What if our union is put under a federal RICO monitorship?

A: How does it work?

The Department of Justice (DOJ) builds a case that the union is a racketeer-dominated organization. The strength of their case depends on evidence it accumulates through investigations by the FBI, testimony at trials, convictions of officials, etc. Based on the evidence, the DOJ files or threatens a suit under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Under the RICO law, a federal court can order the union to be placed under the direct trusteeship of a court-appointed official. The filing of a RICO suit sometimes brings the union to the table. Union officials may agree before a suit is filed to a “consent agreement” or after the RICO suit is filed, they may reach a “consent decree” which is enforced by a federal court. The agreements and decrees may contain the terms of a monitorship.

What can the ILA members expect from a RICO trusteeship?

Union Democracy: Most of the agreements explicitly invoke union democracy as a means for ridding the union of organized crime influence. In the Teamsters, the terms required the union to amend its constitution to change the system of electing International officers from delegate vote to direct elections. In LIUNA, the union was required to put the question to a vote in a referendum (85% of the membership vote to adopt direct elections for top international officers.) The Hotel union, however, was permitted to maintain its system of delegate votes at conventions.

Investigative and prosecutorial powers: Court-appointed monitors would have access to union books and power to remove officers and members who break the law, violate members’ rights, or associate with organized crime figures.

Reporting: Most court appointed monitors have issued detailed reports to the membership on specific allegations and findings of wrongdoing, and on the discipline meted out to corrupt officials.

Who will bargain and enforce the contract?

In the three other RICO suits against International Unions, the executive board has continued to administer the day-to-day affairs of the union, and to bargain and enforce contracts. Court-appointed monitors have vetoed the hiring of staff with criminal records or ties to organized crime, but almost all other representative decisions are left to elected union officials.

Will the monitorship strengthen or weaken the union?

It’s understandable that longshore workers are wary of government intervention in their union. The Bush administration, after all, has proven itself to be no friend to workers and even less so to unions. But the same was true in the late 1980s when Rudolph Giuliani, then U.S. Attorney in New York, brought a RICO suit against the Teamsters. The union reached an agreement with the Department of Justice that allowed court-appointed monitors into the union. In the union’s first election of international officers by direct membership vote, the right to a fair election was guaranteed by a federal judge and organized crime suffered its first major defeat in the labor movement.

The Teamsters monitorship, now 15 years old, has not transformed the union into a beacon of hope for the labor movement. But the union and its members are far better off than when they were under the thumb of powerful mob bosses. Benefit funds are not pilfered; hundreds of corrupt officials have been removed for stealing and democracy has gained a foothold: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a 25-year old reform caucus takes advantage of the democratic space created by court supervision of the 1.5 million-member union. In 2003, a TDU-backed candidate for international president gained 35% of the vote after being outspent 10 – 1 ($3 million, to $300,000) by incumbent James P. Hoffa.

Racketeers rely heavily on fear of violence and intimidation to maintain their control of the union. In a local controlled by racketeers usually only a small group of courageous union members are willing to challenge mobbed-up officials. When the racketeers are removed and court-appointed officials maintain a presence in the union it is an opportunity for honest unionists to come forward and assert control over the direction of the union. But it is up to you.

The lesson of the Teamsters monitorship and the others is that the government can’t give members an honest and strong union. What they can do is create conditions for good union members to come forward and make needed changes. The outcome depends on you.

Can ILA members influence the terms of the agreement?

That too is up to you. Ultimately, the deal will be made by the Department of Justice and the incumbent union officials, maybe by some of the same ones who will be removed as part of the consent decree. Usually, though, the Department of Justice staff working on the case are open to input from the affected members. After all, the explicitly stated aim of all consent agreements is to “return the union to its members.” If you are active, if you speak up, if you organize, they are likely to listen. ILA members who want to tell the government what they think is wrong and what can be fixed can contact AUD. We will put you in touch with the right people or pass your concerns on anonymously.

Will the monitorship be good for those who want to build a strong, democratic union?
History says yes. But it’s up to the members. Don’t depend on the government to do the work for you.

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