The Sweetheart Union

As Sugar Strike Fails, Longshoremen’s Union Butts Into Greengrocer Campaign

Don't be asking anyone to sing "Solidarity Forever" over at the International Longshoremen's Association headquarters on Battery Place.

Hard on the heels of pressuring its members to accept a bitter and shameful defeat at the Domino Sugar Plant in Brooklyn, the ILA is now helping undercut another union's hard-fought organizing drive among Korean-owned greengrocers in Manhattan.

Union organizers for UNITE, the garment union that took on the task two years ago of winning workplace justice for the low-wage, mostly Mexican workers at the city's Korean-owned greengrocers, report that the ILA has suddenly emerged as a union rival.

Boycott on Hudson Street: UNITE and community allies keep up pressure on greengrocer who signed contract with longshoremen’s union.
photo: Michael Sofronski
Boycott on Hudson Street: UNITE and community allies keep up pressure on greengrocer who signed contract with longshoremen’s union.

UNITE has waged its union campaign the hard way. It has organized boycotts and picket lines at several stores where Mexicans reported toiling long hours for illegally low wages. Together with its community allies, Local 169 of UNITE has raised funds to aid striking employees. It also reported alleged wage law violations to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who brought suit against employers, winning thousands of dollars in back wages. The upshot so far has been signed contracts with seven shops that call for above-minimum wages, a grievance system, and benefits.

The ILA, by its own account, has had a much easier time of it. One of its organizers told National Labor Relations Board hearing officers that while wandering through downtown last fall he spotted a picket line in front of East Natural Food Market on Fifth Avenue and East 13th Street. He walked inside and started signing up members. He then approached representatives of owners Josephine Kim and Jacob Han, who sighed and said they were tired of the union fight and would be happy to sign the ILA's contracts.

In short order, the longshoremen's union signed up six additional stores, all of them associated with Han, who heads a new group of deli operators called Korean Retailers Association.

The ILA local that found such astonishing organizing success isn't known for organizing campaigns and isn't even based in New York. It is Local 1964 in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. The 2300-member local is a kind of catchall union that represents warehouse employees and others, not dock workers. In 1989, the local's reputedly mobbed-up president and son were found gunned down in the union's offices on Bergen Turnpike. The murders of Richard Costello Sr. and Richard Costello Jr. were never solved.

The local's current principal officer is Tom Caula, who was paid $217,000 in 1999. Reached by phone at the union's offices, Caula politely refused to speak with the Voice about his organizing drive before hanging up: " 'Ey, no comment, buddy, OK? I'll talk to you later."

UNITE contends that the ILA, whose intervention in the greengrocer campaign was first reported by City Limits Weekly, is simply providing a convenient shield for the greengrocers against their own campaign. If so, the new immigrant greengrocers have adopted a time-honored employer tactic of seeking out a friendly union when a tougher one is knocking at the door. The most infamous example of this was when the Teamsters signed contracts with California growers in the 1970s to represent migrant field workers in the midst of an intense organizing and boycott campaign by Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers.

"The general scheme is that unions of this type provide a sweetheart deal," said Jeffrey Schaffler, a former federal labor investigator and an expert on union corruption. "The owners pull a contract out of their desk drawer that the workers have never seen. The employees never see a union delegate or have a grievance handled. It's certainly a betrayal of what a trade union should be doing for its members."

The ILA appeared on the scene shortly after the NLRB found evidence of Han's collaboration with another, non- AFL-CIO affiliated union with a reputation of agreeing to sweetheart deals. That union, the Retail, Wholesale, and Production Employees, is headed by John Mongello, who was pushed out of the Laborer's union in 1997 amid a corruption investigation.

UNITE filed a protest with the NLRB against Mongello, and in a January complaint, the board found that Han threatened his employees with dismissal if they joined UNITE, ordering them instead to sign up with Mongello's local. Han denied the charges but Mongello dropped out of sight. Then the ILA showed up.

UNITE Local 169 organizing director Jeff Eichler said that the ILA's sudden appearance came after a manager at East Natural told workers he "knew someone in Jersey" who was going to take care of the store's union problem. Eichler said that at a Han-owned shop at 111 Hudson Street in Tribeca, where the union and community groups are conducting a boycott, the manager "had no idea what was in the ILA contract."

Han's dealings with the ILA were reported in a December 20, 2000, article in the Korean Central Daily newspaper, which has reported extensively on the union struggle. According to the article, Han had a tactical disagreement with other greengrocers who wanted to negotiate with UNITE.

The Korean-language paper said Han called for a "counter-union" that would be "more favorable to the employers." Han, it said, had already contacted the longshoremen's union [in a translation of the article obtained by UNITE, Han used the phrase "sailors' union," but a reporter at the paper told the Voice the term was "longshoremen"].

According to the story, Han was aware that since the longshoremen's union is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, another AFL-CIO union such as UNITE can't organize its shops or stage boycotts.

"In addition," the article quoted Han as saying, "the longshoremen's union has promised not to negotiate over wages and to allow employees to withdraw from the union two years later."

Han couldn't be reached. His attorney, Larry Cole, whose offices are in Jersey City, failed to return calls. So far, the AFL-CIO has ruled against the ILA in two hearings on the dispute with UNITE.

The ILA's national leaders also declined to discuss the greengrocer matter. James McNamara, who, records show, was paid $205,000 last year to handle public affairs for ILA president John Bowers, failed to return messages.

The ILA has more than one reason to duck the calls.

The Voice has learned that the 56-48 vote to accept a company proposal to end the almost two-year-old strike at Domino came only after top ILA officers insisted on a secret mail ballot against the wishes of striking members.

In public meetings held at a church near the Domino plant in Williamsburg, strikers had voted twice not to accept the crushing contract terms, which included elimination of job security, offered by Domino's British-owned parent, Tate & Lyle.

"The secret ballot was the union's idea," said striker Bob Horn, 54, a 27-year veteran mechanic. "Most of us were against it. The previous vote was unanimous not to accept the company offer. We would just rather have the vote right out in public. I was surprised by these results. I think we got sold out by the union," said Horn. "They just wanted this over."

ILA president Bowers never appeared at the plant's picket line or its rallies during the strike. His pledge to get a national boycott of Domino Sugar also fizzled. Horn is headed back to work this week, although without many of his fellow strikers since the new contract allows the company to pick and choose. "It's going to be really hard," said Horn.


Research assistance by James Wong

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