Branch 40 of the National Association of Letter Carriers is a very diverse cohort of unionists in the Cleveland area and the site for robust union activism. But in its last election, Branch 40 has also become a microcosm of the sort of problems found in American race relations writ large. A group of would-be reformers in this branch were met with voracious opposition by the ruling administration, associated with an anonymous group calling themselves “The Eastside Coalition”. That group is a partnership of union stewards from East Cleveland who supported the ruling leadership in a recent officer election campaign. Union elections are often contentious affairs, but the behavior of the incumbent campaign upped the vitriolic ante. The incumbents accused the challengers of racism, using innuendo and a doctored photograph pulled from a Facebook page of a supporter of the challengers to promote their claim.
In the election, which occurred in February 2018, candidate for President Kathleen Stock and candidate for Vice President Paul Teets, who ran on an opposition slate, lost by a mere 33 votes in a branch of over 3,100 members.
An election protest was filed; citing irregularities in the ballot distribution, collection, and counting, and numerous other violations. The union denied the complaints but the Stock/Teets slate brought it to the Department of Labor (DoL). The DoL investigation found merit with the complaint and ordered a supervised rerun of the election. The rerun took place in November 2018. One of the conditions of the rerun election that was set by DoL and was agreed upon by all candidates was that no campaigning or campaign-related materials would be distributed at the worksite. However, in direct violation of the rule the anonymous group “Eastside Coalition” distributed campaign material just before the election, at the worksite. The flyer portrayed the opposition slate as white racists intent on taking power away from an incumbent black leadership.
To effectuate the race-baiting, the Coalition made use of an old photograph of one of the opposition supporters, John Shaver, who was photographed on Christmas Day, 2012 at a family gathering with a stuffed monkey plush toy on his lap. The image itself was a rather innocuous one which was posted on Facebook by the unionist in question. However, in 2016, that very same photo was used by management in an attempt to discredit him in a similar manner vis-a-vis a grievance hearing. At the time, Shaver was testifying in a grievance on behalf of a fellow unionist named Mike Nugent against whom management had disciplined, falsely accused and had put up for removal. To cast aspersions on Shaver and, by extension, Nugent, the photo was produced as an indication that the two members were bigoted.
In 2018, the photo was brought to light again, seeking to portray the opposition as racist. The picture is, as already mentioned, anodyne, but the context in which it was used in the handout was intended to mislead the reader in a reverse dog whistle. In addition, the “Eastside Coalition” flyers claimed that the supporters of the reform slate had used the unofficial slogan “Make this Local Great Again” in the course of their campaigning. This was an obvious attempt to link the opponents to the heated racial rhetoric used by certain commentators regarding the Trump campaign.
In the end, the opposition was defeated by a wider margin than in the first election. The opposition candidates protested the Eastside Coalition’s violation to the DoL and credited their heavier loss in the rerun to the race-baiting tactics. DoL found that the use of the flyer did in fact constitute a violation of its rules for the supervised election. Accordingly, DoL sent out a new election notice to the membership. This notice stated that violations occurred but did not make it clear that the incumbents were the sole reason for the second re-run. DoL conducted a third, more closely supervised rerun in March 2019. But this time the Stock/Teets slate was defeated more soundly, gaining less than 40 percent of the vote. In Kathy Stock and Paul Teets’ view, the proverbial damage had already been done.
An unanswered question remained as to how the Eastside Coalition obtained the doctored photo of Shaver, which presumably would only have been in Mike Nugent’s closed/resolved grievance file from 2016 and not readily available. The Branch refused to investigate who is responsible for the race baiting handout despite the fact that anonymous campaigning violates their own bylaws and Constitution. The Branch President claimed the election is over and all issues related to it resolved. Stock, Teets and their allies, however, did not let the matter rest. To address the larger issue of race baiting they made a Freedom of Information Act request to DoL in order to uncover who exactly concocted the flyer. In the end, the DoL investigator released the names of several of those “Eastside” partisans responsible for the creation and dissemination of the flyer. Included were both a high ranking trustee of the Branch and the Executive Vice President. The matter is before the National NALC.