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Synthesis/Regeneration 24   (Winter 2001)

Union Democracy and the AFL-CIO on Trial

by Mike Griffin, Co-Director, WarZone Education Foundation

This article is an update of the trial of David Johnson, Vice President and Cope Director of the Champaign County Central Labor Council who is a rank and file Carpenter.

Brother Johnson was brought up on charges by a local Business Agent for the Plumbers & Steamfitters union for making a personal, public statement supporting Ralph Nader in the Presidential elections. On January 17, Brother Johnson was found guilty and was censured by the AFL-CIO, the least punishment afforded in the trial procedures, but a grave injustice for an innocent member. It was my privilege and honor to co-represent Brother Johnson at his trial as a fellow union member and Co-Director of the WarZone Education Foundation.

The issue began this past November before the Presidential elections, when a local reporter at the Green Party headquarters in Champaign IL, asked Dave Johnson why he would vote for Nader. After making it clear he was not speaking on behalf of any AFL-CIO organization, he lauded Nader's positions on labor. When the article appeared in the paper, the disclaimer was not published and when Johnson complained to the reporter, the paper did not make amends. A few days prior to the vote, at a fundraiser for the Independent Media Center and the Green Party, Dave was asked to speak and again made it clear it was only a personal opinion and he was not speaking on behalf of any union organization. A portion of video was shown on a local television station. A fellow delegate to the council, Steve Brewer, who is a business agent for the pipefitters, filed charges.

Brother Johnson was brought up on charges by a local Business Agent for the Plumbers and Steamfitters union for making a personal, public statement supporting Ralph Nader...

In the weeks that followed, as the story broke via the Internet and labor media, widespread support developed for Brother Johnson and letters of support poured in. The publicity surrounding a normally secret, controlled, and archaic AFL-CIO disciplinary mechanism, began to change the dynamics of the typical "kangaroo court" known to many of us in labor. Brother Johnson sought the assistance of the WarZone Foundation and the services of Jude and Eric Redwood, a Champaign attorney and her Paralegal husband, who spend much of their energies defending the poor.

After the charges were filed, information trickled in that convinced us that the charges may have been conceived by more than one individual and possibly by a group that led an effort to overturn the election of the Central Labor Council Executive Board early last year. That election contest resulted in the same officers being re-elected by a wider margin. As we prepared for the trial, Johnson made the decision that I would represent him as a fellow member in the AFL-CIO portion, and the Redwoods would represent his constitutional protections. We were concerned that his attorney would not be permitted in the trial. We assembled a strategy, a sizable list of witnesses and discussed at length what we knew were givens, mainly, that in spite of the fact that we could prove he gave the appropriate disclaimers, and in spite of the support he had from some of the council officers, he would be found guilty. A few days before the trial we learned that the national AFL-CIO was sending in their State Director, Mike Klein.

...we knew...that in spite of the fact that we could prove he gave the appropriate disclaimers, and in spite of the support he had from some of the council officers, he would be found guilty.

We were surprised by the large turnout that filled the main hall by the 5 p.m. trial time. As our defense team gathered at a front table, the Executive Board met for 45 minutes after the trial starting time; then Klein approached us. The trial would not be held in public. We objected and questioned his authority to make that decision and to be present at the trial.

We were allowed to take the entire defense team and delegates from the council who came to support Brother Johnson into the trial. The crowd consisted of local activists from the community, labor television from Champaign and St Louis, teachers from the University of Illinois, union members, many young members of the Green Party, and even a local business man who witnessed Dave's disclaimer. We have no doubt this large support group was key in the effort being made to allow Dave full representation and make the trial appear fair and ultimately, the light sentence, no matter how unfair.

The Dog and Pony Show had begun! What had started as charges against an honest union member who mistakenly believed he had freedom of speech, had now transformed into the trial of union democracy and the House of Labor. With the outcome of the trial already known to us in advance, including the likely punishment, it was as if the trial itself was no more than another twisted road we were prepared to walk. The AFL-CIO had to have their pound of flesh, or others might believe that union democracy was real, that somehow, the US constitution and free speech was part of our precious union.

The Classroom, Subject: Unionism 101

Supporters who had assembled for the trial of David Johnson, for the most part, had little experience with the mechanisms of the business union that has been the vehicle for the self-destruction of the union movement. In the hours that followed, they would be taught by bureaucratic masters just how feeble union leadership in America has become. Sadly, those lessons could not have been more damaging, not only to the dozens of young activists, but seasoned veterans as well. A large portion of supporters that filled the hall, were young community activists, students from the University of Illinois, graduate students who had survived a recent fierce battle for the right to organize, teachers, young adults from the Independent Media Center who battle the corporate media for the truth, and a number of union members who believed that union democracy was real. Most of these supporters had worked with Brother Johnson in the political arena, or the living wage campaign, or a variety of other social and economic justice issues; and they respected Dave and appreciated the quality leadership he brought to the community. Leadership and the ability to build coalitions with the community are sorely missing in the house of labor in spite of AFL-CIO claims of embracing such groups.

Supporters who had assembled for the trial of David Johnson, for the most part, had little experience with the mechanisms of the business union that has been the vehicle for the self-destruction of the union movement.

As Mike Klein, State Director for the National AFL-CIO, began his pitch to assure supporters there was nothing up their sleeves, the tempo in the room changed and at one point, turned to shouting. Suspicion changed to anger as he repeatedly accused them of seeing the issues "simplistically," a word he would use throughout the evening more than a dozen times. Klein spoke as if they were errant children who lacked the intellect to understand the issues; but they understood them all too well. It was much the same approach he used during the trial when he took it upon himself to question witnesses and at times appeared to be trying to control the outcome.

For all those who came to support Brother Johnson, the lesson was clear. The bureaucrats controlled every aspect of the union and the outcome would be as they wanted it. Union democracy was an illusion and "Union Bosses" could be the mirror image of the Bastards of the Boardroom to maintain control of "their union." One young man lamented, "I have been searching for a union job but now I'm not sure. If this is how they treat you, maybe it's not worth it, but I still believe in the struggle." Young and old alike, expressed outrage at the injustice they witnessed, but I guarantee you they would have been even more outraged, if they had heard the insults directed at them inside the trial. The simple truth is, we don't need the bosses or the corporate media to damage the union image; our mis-leadership is perfectly capable.

The Lynching of David Johnson

As we walked to the trial room, I asked Brother Johnson if he was ready for the hanging. Dave replied with a sigh and, "I know." If Dave were not somehow punished, others would think they could speak up as well. An Executive Board member had told Dave weeks before, "If you hadn't gone public about this, we were just going to censure you and let it go." You see, he was already guilty before any evidence was presented.

We gathered around the trial table and the AFL-CIO representative, Mike Klein, laid out the rules. Immediately, the charging party demanded that no lawyers or delegates be allowed. He was quickly overruled, as we knew he would be. They had to make this look fair, especially with an attorney present and the large crowd outside, but more because they knew the outcome. Dave made his opening statement, which let them know that court action would follow if the charges were not dropped and he refused to accept anything short of full vindication. That set the tone for the hearing. We then challenged the validity of the hearing as the Executive Board at a prior meeting had failed to take a vote on the validity of the charges as required by the constitution. Klein stepped in and made the point that there was a consensus even if they didn't vote; so much for the AFL-CIO Constitution. I pressed the issue and pointed out that a vote was mandated, but it made no difference. The rules change when they violate them because it is their system, their rules, and they are always steeped in ambiguity, and "flexible" for every occasion. No one censured the AFL-CIO!

We moved to challenging the basis of the charge, in particular one line that said Dave had spoken as Vice President of the AFL-CIO. We knew that wasn't true and as well, they knew. We called six witnesses who testified that Dave had given a disclaimer to the reporter. Klein bantered occasionally with witnesses and at one point made an argument that sounded as if he had already made his decision and was attempting to influence the board. We challenged his argument asking if the trial was over—if there was any need to continue—quickly drawing his ire.

Almost laughably, Klein raised the issue with a witness from the Green Party about Nader firing workers for trying to organize in his organization. I countered with Gore campaigning on cutting 300,000 federal jobs, millions of jobs lost due to NAFTA, GATT, and Gore pushing the Multi-lateral Agreement on Investment. Klein dropped the issue. I am unclear what relevance that had to the trial, but I suspect this overpaid suit had never met a real live Green before and he want to see if it had a thought process anywhere equal to his own.

I countered with Gore campaigning on cutting 300,000 federal jobs, millions of jobs lost due to NAFTA, GATT, and Gore pushing the Multi-lateral Agreement on Investment.

Steve Brewer's questions, [the charging party] consisted mostly of whether the witnesses were union or not. We would later be astounded by his brilliance when he proclaimed that we did not prove anything because none of the witnesses were union or members of the council.

When we prepared to view video footage from a local TV station showing Dave giving a disclaimer, Brewer mysteriously left the trial and did not return till it was over. Under questioning he volunteered that if he knew Dave had made a disclaimer, he would have dropped the charges. I pointed out that we just proved it. He then made the claim we did not prove Dave made any disclaimers and when we pointed to the video and six witnesses, he responded he did not see the video and he did not believe the witnesses. When I asked Brewer if anyone or group had discussed with him the subject of filing the charge, I received an angry and loud response from another board member from the building trades, objecting to the question. I took the position that if the charge was part of a concerted effort with malicious intent, the charge had no merit. Clearly, some board members were looking for an out, an excuse for a guilty verdict, and in the end they chose to ignore the video and six witnesses. In closing, Dave's attorney offered to approach the newspaper about printing the disclaimer in return for dropping the charges, but they declined. Brewer asked the board to remove Dave from office and from the council, but we knew they would not go that far even though there was support from other board members.

Censure is about controlling David Johnson, controlling his speech...

We left the hearing and returned to the hall where many supporters remained. The board began deliberations, which took several hours. We answered questions and gave interviews to local independent media. Brother Johnson asked me what I thought and I responded that we gave a good case in there, we proved everything we set out to do, but it makes no difference. I think the verdict will be guilty and you will be censured. I explained to Dave, "it was a choice of getting hung with a new rope or an old one; they'll use an old one. After they inflict just the right amount of pain, it will break. The AFL-CIO wants this to go away, it has become too visible".

It is my guess Klein was there to make sure some punishment was rendered, but to hold it to a minimum. In that respect, he did some good because there were board members who wanted Dave off the board and out of the council, mostly building trades. Censured doesn't sound all that bad till you consider the impact? He was censured because he spoke publicly about being railroaded. I do not believe this was really about his political views; it is about disrupting the leadership of the council, taking control. Under censure, if Dave speaks out about the injustice of what happened, you can bet they will make a move to remove him from office and the council. Censure is about controlling David Johnson, controlling his speech, and I have no doubt some AFL-CIO rocket scientist is under the illusion that Dave will take his lumps quietly; be thankful for the light sentence, and be a good little soldier marching around in mindless bliss. Then they would promote him on staff.

When you speak up publicly, you become the enemy; exactly the way the corporations respond to workers. I cannot say how many times I've heard, "lets keep it in-house, let's not air our dirty laundry to the public." That is exactly why corruption is rampant in the union movement and pension funds and dues are being stolen at a record rate. Why struggles are sold out and how top down control has nearly destroyed our union. We need more David Johnsons, not more control, more voice and less fear of our union. We need unions that fight for the members, not try to destroy them. Dave wondered aloud after the hearing, " I wonder how many good union people these hacks have driven from union service?" I responded, "Tens of thousands."

After the deliberation concluded, Mike Klein gave his views on why Brother Johnson was convicted. Going public and bringing the media into the fray was one reason. Who did Klein discuss the trial with and give his opinions to? The media! I wonder if charges will be filed against Klein for speaking to them.

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