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UFCW 789 Election: A Member Speaks Out

Written by Robert Adams Thursday, 26 October 2006

Some of you may have heard that there will be an election at UFCW local 789. The offices of president and secretary-treasurer are being contested. For many locals, an election wouldn't be all that unusual. But for local 789, there is generally little activity at election time. Maybe an e-board seat or two will be up for grabs. I've often longed for a real election in which issues are respectfully examined and questions are asked by the membership.

Before I go on, I'll provide some background on myself. I became a member and steward of local 789 about seven years ago. I eventually became active in our various organizing campaigns. And, until a few months ago, I was a member of the local's executive board. I've also been very active in the UFCW reform movement - so much so, that I alienated and probably scared some of the staff (no apologies for that!). I resigned from the executive board a couple of months before this election mess began. I informed President Don Seaquist that I was going to scale back my participation in the local to that of being a shop steward only. At the time of my resignation, there was a certain amount of discomfort between President Seaquist and myself. So I've gone, by choice; from being an "insider" within the local, to being somewhat of an "outsider".

Local 789 is part of the UFCW International. That fact alone means that there are some innate problems within the local. But local 789 has developed a reputation for independence, organizing expertise, and member activism that is the envy of almost every democratically-minded unionist who has ever heard of us.

In spite of the issues I've had with the local's leadership in the past, I have come out strongly and openly in support of the incumbent candidates for election. I've done that for one very simple reason: the best interests of the membership of local 789.

I know the entire cast involved in this election. I know their professional histories and, to some extent, even their personalities. I've worked closely with Don, Jennifer, and Tom for years. I've been on the executive board with Bill for the last three years. I know Joy less well, but we were on the last retail bargaining committee together.

Those involved in this election are:

Don Seaquist - president of local 789
Jennifer Christiansen - secretary-treasurer of local 789
Bill Young - presidential candidate
Joy Oswald - secretary-treasurer candidate
Tom Oswald - local 789 staff member

As I've indicated above, I am supporting Don and Jennifer so I won't pretend to be unbiased in my assessments. It is my opinion that Tom is behind this upheaval and has encouraged the participation of Bill and Joy (Tom's wife). I further believe that Tom's motives are driven by a desire for power and personal gain; and that; if successful, he, Bill, and Joy would destroy all of the things that make 789 so unique amongst UFCW locals.

Therefore, I'll comment on some of the claims made by Tom/Bill/Joy. I won't quote the entirety of their claims verbatim, since the documents in question are linked to this article. All documents to which I refer were mailed to me with Bill Young's return address on the envelope.

I'll limit my observations to those issues in which I feel I have sufficient knowledge to properly address. I'll begin by commenting on an enclosed letter that was signed by Tom Oswald. I'm not sure why Tom sent me a letter since he is not opposed in his e-board nomination. He begins his letter by making non-specific references to "wrongdoing" on the part of Don and Jennifer. He then goes on to suggest that "thousands" of local 789 members "know their union dues have been wasted and in many cases used for personal gain!" He goes on to accuse Don and Jennifer of "purposely leaving hundreds of Spanish speaking members out of the election process - just to eliminate any challenges to their positions". He then complains about being challenged in his e-board nomination.

In response, I would suggest that Tom would be hard-pressed to find even "hundreds" of discontented members. There are probably a couple of dozen members who are routinely critical of 789's activities. Most of them complain about our "wasted" organizing efforts and our support of "aliens" (undocumented workers). The truth is that most of the discontent within local 789 is over matters beyond the control of the local (e.g. Union dues paid to the international). This is the first time I've ever heard anyone suggest that Don and Jennifer were seeking personal gain. As for leaving Latinos out of the election process, Don is known statewide for his commitment to the Latino community and has often spoken and written eloquently on the subject. It would be to Don and Jennifer's disadvantage to leave out our Latino membership since they are both well-respected within the Latino community. Tom's complaint concerning criticism of his pursuit of an e-board seat is also somewhat misleading. There are four staff members currently on the executive board, three by virtue of their elected positions (president, secretary-treasurer, and recorder). The fourth is Bernie Hesse. Bernie was elected as a rank and file member and has offered to resign on several occasions since becoming a staff member. Tom would be the only instance of a non-elected staff member who has sought an e-board seat while on staff. I'd still like to see a staff-free executive board, but the comparison isn't a reasonable one.

Now for the letter signed jointly by Bill Young and Joy Oswald: Bill begins by stating that Don and Jennifer "are secretly meeting with large grocery employees talking about upcoming negotiations". He then spends two paragraphs extolling the virtues of Tom Oswald (who else!).

Bill's inference of collusion with grocery employers is borderline libelous. More importantly, it's absolutely ridiculous. There are two UFCW locals in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area: local 789, which services the Saint Paul side; and local 653, which covers Minneapolis (and is nearly three times larger). Historically, all unionized grocery employers negotiate together while the two unions negotiate separately. Our (local 789's) contract is not up until 2008. Local 653's is up in five months. Local 653 has barely begun contract talks with our employers. To suggest that the grocers would even consider talking with us at this stage is ridiculous.

Joy then states that she "has seen" Jennifer "misrepresent"> the grocery contract. She also claims that Jennifer "hired" an organizer with whom she had a "personal relationship" and "helped him to get his wage doubled". Joy then says that Jennifer has engaged in "unprofessional behavior at UFCW events".

What troubles me most about Joy is her total lack of union involvement and experience before hooking-up with Tom. Joy has been in the local for nineteen years; and until she entered into a relationship with Tom, didn't even attend union meetings. She has been a steward (appointed by Tom) for only eight months. She has said nothing that suggests that she's even aware of what the job of secretary-treasurer entails. Further, her comments seem particularly mean-spirited. The "personal relationship" to which she alludes is a friendship. While I don't know Doug Mork (the organizer in question) very well, I do know that he has a long history of social justice activism and labor organizing experience. It should also be pointed out that Jennifer has no hiring authority (Don makes all staff decisions), nor can she give anyone a raise without getting authorization from the executive board. I have no idea what "unprofessional" acts Joy is referring to, but I've never known Jennifer to be anything but professional in her behavior.

In many locals, candidates challenging the incumbents and pointing out actual instances of corruption would be a noble and courageous act. For these three individuals to assail local 789 and its leadership by throwing out unfounded and hateful accusations is bad enough. To risk a course that would destroy all of the things that this uniquely independent local has fought for is something I take personally. I've spent massive amounts of time and solidarity with the members of this local and they are, in many ways, my family. I'm not going to stand by while someone tries to destroy that.

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