Labor's merger pains

How a small SF union lost its independence -- and can't get it back
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jesse@sfbg.com

Part one of a series on the emerging problems with labor mergers

For well over 100 years, San Francisco hod carriers — workers who assist stone, brick, and plaster masons — have gathered at the Local 36 hiring hall to find work. Though not as large and bustling as it was in its heyday, the hall, now situated in Daly City, still serves as an important social as well as professional gathering place for San Francisco and San Mateo County "hoddies."

But on Monday, March 10 and Tuesday the 11th, when the union's members arrived to put in for jobs, they found the entrance shuttered and a paper sign taped to the door.

"This Office Will be Temporarily Closed Due to the Transition of the Separation between Local Unions," the sign read. Several South Bay phone numbers were listed below — one for the dispatch office at Local 270, a much larger South Bay chapter of the Laborer's International Union of North America (LIUNA), and one for Carlos Lujan, 270's business manager. When the workers tried to call the numbers to secure work, they claim officials at 270 told them they couldn't help them.

Meanwhile, several told the Guardian they could hear the phone ringing through the hiring hall door as calls from contractors came into the office. Every phone call most likely meant a job that would not be filled by one of the willing workers left outside.

"I felt abandoned," 25-year union member Jerrold 'JJ' Jones told the Guardian. Jones told us he waited for nearly three hours for the hall to open on March 11, only to give up in frustration. "Here I pay dues six months in advance and because that hall is closed, I didn't have the opportunity to go out for a job that day."

A LESS THAN PERFECT UNION

The reasons for the hall's closure trace back to an ill-fated merger between Local 36 and Local 270. The story is more than just a tiff in a relatively small labor group; it's symbolic of a much wider issue that's beginning to explode in organized labor.

In recent years, unions across the country have been encouraging smaller locals like 36 to join with larger shops to increase their clout and negotiating power. Supporters say these mergers create organizations better able to stand up to giant businesses and institutions.

But the trend also has drawbacks: more members under the aegis of one organization means more power in fewer hands — and sometimes, a lack of union democracy.

Local 36 seemed a prime candidate for merger, with only 120 members. Local 270 had more than 4,000 dues-paying workers and hefty political and trust fund accounts. But high-placed sources within the San Jose local tell us that it's had serious turmoil over the past year — and the members from San Francisco say they feel left out.

Local 270's leader, Carlos Lujan, is the subject of an investigation by the international union's inspector general. Documents provided to the Guardian show that the inspector general has been looking into several complaints about Lujan's leadership, including his conduct of meetings. An official from the parent union has observed the last three executive board gatherings and is expected to file a report with the Washington brass in the coming weeks.

"Clearly there are troubles out there," attorney Bob Luskin of the Washington firm Patton, Boggs, told us. Luskin acts as the union's special counsel. "The marriage [between 36 and 270] looked like a good idea at first," he said. "But in the end, it didn't turn out so well."

Much of the current internal strife at Local 270 appears to have begun when Lujan announced his retirement at the end of March 2007. Two weeks prior to his planned departure, Lujan's advisors proposed a post-retirement consultant's job for him.

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