nothing; we’ve been through hell together.”

Our program was working with them at this point, analyzing contracts, costing proposals and getting in touch with members to distribute surveys asking what they would be willing to do, for example, to organize meetings and learn about what was coming down the pike.

But Remember the Guy Who Had Only Been to One Union Meeting Before Getting on the E-Board

But remember Jose, who had worked in the candy factory? The guy who had been a machine operator at Miko? He had only been to one union meeting before he was recruited to be on the E-Board as someone from Miko. He was a very good looking guy in his thirties, fit and attractive. At the general meeting at which he was made Principal Officer and Secretary-Treasurer, he wore a nice gray suit and a dark blue shirt with a gray tie. Since he had been taken over Simon’s position, the powers of Simon to hire and fire and oversee the treasury had been transferred to him.

So it was not a whole lot later (a matter of weeks), right in the middle of the preparation for the contract campaign, that Jose went into the bank account, took all the money, and disappeared. People said he want to Ecuador because there is no extradition agreement between the US and Ecuador.

And that was that.

End of story

Labor education used to be, like many of the outreach or extension services of land grant universities, free or so low-cost that individuals could avail themselves of it. No longer. Our program, like many others, was being directed to charge what we felt were prices comparable to prices charged for executive training programs. In other words, if an organization couldn’t pay, we were gone. So we stopped working with Local 721. I kept in touch with Rhonda for a while, but she was pretty busy and not too happy with us.

Twelve years later, I came across this story in my files. I had taken it down as notes from conversations with the people at 721 while it was happening. Some people might say that I shouldn’t post this story anywhere. They might say, for example, that the labor movement gets enough bad rap without repeating stories about mob unions. Or they might say that this is a depressing, bad story about people behaving badly and we don’t need depressing stories these days, depressing stories will only make people feel hopeless. They might say, “What’s the point? Why spread a story like that around?”

I would answer that this is a story about how hard it is to lead a good union and there are quite a number of brave people in this story who were doing the right thing in the face of heavy odds. You have not only the employers trying to push down working conditions and scaring your members as they face layoffs in old age without decent pensions and healthcare, but you have predatory organizations like mobs hovering around trying to suck out any kind of petty cash that they can get, playing nickel-and-dime power games that ultimately feed off people who are making barely enough to scrape by. It’s amazing how the smell of money, even a little bit of money, can attract the lowest of the low. But we know that – that’s how our economy works. And in the middle of that dreadful scene, you have some brave people. These brave people are willing to step forward and speak up and let people see their faces, and sometimes actually do things.
Remember how Simon just blew up and adjourned the meeting? He was a paper dragon; they confronted him and he went up in flames. His wife hit the bottle. Those were the enemies – all it took to blow them away was some careful planning and a little collective concerted activity. And then of course, when Rhonda screamed at him when he came back the second time. She screamed at him and he went away.

But how about the old man who came to the General Meeting after work that evening and stood up and spoke for the rest of the people who worked at Miko? He addressed the Executive Board, which was focused and preoccupied on how their actions were going to be perceived when they got rid of Simon, and tried to get them to look at the bigger picture: what was going to happen to all the laid-off workers at Miko? That’s the real job of the union. I remember that he stood there in his work clothes, a thin old guy, African American, with hands hanging down as he spoke, not making gestures – a tired guy. He ha brought some members with him, also in their work clothes, also looking tired. Up on the dais, Jose, in his shiny gray suit, actually said these words to them: “Trust me.” A bad sign if there ever was one.

And how about the four co-conspirators who went to the Sunday afternoon Executive Board meeting that Simon called? They had planned what they were going to do, but they didn’t know what would happen. They had spent a lot of time figuring out what to put on the list of charges against Simon. They had had to figure out exactly how to frame those charges, so that their threat to file them with the International would be credible. They were walking into a major confrontation with someone whom they were going to accuse of, effectively, stealing. They were prepared but they were taking a great risk, and whatever happened, they were going to have to stand together and push through the moment and keep their eye on ball. These were brave, thoughtful people.

How about Linda Brown, the women who pulled out the tape recorder and slammed it on the table – and turned it on? That took guts. She was probably so angry at that moment that she was shaking, and her anger overcame her fear, and somehow, she didn’t drop the tape recorder or fail to push the right button. Then she had to look up and make the motion.

And how about the motion itself, the motion to remove Simon as PO and replace him with Jose? It had to be worded right. Then the motion and the second and the vote had to go boom-boom-boom, before anyone could intervene. It had to happen very fast, and it had to happen exactly right, before Simon figured out what was going on. The co-conspirators had to be right on top of what to do next.

And how about Rhonda, waiting in the Dunkin Donuts to see what was going to happen? Imagine her sitting there with her cell phone on the table beside her. She was probably going over the list of all the things they would have to do should the move against Simon be successful: call the locksmith, change the locks, get the computer, call Donna to make sure that she knew what had happened. She was also probably trying to figure out what she would say if Simon, who didn’t as yet know that she was involved, called her from the meeting. And what would happen if the motion was successful and she decided to pretend that she hadn’t been involved – would she just show up at work the next day and act surprised? Imagine how she felt when the phone rang.

To me, this is a story about some brave people trying to carve out a space of honest representation in a universe where their ability to do so is constrained by just about every force that stands over them. Nonetheless, they try. There is a point at which their anger pushes them past boundaries that would have intimidated them in the past. It pushes them to confrontation and action. Luckily, they prepared. And then it turns out that their enemies – their personal enemies, not the system that empowers those enemies – are vulnerable because they have become over-confident and careless, and in fact it turns out they are cowards themselves.

Nothing could have prepared them, however, for what Jose did. The gray suit was a warning; his “trust me” was an even more serious warning, but there was a mistake that had been made earlier which might have avoided the calamity at the end of the story. Jose had been recruited from Miko because they needed a Latino, and he looked really good. He had social skills and people knew him. But he had only been to one union meeting. He found himself on the Executive Board, and soon enough, President of the union, without ever been active in the union.

As a labor educator, however, I would say that there was a way to prepare against this. It was a weakness in the leadership development pipeline, evidence of a lack of investment in labor education to develop a deep bench so that when there are calls for someone to step into the leadership, plenty of people are ready to do it, people who are known to the rest of the union and who have been tested in conversation and discussion. That way you don’t have to “get a Latino” at the last minute. You’ve got a half dozen already trained and tested and interested in the job.

Oh, well.

And besides, up to a point, they won, didn’t they? They got the mob out of the union, elected a Board that actually represented workers, brought in labor educators (which usually means a commitment to a certain level of internal organizing and transparency) and were working on a serious contract campaign that would involve lots of member participation.

And then the good-looking guy with the nice suit who said “Trust me” turned out to not only capable of strategic planning with his fellow union members, but was capable of pulling off a little strategic planning on his own. I imagine him in the union office at night, alone with the computer, transferring the money. I’m not exactly sure how you do this, but he did it. Maybe bit by bit.

Maybe he just went to the bank, presented his credentials, and they put the money in a bag for him. Like a robber.

I Googled Local 721 just now to see if it still exists. The most recent links are to the building on Ogden. One link says that Local 721 has 2,432 members, 9 employees, and 0 assets – zero. That was 2002. Nothing since then.