Last year in Detroit, Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 334 was forced to merge with another LIUNA local. Its passing, which went largely unnoticed by the Detroit media, illustrates — and to some extent explains — the decline of unions in Michigan and the country as a whole. In its final years Local 334 had a turbulent history of overturned elections, fraud and unfair labor practices. Membership, which stood at 2,300 in 1999, fell to 1,200 when LIUNA’s international office called for Local 334 to merge with nearby Local 1191.
Local 334’s members performed a wide range of tasks on construction sites in the Detroit area: "The men and women of LIUNA do the hard, dangerous and sometimes dirty work of building our countries," is how LIUNA’s Web site describes it. Unlike most unions, members of LIUNA and other construction industry unions do not work for a single employer; rather they move from job to job among various contractors who hire workers as needed for construction projects. The local itself ran a "hiring hall," which assigned workers to job sites, but also allowed its members to find work on their own.
That hiring hall became the subject of a long-running lawsuit that Local 334 eventually lost. According to an opinion released by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, a contractor called Local 334 just prior to Labor Day 2002 to get laborers for a project on Zug Island. When the local failed to respond, the contractor looked for workers on his own and found six — at least five of whom were Local 334 members. Although the local had allowed this sort of thing in the past, this time the local’s business manager balked and had the six laborers fired. The workers filed an unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board and the NLRB eventually found in their favor. Local 334 appealed that decision in the federal courts but their appeal was denied in April 2007.
Financial disclosure forms filed by Local 334 with the Department of Labor showed that the union was forced to pay $12,500 to each of the six laborers. The disclosure forms do not indicate the legal costs incurred by the union as it pursued the appeal.
The hiring hall lawsuit might well have been the coup de grace for Local 334; the same financial reports indicate that the day after making the $75,000 payment ordered by the NLRB, Local 334 transferred all its assets to LIUNA Local 1191. But Local 334 had more than its fair share of problems prior to that.
Documents from LIUNA’s international headquarters obtained by Laborers for Justice indicate that Local 334 was forced to re-run officer elections in 1999 and 2002. According to a LIUNA investigation report, in 1999 incumbent officers of Local 334 used more than $30,000 from the union trust fund to have 1,500 gym bags made with the officers’ names on them. These gym bags were then passed out to Local 334 members. LIUNA’s investigator found that these bags could "only be viewed as a campaign tactic" that could not be bought with union trust funds and ordered a re-run of the election. If anything the 2002 election was even more contentious, with LIUNA’s own investigator finding that voters were not verified properly, that job referrals were made improperly to influence votes, and that both sides campaigned in the voting area in violation of LIUNA’s election rules. Once again the results were set aside and a new election ordered.
Finally, Wayne County sheriff’s deputies recently arrested three persons, and are still looking for three others, who are suspected of having bilked more than $90,000 from Local 334’s pension fund by forging disability letters from the Social Security Administration.
Union proponents will argue that workers always benefit from union representation, which is why they insist that workers must pay union dues or fees. But the decline and fall of Laborers Local 334 shows that this is naïve. For at least eight years the local was punished for unfair labor practices, divided by internal election violations and victimized by fraud. The costs of all of this fell on Local 334’s members, who were obligated to pay for Local 334’s numerous failings if they wanted to work.
(Note: Neither LIUNA’s headquarters nor Local 1191 responded to requests for comment.)
Paul Kersey is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.