Self-Oversight Ends; LIUNA President O’Sullivan Calls for More Organizing

For eleven years, the leadership of the Laborers International Union of North America had dodged a bullet. As described in these pages many times, in February 1995, after the Justice Department had prepared a massive civil RICO suit against union leadership, including President Arthur A. Coia, top-level Clinton administration officials allegedly intervened on the union’s behalf. The Department of Justice, under White House pressure, allowed the union to operate under a federally-supervised self-policing program to rid its ranks of organized crime. Since that consent agreement, 322 persons in the union, through various means, were given the boot. Coia, for his part, announced in December 1999 that he would step down at the beginning of the following year over unrelated state tax evasion charges involving his purchase of three Ferraris from a union vendor in Rhode Island. Soon after, the DOJ and the union, led by new President Terence O’Sullivan, announced an extension of the original agreement, which would run until the conclusion of the union’s 2006 convention. 


With that convention now over, the union is experiencing the joys of release. O’Sullivan and other union bosses mean to make up for lost time, presumably without the Mob’s help. O’Sullivan thinks destiny is on his side. The Laborers last year were one of seven unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO to form a rival federation, Change to Win; their respective leaders believed the AFL-CIO had been devoting too much time and money to political lobbying at the expense of organizing. LIUNA will have some shoring up to do within its own ranks. In its fiscal year 2005 LM-2 statement filed with the Labor Department, the union reported an overall membership of 669,772, down 125,000 from its 2001 figure. O’Sullivan over the next three years intends to raise that number back to its earlier size, and then some, by tripling spending devoted to organizing from the current $35 million to more than $100 million, a sum not including support from the union’s nine regional councils. The money would come from a new 25 cents per man-hour fee.   


O’Sullivan is adamant about using the union’s $30 billion in pension investments as leverage to serve LIUNA’s interests. He noted at the convention that 85 percent of Laborers pension funds now use a proxy voting service. He’s also ratcheting up the union’s apprenticeship program, which over the past five years has resulted in a doubling of the participation rate among all new members from 6 percent to 12 percent. O’Sullivan isn’t about to overlook the importance of political pressure. The Laborers “political war chest,” as he calls it, more than doubled at the national level since 2001, from $8 million to $17 million.   


The end result of all this, O’Sullivan hopes, will be a union that puts the fear of God in opponents. “We must become so strong that any employer who basks in the culture of greed shudders at our name,” he told the 1,700 assembled delegates. This call to arms, however, runs up against the reality that the unionized share of workers in the construction industry is now below 20 percent, down from around 40 percent in 1973. One major and unappreciated reason for the decline is that immigrants, especially illegal ones, account for an ever larger share of workers in the residential construction sector, where O’Sullivan intends to launch a broad organizing drive. The Laborers’ core membership long has consisted of highway, power-plant, and other nonresidential construction workers. Third World immigrants have proven a good deal more difficult to organize than native-born Americans, especially given that their comparatively low wages are still well higher than what they got in their country of origin, especially Mexico. One has to wonder why Change to Win and the AFL-CIO each are championing amnesty in some form for illegal workers. A better strategy for organized labor’s continued long-term slide into irrelevance would be hard to imagine.  (Daily Labor Report, 9/12/06; other sources).