When it comes to retaliation against those who expose corruption, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners has few rivals. Five recently fired staff members of a New Jersey-based affiliate know this first-hand – and are taking action. On December 1, the former employees filed suit in New Jersey State Superior Court in Newark against a regional union benefit fund and its executive secretary, claiming they were ousted from their jobs last March for supporting a union official who had been terminated ostensibly for alerting law enforcement to the theft of about $1.5 million in benefits. Ex-benefits manager George Laufenberg had been indicted in September 2019 on federal fraud charges following a probe by the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General and Employee Benefits Security Administration, assisted by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The focus of attention, as Union Corruption Update explained late in 2019, is George Laufenberg, until recently manager of the New Jersey Carpenters’ Pension, Annuity, Health and Training/Apprenticeship Fund and a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Laufenberg, now 70, a resident of Harvey Cedars (Ocean County), N.J., allegedly used his union position to embezzle more than $1.5 million in retirement funds and other union assets in a variety of ways. The Labor Department launched a probe in 2017 after John Ballantyne, executive secretary-treasurer of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, alerted the DOL about the missing funds. The union fired Ballantyne in May 2018 and dissolved the council, replacing it with the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters. Five months later, Ballantyne, along with former union employees Robert Weakly and Robert Czarnecki, filed a whistleblower suit in New Jersey Superior Court alleging extensive “self-dealing and corruption” by Carpenters General President Douglas McCarron and two other top union officials. The suit resulted in an out-of-court settlement with the international union.
As union top brass retaliated against Ballantyne, it also has retaliated against five persons who sided with him. These individuals – John Ballantyne’s son Justin, New Jersey State Assemblyman and longtime Carpenters union member Anthony Verrelli (D-Trenton), and union activists Alex Lopez, Susan Schultz and Vanessa Salazar – responded with their own whistleblower lawsuit on December 1 in New Jersey Superior Court in Essex County (Newark) against the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council and its secretary-treasurer. Using New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) and Law Against Discrimination Act (LAD) as the basis for their action, the plaintiffs are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, back pay and retirement benefits, plus attorney’s fees.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Nancy Erika Smith of the Smith Mullin firm in Montclair, N.J. insists her clients were fired via email on March 27 of last year without warning. This was a case of “textbook retaliation,” she said. “They purged anyone affiliated with John Ballantyne.” What’s more, added Smith, the union continually harassed the dissenters. “They (the dissenters),” she noted, “were verbally threatened and stalked; tracking devices were surreptitiously hidden on their vehicles; their phones were monitored; and their every movement was scrutinized and questioned.” The retaliation went further. According to the complaint, the union cut the employees’ pay and budgets, demoted them, and forced them to relinquish the passwords to their digital devices. Moreover, the union reassigned the dissenters to distant job sites, significantly adding to their daily commute. In short, the union did everything possible to frustrate these employees into quitting, and when that didn’t work, it fired them.
The union has a different account of things. Frank Mahoney, communications director for the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council, says the dismissals had nothing to do with retaliation. “It is unfortunate that former employees would make such accusations about our union,” said Mahoney. “In the midst of a global pandemic, our council had to make the tough and unfortunate decisions many other unions, businesses and organizations had to make regarding staffing levels.” He added that the union has decreased staffing levels in every state under council jurisdiction. In addition to New Jersey, that means Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Smith isn’t buying this explanation. “There were no work stoppages caused by the coronavirus; union members with much less seniority were not laid off; and members in other related unions were only temporarily furloughed,” she remarked. “The union leadership saw in the pandemic an opportunity to clean house of troublemakers who wanted to move the union forward, to change the decades-long, white-men-only culture in which no one questioned leadership.”
The second part of Smith’s comment, unfortunately, reveals political motives apart from whistle-blowing. The issue is not a “white men only” culture in the Carpenters or any other union. Bringing in more women and nonwhites to run things won’t necessarily mitigate corruption. Over the years, Union Corruption Update has published hundreds, if not thousands of stories on women and members of racial minorities ripping off unions, and often in large amounts. Racial and gender quotas are about the last thing any labor organization needs. But that said, the dissenters are right to file suit. Union members have a right under law to speak out against what they see as misconduct by their officers. The Carpenters at the international and district levels need to be transparent about the harassment and firing of the plaintiffs, the firing of John Ballantyne, and the apparent theft by the indicted George Laufenberg of at least $1.5 million in retirement benefits meant for dues-paying members.