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UFCW's New Reality Show; Let's Make A Deal

Written by Bill Pearson Sunday, 24 September 2006

I wrote this header with some regret; it implies there is more going on than meets the eye. On it's face, the idea of combining small local unions into bigger more powerful ones makes perfect sense. Hell, the concept was totally logical when the Meat Cutters and the Retail Clerks merged.

The problem lies in the historical application we find from the UFCW and the merger back in 1979. It's fairly easy to make the argument the International has never been able to leverage their size into the fighting machine they said they would become once we joined hands. In fact, rather than using size to our advantage, it often appeared we became slow, sluggish and unresponsive.

At the point of merger there was 1000+ locals, and the International has touted local union autonomy as one of their strongest values. Funny thing is, the numbers of locals has been cut in half. While a small handful has gone out of business, the majority of them have been swallowed up and melded into larger ones. Some of the mergers were for the right reasons; some have even been of benefit to the members.

One thing is certain, these large locals and monster international has allowed the leadership to live very well. In this case size has mattered. From its earliest beginnings, the folks running things justified their salaries and their perks because they were so large. It is one of the most basic components of the biz union model.

Just a handful of months ago we saw the merger between UFCW 1288 and UFCW 588. It was one of the most shameful acts of collusion and deception in the history of the organization. Jacques Loveall was about to face a serious challenge to the presidency and the boys were in a state of panic. This 22,000-member local was far too important to the leadership to leave to the members to decide who should be the president. A concerted effort by a well-oiled and better-funded machine was able to pass a merger and more importantly avoid an election (as mandated by federal law).

It also has proven to become a standard operating procedure for other UFCW locals who may be facing opposition from the growing ranks of frustrated and angry UFCW members. Seems a number of those stepping up have become disenchanted by the self-serving attitude of some of their officers. The reaction from the leadership has been predictable; they have circled the wagons and started looking for ways to save their own behinds.

I know, that is very strong language: In an effort to be more balanced we will open this discussion by setting the stage from the perspective of one of the officers involved in the merger. In and around San Francisco there are several smaller locals looking at becoming one large local. Let me just say, I have been told Ron Lind and local 428 has a pretty decent operation and for that reason I am posting a part of his comments relative to the merger. Here are two excerpts that make perfect sense:

Now more than ever, we need to strengthen our unions to build our power as workers. By doing so, we can improve our contracts and working conditions, and creates a stronger labor movement for future generations.

With this in mind, seven Bay Area unions, UFCW Locals 120, 373R, 428, 839, 870, 1096 and 1179 have been meeting in recent months to discuss a potential merger that will form a new and powerful democratic union - UFCW Local 5.

The single most important consideration in this proposed merger is that it must benefit our union's members. While our proposed new union will be large, the importance of the individual union member will not be diminished. We will strengthen our steward program, solidify our grievance process, and improve our membership service programs. We will take the best programs of each of the former local unions and mold them into a unified approach that focuses on member input and involvement.

What's not to like in what he says? Hell, as I read it I was applauding. The problem is this; it's not in what he is saying, it is what he is not saying. The proverbial Rest Of The Story is the fly in the ointment. It is vintage UFCW to look at members and decide what they need to know.

That game worked in the days where they controlled the story. Spin doctoring was their most marketable strength. By controlling information, they controlled how workers felt. It has been one of the most detrimental aspects of the biz union model; members deserve to be treated better. They are adults and any decisions made should be theirs, and they should be based on having full disclosure.

Suffice to say, the piece that is missing for members is the basis of the header. Almost all of those involved in these secret talks have been playing Let's Make A Deal. One of the keys to this mess is the fact these talks have been going on without knowledge of the membership. If it is the right thing to do, it should be because the members think it's right to be pursuing.

One of the reasons they have kept it from members as long as they have is the players' all wanted to get their fair share. I have seen and heard there are some who will be getting increases of well in excess of 100%. There are buyouts and deals being made that are ludicrous. If this is to benefit the membership, the talks to date sure don't show it. If this is for all the right reasons, then your officers should have the courage to show you (before the vote) how they are going to come out once the merger has passed.

In the weeks to come, it is important the leadership step up and be straightforward. Giving members all of the details is critical. For one, it may stop some of those who are trying to be troughers as this comes together. More importantly, it will give members a solid basis to make their decision on the vote.

The most troubling aspect of this mess is this: This merger is happening at the exact moment the locals should be preparing members for the most challenging bargaining in their history. Instead, all of their energies appear to be about how they merge, save their own assess and avoid facing elections. There are actually some nasty rumors floating around the Bay area suggesting the contracts are a done deal.

Time will tell on all of this. In the interim, our speculation is the closest thing members have to the truth. Only those with their imprint on the merger have the absolute facts. While it would be totally out of character for them to come clean, it would be refreshing to members and may well signal they were serious about changing from the biz union model they are trapped in.

If not, LM2's will be posted and we will get to see just how bad they lied about what was in it for them. It's of little value to members, other than to demonstrate just how screwed up this system is. Unfortunately, members have been watching that for the past twenty years.

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