How a small SF union lost its independence -- and can't get it back
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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."
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. According to a complaint filed with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment by former 270 employee Leslie Scanagatta, the consulting gig would have paid Lujan $500 a week, and the union would pay to fly him from his home in Texas to San Jose for meetings.
Scanagatta's complaint states that Lujan became angry after she and several other officials voiced concerns with the plan. It alleges that Lujan declared to another union official that she would "be terminated by the end of the week" which she was.
"It was devastating," Scanagatta, who now works for Santa Cruz County, said. "I was laid off for eight months and I've taken a 38 percent pay cut now."
Lujan did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
One of the people pushing for Lujan's consultant job was Edgar Calonje. Calonje, who worked for the union as an independent contractor, said he met with Lujan before the boss announced his retirement, and that Lujan told him and Enrique Arguello, a member of 270's executive board, that he was planning "to get his retirement [benefits] and consultant fees as well."
"We thought if we helped him [get the deal], we would be in good shape," Calonje said by phone from Nicaragua, where he was visiting family. "But that's not what happened."
First, Lujan withdrew his retirement and decided to stay on. Then, in November 2007, Colanje lost his job after, he says, a private memo he had written surfaced in which he criticized Lujan's leadership and integrity.
Shortly after Colanje was let go, Arguello who now says he didn't actively support Lujan's retirement plan resigned from his job as a business agent rather than accept a demotion. A Nov. 28 letter from Lujan to Arguello obtained by the Guardian states, "the reason for the change in your position was because the pattern of actions made by you in the past could put this Local in a difficult position."
Early in 2008, the atmosphere of dissension in San Jose began to affect the hiring hall in Daly City, and eventually boiled over into physical confrontation. First, former Local 36 business manager Alex Corns clashed with Lujan and resigned in a huff from his new job at 270. Then Will Davis, who ran the Daly City hall after the merger, was dismissed. A March 6 letter from Lujan to Davis cites Davis's "lack of commitment to work under my agenda as Business Manager" as the reason for his termination.
The following afternoon, Friday, March 7, Davis and Corns arrived at the hall to find the locks changed. That evening, they told us, a group of former Local 36 members met in a pizza parlor across from the shuttered hall and decided to petition the International to grant Local 36 back its independence. According to their account of what happened next, which was verified by Sgt. Ron Mussman of the Daly City Police Department, when Davis, Corns, and the other participants in the meeting emerged from the pizza parlor, they saw Lujan sitting in his pickup truck, which was parked in the restaurant's lot. Across the street, two officials from 270 were inside the hiring hall removing computer equipment.
The now-dissident union members surrounded Lujan's vehicle. Lujan fled the scene, according to worker and police accounts, allegedly striking one of the members in the forearm with his car as he backed up. The incensed crowd moved across the street and the workers from 270 barricaded themselves inside the hall. Lujan reportedly flagged down a police car as he drove away and the cops drove to the hall to escort the two men from San Jose safely out of the building.
Corns and Davis said they could not secure keys to the hall's new locks by the time of Monday morning's job call. For two consecutive mornings, out-of-work union members were turned away. Corns told us he finally called a local locksmith late Tuesday morning, March 11, so that members could be dispatched to jobs the following day.
For Corns, the failed merger with Local 270 is a personal as well as a professional tragedy: he was instrumental in helping 36 join with 270 after Lujan's election as the bigger local's business manager. Now he feels responsible for jeopardizing the organization he's worked for since he was a teenager.
"I've been in the union for 35 years," Corns said, his voice choking up. "This is so heartbreaking to me."
Beyond the problems with one controversial business manager, Corns says the story is about the larger problem: increasingly top-down union management. In late February, he told us, 70 members of Local 36 voted unanimously to secede from 270 and become an autonomous chapter again. A representative from LIUNA was present at the vote and confirmed their version of the events for us. Despite the members' calls for autonomy, officials in LIUNA's International office in Washington, DC refused to go along; instead, on March 13, union brass granted their secession from Local 270 but immediately forced 36 into another merger this time with a chapter based in Oakland, Local 166.
As a result of the two mergers, Corns says, the assets of Local 36 have been swallowed up by the larger chapters. He produced old bank account statements for us that showed well more than $100,000 in Local 36's coffers before the organization joined with 270. Now, he says, he doesn't know where that money is. Laborer's International spokesperson Jacob Hay told us that the parent union is undertaking a "reconciliation process" to determine how much of Local 36's money should go to Oakland and how much should stay in San Jose. Despite the apparent desire for independence among 36's members, Hay argued that the union is making the right decision by forcing them into another merger.
"We think that it is in the best interests of smaller locals like  to join with larger, more powerful locals," he said. "You have more collective bargaining power with larger numbers [of members] ... the goal here is to get all the hod carriers in the Bay Area into one local."
Will Davis and other Local 36 members do not share Hay's bigger-is-better enthusiasm. "We've never gotten a good reason why we can't just have the local back," Davis said. "We've never done anything wrong. We've never been under investigation. Why are we being punished for something we didn't do?"
Editor's Note: In the paper edition of this article, the Guardian misidentified two dates. Lujan announced his retirement in 2007, and the atmosphere of dissension began to affect the hiring hall in Daly City early in 2008.