It’s not easy going from hero to goat in one’s own union. But Mike Rice can testify first-hand how quickly it can happen. On September 1, he was charged in U.S. District Court, Madison, Wisconsin, with embezzling more than $30,000 from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 538. For more than a decade he’d headed the local, which represents roughly 2,200 workers at Tyson Foods, Oscar Meyer Foods, and Jones Dairy Farm plants. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, based on evidence obtained from a Labor Department investigation, alleged that from about September 2000 to April 2004, Rice, 57, embezzled UFCW funds by filing expense claims for nonexistent meetings.
The news was a bitter pill for rank and file to swallow. He had been president of Local 538 prior to a nearly year-long strike in 2003 against the Tyson plant in Jefferson (located about halfway between Madison and Milwaukee). He returned as president during the strike upon the death of his successor, Gary Gilbertson, serving until last year’s local elections. The strike proved to be a defeat for the union; the looming possibility of its decertification forced workers to accept nearly the same contract they’d rejected in the first place. Rice admitted that accepting Tyson management’s terms was a difficult decision for him. That surrender – it was perceived as such anyway – led to his undoing. Current Local President Joe Jerzewski passed along evidence of Rice’s phony expense claims to the Department of Labor. The move, however, seems less grounded in high principle than in political payback. Jerzewski won a highly contentious election last year over Rice supporter and heir apparent Brian Murphy.
If convicted, Rice faces up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release. He’s reportedly ready to plead guilty. “He’s a very nice man who did a wrong thing,” Stephen Hurley, Rice’s attorney, said of him. “I think a guilty plea can be expected.” (Wisconsin State Journal, 9/2).