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Biz Union Black Ops P04: Stranger Than Fiction

Written by Wanda Pasz Wednesday, 08 March 2006

The baffling events surrounding HERE Local 75 in the summer and fall of 1994 defy conventional explanations. One thing was for certain and that was that the UFCW wanted into the hotel industry in a very big way.

Nothing about it made much sense. Hotels were HERE's turf. That was recognized by the Canadian Labour Congress and by the AFL-CIO in the US. Had the UFCW set out to organize non-union hotels, that in itself could have created trouble in the house of labour but raiding unionized establishments where HERE was already the bargaining agent not only a crossed jurisdictional boundaries but a flagrant breach of the AFL-CIO and CLC's sacred "no raiding" strictures.

The UFCW's plan to surreptitiously poach HERE's core Canadian turf in the spring of 1994 was as foolish as it was reckless - foolish as it had virtually no chance of success and reckless for the political fallout it risked if exposed.

It wasn't just another UFCW member-acquisition scheme. If the UFCW's only interest in raiding Local 75's members was acquiring Local 75's members, there were easier and safer ways of doing it. They could have engaged HERE International in merger discussions or they could have done as the USWA's Leo Gerard had done and asked the CLC for permission raid the Local.

If an underhanded plan was preferred, Cliff Evans could have selected a less tarnished raider from the ranks of the low profile "union consultants" and other agents-for-hire who float around the labour community looking for "special projects" of this kind. The chances of success would have been greater with pretty much anyone but Belanger.

Likewise Belanger was no union dissident dismayed at poor service from the international union or the amount of per capita that it charged. The suggestion that his decision to break with the International was due in part to concerns about underworld ties is laughable considering his own lifelong association with a major organized crime figure. If anything, this would make him less likely to pull a stunt that might displease the mobsters. The fact that he did so - and on nothing more than on the strength of a letter from a lawyer who, by the way, had represented HERE for a whole lot of years - was just another one of those details in the "stranger than fiction" category.

Yet the strange bedfellows not only forged ahead with the plan, but jumped through flaming hoops to make it work.

The scheme carried was politically high-risk and carried little prospect of success.

Evans, Kukovica, Belanger and anyone who knew anything about labour relations laws and procedures would have known that Belanger had absolutely no chance of successfully disaffiliating from the International unless the International was willing to roll over and allow him to make off with its largest Canadian local. The trusteeship of the Local was inevitable and Belanger's chances of resisting were absolute zero.

Neither the Ontario Labour Relations Board nor the Divisional Court would be the least bit concerned about his reasons for wanting to break away from the or about the fairness of HERE's International Constitution which prohibited disaffiliation of Locals where three or more members objected. As long as HERE officials followed their constitution, they would be successful in asserting control over the Local.

This notwithstanding, Belanger beligerently resisted the International's efforts to take control of the Local, refusing to allow Stamos, the trustee, into the Local's offices or to turn over its records. To add insult to injury, he had Stamos removed from the board of trustees of the Local's health and welfare fund.

Belanger would have known his goose was cooked on August 4, 1994 when OLRB Chair MacDowell refused his application for an order that would have kept Local 75 members' dues flowing to him and his crew. MacDowell's decision, know as HERE Local 75 v. Westbury Howard Johnson Hotel gave him a clue of where he'd end up challenging the trusteeship in through legal means. But it would take an order of the Ontario Superior Court to persuade him to turn the Local over to the trustee.

While the ink was still drying on McDowell's decision and with a full hearing scheduled for September, Belanger played another card. He called members to a "special general membership meeting" to vote on a new constitution for the Local.

The conduct of that meeting is described in distrubing detail in evidence that was adduced in the proceedings before the Superior Court in a case known as Stamos v. Belanger.

19. Papernick describes the conduct of the August 9, 1994 meeting at paragraphs 24 to 28 of her affidavit. She swears that:

24. At the meeting, present were a number of burly, muscular men who I did not recognize as members of Local 75. The presence of these men made me feel uncomfortable and apprehensive throughout the meeting.

25. I and the other members present, approximately 250, were given copies of the new constitution and by-laws and were permitted to ask questions of the Executive Board. I asked a number of questions opposing the proposed new constitution and was shouted down by several of the burly men standing around the room. One of the members requested a roll call vote on the amendments and another requested that each amendment be approved on an individual basis. The Executive stated that no roll call vote would be taken and that the vote on the amendments would be "all or nothing".

26. A number of times either a business representative of Local 75 or a shop steward would request the vote. The Executive would then call for the vote and then another member would ask a question and no one would vote. This created confusion amongst the members and a number of them walked out of the meeting. I stood up and requested a roll call vote and while I was doing this, a member of the Executive called for the vote which was to be done by the members standing up or sitting down depending on how they wished to vote.

27. At the same time that the vote was called, a number of people had stood up to leave. The men standing around the room began yelling at the members to stand up. There was a lot of confusion and the members I spoke to after the meeting stated they didn't even know what they were voting on if they had voted.

28. At the time of the vote, I estimate that there were fewer than 200 people in the room. Despite this, Mr. Belanger yelled out "217 for; meeting adjourned". The people who were standing up to leave were also counted as voting "for" the amendments.

20. According to Papernick's affidavit, in the late evening of August 11, 1994, she received a threatening telephone call with respect to her opposition from a man who refused to identify himself.

21. Paul Clifford is an organizer of the International and a member of Local 75. On July 13, 1994, Stan Urbin returned Clifford's union dues and Health and Welfare contributions to him for July and August of 1994, and advised him that he was no longer welcome or permitted entry into the offices of Local 75. When he attempted to enter the August 9, 1994 special membership meeting, he was physically pushed away by Belanger and told by Jerry Jones, a business representative of Local 75, that he had been suspended. These actions were all taken without notice to Clifford. Clifford described the ejection of him and a Mr. Whyte from the meeting in the following terms. Mr. Whyte is a member of the International and President of Local 442 in Niagara Falls. The International has requested his assistance in the management of the trusteeship of Local 75.

22. Mr. Clifford, in his affidavit, swears:

20. Several burly, muscular men approached me and told me to leave. I said that I was a member of Local 75 and had a right to attend the meeting. I did not recognize any of these men as members of Local 75 but I did recognize an individual by the name of Eddie Melo from a Toronto Star newspaper article I had read which stated that Mr. Melo had been charged and convicted of weapons offences while employed by Local 75.

21. These men then attempted to get me away from the crowd outside the meeting room. I wouldn't leave the immediate vicinity and one of the men put his face to within about an inch of mine and in a low and menacing tone told me to leave. As he was saying this he bared his teeth. One of the other men said that I had better listen to him. These three men were successful in backing me away from the meeting room and from the members of Local 75 entering the room. At one point, James Whyte, a member of the International Union and President of Local 442 in Niagara Falls, came over to where we were standing and Mr. Melo put his face right next to Mr. Whyte's and asked him if he had a problem. The men then continued walking us back away from the members and told us not to talk to any of the members.

22. Mr. Melo and the others continued to steer Mr. Whyte and I away from the meeting and the membership. They continued to say things in low tones to us. To me Mr. Melo said things such as, I'm going to be your worst nightmare" and "You're going to get to know me real well."

23. At one point a police officer arrived and I spoke to him. The police officer said he couldn't intervene until something happened or a crime was committed.

24. After the police left Mr. Melo and the other men started taunting me, calling me a "rat" and saying it was "dangerous to be a rat" and that it "was a mistake" talking to the police.

In the end, it would take a Court order to get Belanger to give up control of Local 75. As hopeless as his legal battles with the International Union were, they allowed Belanger to call the Local "independent" long enough to allow his UFCW partners to enter into a Service Agreement with him and, minutes later, grant him a UFCW Charter while skirting around the CLC's no raiding rule.

Represented in Ontario Superior Court by a top Toronto labour lawyer, Belanger and his crew left no legal argument unexplored in their effort to persuade the Judge that the Local and its 6200 members should be left in their capable hands. They even introduced the Service Agreement with the UFCW as evidence of their good intentions to provide good service to the members but their efforts to persuade the Judge blew up on them.

24. In this same affidavit, dated September 1, 1994, Urbain swears to his belief that the International's rights will not be harmed if the court refuses this request for interim injunctive relief. He explained that, only after Mr. Stamos sought to obstruct dues, was Local 75 obliged to enter into "a service agreement" with U.F.C.W. in order that it could continue to fully represent its membership. This agreement was attached as Exhibit 14 and is dated August 26, 1994. This same letter agreement had been revealed to the Labour Board on August 30, 1994 and to this court on September 2, 1994. On this latter date, I encouraged the parties to review their differences over the following week with a view to fashioning an interim arrangement everyone could live with. The defendants gave their assurances that the status quo would be maintained in the interim.

25. It was understood that the parties would return before me on Friday, September 9, 1994, one day after the first Labour Board hearing dealing with the merits of the previously described applications. In anticipation of the O.L.R.B. hearing date, the plaintiffs served Urbain with a summons to witness, requiring him to produce all notes, documents and correspondence regarding the service agreement with U.F.C.W. dated August 26, 1994. In response to this request, on September 8, 1994, the plaintiffs' counsel received a copy of another agreement with U.F.C.W. dated August 26, 1994, whereby the defendants agree that Local 75 will accept a grant of charter from U.F.C.W. "covering the geographical jurisdiction of the province of Ontario and trade jurisdiction in the hotel, restaurant, food services, casinos and related and associated types of work." The failure of the defendants to reveal this agreement to the court at the same time they volunteered the service agreement is very disturbing and, at the very least, undercuts the reliability of Urbain's affidavit.

By the end of 1994, Belanger would exhaust his legal avenues, losing again in the Ontario Court of Appeal. Many in the labour relations community wondered how his fledgling HESEU could afford these courtroom dramas although by now we have a pretty good idea.

Throughout the whole ordeal there was a certain cockiness about him - like a guy who has a lot of muscle in his corner. From the assorted goons in attendance at his special membership meeting, it appears that this included more than just the UFCW.

By the time the legal drama ended and the days of Local 75's independence were over, he and his crew were welcomed into the UFCW's Canadian headquarters where they quietly set up shop as HESEU and went off to raid Local 75.

Why the UFCW kept their raiding buddies in their national headquarters - where they could and would be seen coming and going by staff and visitors who would quickly put two and two together - just added to the high strangeness of this strange story. Maybe they wanted to spare the additional expense of having to lease space for their little satellite or maybe they wanted Belanger and his boys where they could keep an eye on them. Or maybe they were feeling cocky too, as the hotels they coveted so much seemed just within reach.

The ultimate irony of this entire scheme was that Belanger was arguably the worst candidate to raid Local 75's members. Years of lousy contracts, no democracy and media stories about mafia ties had soured many of them on him and his crew of business agents. Yet the UFCW jumped in the sack with him and kept him there until the raiding expedition was abruptly terminated in July 1995.

The baffling events surrounding HERE Local 75 in the summer and fall of 1994 do not lend themselves to conventional explanations. One thing was for certain and that was that the UFCW wanted into the hotel industry in a very big way.

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