Union Reformer Meets Tragic End
Union Reformer Meets Tragic End
Union reformer Dominick Bentivegna who along with Carlos Guzman as co-chairpersons of Member For a Better Union filed suit after suit to eventually rid their union of autocratic SEIU president Gus Benova in February 1999. Benova resigned, as a condition that all lawsuits would be withdrawn. Benova was earning approximately $450,00 US, spent $500,00 of members money on promoting a book on the success of his presidency, and lived in a lavish 3,000 square foot six million dollar penthouse office with more than a dozen room decorated in pure marble.
SEIU International put Bentivegna's local 32BJ into trusteeship for eighteen months appointing trustees that SEIU International hand picked. One of the trustees was Michael Fishman. Fishman ran the union during the trusteeship and then ran for president of local 32BJ.
There was only one problem and that was that Fishman was not a member of local 32BJ. Fishman was a former officer of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America who was hired by SEIU for staff duties. Fishman had never worked at any job performed by local 32BJ and was not entitled to run for president according to local 32Bj's constitution . So how was Fishman allowed to run? SEIU International President Stern amended 32BJ's bylaws to allow Fishman to run. Fishman won the election with only 18% of the approximate 55, 000 members local. Both Guzman and Bentivegna were given union local jobs but Guzman went back to his old job.
Bentivegna accepted a job supervising shop stewards, but soon became fed up with excessive spending and a lack of union democracy. Bentivegna marched into local president Michael Fishman's office and blurted out that he was running for president in Sept. 2003. Dominick Bentivegna, was fired Apr. 9, 2003 from his $85,000-a-year union staff job after telling Fishman he would run for president of SEIU local 32BJ. It only took twenty minutes and Bentivegna was terminated. Bentivegna has since filed a federal lawsuit claiming that his firing was illegal.
With so little member participation in their own locals, it creates the ideal environment for the risk of an autocratic leader or group to abuse their power. Without participation of members it really does not matter who is running the local, it will more than likely not be done democratically. Without promoting internal democracy, there is little hope of fighting member apathy to strengthen member solidarity or to promote new membership. We all seem to be going on fast backtracking runaway circus ride. Unions plead that they are democratic, but in essence they are really top down organizations who decide the fate of millions of members.
With so little member participation in their own locals, it creates the ideal environment for the risk of an autocratic leader or group to abuse their power.
This has been a big problem for such a long time now. Our organization's percentage of voter participation usually runs around 32% to 35%. This means less than a third actually take the time to VOTE! Member participation has been one of our problems we have focused upon, but it is a difficult procedure, given we are scattered across 48 states. The internet could be the salvation but it is going to take TIME!
I used to think that lack of participation resulted from member apathy, but I think differently now. I've said time and time that the system is at fault.
Why would a member participate? Take UFCW Local 1977 for example. Close to 1,400 members signed a petition opposing huge pay hikes taken by the Local's elite. A few members went to a union meeting and presented a petition to the President. When their representative stood to make a motion, she was ruled out of order. No discussion why or how she might make a motion; she was simply shut down.
If members get past the out of order, they get tied up in a rubber-stamp bureaucracy that always tells them they are wrong and the elite are right. The only avenue left is the courts. There, as in the Local 1518 members' case, the union can jack you around forever and run your legal bills beyond comprehension.
As well, the only way to root out corruption is to communicate with your peers. In a bargaining unit of 10 or 20 thousand members, a single-sheet mail out can cost from $6 thousand to $12 thousand. One mailing will never do it; you must mail your message a few times. Even if you could afford tens of thousands of dollars to get your message out, how do you get the mailing lists? You can't.
Fighting corruption is a hard, soul-searing process. People who try feel abandoned and alone. They start to question their sanity. That's where the Internet has helped. By connecting with others, you find out that you are damned right and what you are doing is important. You find out that you are not alone. If you can get even one supporter in each location, that supporter can print off your message and hand it out. The Internet allows you to communicate and inform. You can circulate documents, which support your message. You can garner support from prominent people. The Internet may not help you get your motion passed at a union meeting, but it can do a fine job of ridding your union of vermin at election time.
Anyway, now you can go to your union meetings and pass out information you've printed from the Internet.
The Internet is embraced by reformers and rightly feared by machine heads.