Rank and Revile

Assembled at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' hall on State Road 84 are the workers who keep Fort Lauderdale functioning. People who spend their days replacing the city's pipes, balancing municipal checkbooks, manning forklifts, cleaning public pools, and keeping the beaches free of debris. The predominantly male crowd of about 100 is dressed in T-shirts, jeans, and baseball caps. They are members of Local 532, the main union for Fort Lauderdale city employees.

Catherine Dunn, the gravelly-voiced veteran leader of Local 532, is at the podium in a pink sweat suit. She is wielding a gavel with authority.

"You are out of order!" the frosted-blond union president says with exasperation to a man in a Panama hat who seems to have two questions for every sentence Dunn utters. Minutes later she has to gavel the same man, Elgin Jones, down again.

Before Dunn can escort a reporter out the door, notifying him that this is a private meeting, one question of Jones' gets to the crux of why everyone is gathered here tonight. Jones wants to know how much Local 532 owes in dues to Council 79, the statewide branch of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), of which Local 532 is an affiliate.

"Right now," replies treasurer Bonnie Veltri bitterly, "I don't feel we owe them anything."

Last week's contentious meeting was another scuffle in a labor feud that has been brewing for months. Instead of battling city hall for pay raises and better health care -- or even cracking the kneecaps of scab workers -- the two labor groups are brawling with each other. Compounding the problems are internal fissures in Local 532 that are forcing Dunn and her fellow leaders to spend more time meeting with lawyers and responding to complaints than dealing with union issues.

Since September, according to Council 79, the Fort Lauderdale union has refused to pay its monthly dues to the statewide organization. Calculated at $11.65 per month for each of the local union's approximately 500 members, the total owed is about $50,000. In January the local union was suspended by Council 79, so the local no longer has a say in policy decisions at the state level.

"This is not unprecedented," says Joe Lawrence, a national spokesman for AFSCME, "but a rare step to be taken." If the problems are not resolved, Local 532 could be placed in administratorship, meaning AFSCME would usurp control of the union's finances.

Local 532 says there's a perfectly good reason why the group is not paying dues: It gets nothing in return. President Dunn and the Fort Lauderdale union claim that the statewide organization is not providing the services that it is supposed to provide in return for members' dues. For several years Local 532 has handled its own copying and mailing costs, settled its own employee grievances, negotiated its own contracts with the city, and paid for its own office space -- all services with which Dunn believes the union should be getting help from Council 79. Local 532 says it's holding the $50,000 in back dues in an escrow account until changes are made.

"What we're trying to do is get somebody's attention," says Dunn, who works in the city's community development office. "Otherwise they don't even bother to call you. For the last two years, I have gone everywhere trying to say, 'Look, you're taking our money and not doing anything for us.'"

Council 79 president Jeanette Wynn refused to answer questions for this story. Executive director Alma Gonzalez-Neimeiser did not return phone calls. Both work out of the group's Tallahassee office.

The Fort Lauderdale union's refusal to pony up $50,000 is not going to bankrupt Council 79 anytime soon. According to a financial disclosure form that Council 79 is required to file annually with the Department of Labor, the group employed 44 paid staff workers last year while also providing minimal compensation to three elected officers. The statewide organization had 21,378 members in 1998 and brought in almost $4 million. Local 532, in comparison, has about 500 members, no paid employees, and total assets of about $67,000.

Other South Florida unions affiliated with Council 79 echo the gripes of the Fort Lauderdale union. Mildred Harris was president of the local union at South Florida State Hospital in Pembroke Pines until it was privatized in November. She says that her former fellow members -- many of whom now work for the State of Florida at other facilities -- continue to pay money to Council 79 every paycheck but have yet to be assigned to new locals.

Harris complains that the statewide council does not even know where the former hospital workers are now employed. "They're just hanging out there in the air," she says of her former union's members. "They want their money back or they're going to notify the state that they want out."

One employee, Harris notes, who previously worked with the mentally ill at South Florida State Hospital, is now being asked to pick up cigarette butts as part of her new job. Because the employee has not been assigned to a new union, she has no means through which to file a grievance. "They're playing around with people's livelihoods," Harris says.

Local 2866, which represents about 200 state workers in Broward County, has similar complaints. Union president Annie Baynham says that Council 79 has often had just two staff representatives in its Miami office, whereas there should be at least five to deal with the workload. "I am in agreement with Cathy [Dunn]," Baynham says. "She's been mistreated. Now she's not getting anything, not even a newsletter."

Baynham says that the only reason her organization has not joined with the Fort Lauderdale union in withholding dues is because the payments are automatically taken out of workers' paychecks. "We have no other choice, because our contract is already payroll-deducted," she says.

Although Dunn and Local 532 are backed up by others in organized labor, the Fort Lauderdale feud reeks of politics. In October, Dunn unsuccessfully ran for the presidency of Council 79 -- about the same time that Local 532 decided to withhold its dues. The Fort Lauderdale union and its allies accuse Jeanette Wynn, the eventual victor, of withholding services in retaliation for Dunn's candidacy. "We do feel that it is a trickle-down effect from that," says Baynham, of Local 2866.

Conversely, Dunn's detractors believe she's exploiting her power as union president to carry out a personal vendetta against Wynn. Dunn says there is no truth to the allegation. "Absolutely not," she says. "The reason I ran is because I thought maybe I could help people get services."

The union's decision has exacerbated bickering inside Local 532. A handful of members protest that the decision was made unilaterally by Dunn, without the approval of the membership and in violation of the union's constitution. These critics claim that most union members were not even aware until March, when a vote was finally held on the subject, that their dues were being withheld from the statewide council.

Elgin Jones, a Fort Lauderdale engineering inspector, points out the absurdity of members voting on whether to withhold dues seven months after the union began doing so. Jones believes the only reason a vote was taken at all is that he and others began complaining of the decision. "Ray Charles can see through that," says Jones, an incessant critic of Dunn. "It just doesn't work. It doesn't add up."

Jones and his allies point to AFSCME's constitution -- to which all affiliated unions are subject -- to bolster their argument. The constitution states that local unions must appeal to the national leadership of AFSCME before disaffiliating themselves from a state council. By not paying its dues for the better part of a year, this is in essence what the Fort Lauderdale union has done.

Dunn is at first reluctant to answer questions about the fracas. She says that her lawyer has told her to keep quiet, but then she talks for 20 minutes. "They've been saying they're gonna improve the situation and they're going to change it, but they won't give us a date or tell us how or when," she says of Council 79. "It's like paying money out of your pocket every month for something you never receive."

The more than three-hour meeting at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' hall ends without resolution. After presentations by Wynn, Gonzalez-Neimeiser, a representative from the national headquarters in Washington, and the head of the Miami regional office, Local 532 declines to open its checkbook. Any decision on whether to resume paying dues is delayed until at least this week when the board meets.

Dunn says that she is unruffled by the dustup and that the $50,000 is waiting for Council 79 as soon as concrete changes are implemented. "I have the money, so I'm not worried," she says. "The bottom line is, if we pay you, we should get something in return."

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko