Union HQ Built with Non-Union Labor

By Matthew Randazzo V

“Cowards die many times before their death; the valiant never taste of death but once.” It is a shame that William Shakespeare’s famous aphorism from Julius Caesar does not apply to American organized labor, where it seems the valiant die not once but repeatedly, reincarnated year after year to be betrayed by new union leadership. As the power of organized labor continues its barreling decline, the tireless citizens who devote themselves to the glamorless cause of protecting the rights and freedom of the working class sometimes must feel like the best case scenario is for an honorable, fighting defeat — as opposed to what is the frequent outcome, a de facto surrender engineered by cowardly and corrupt union “leaders.”

The latest disgraceful case of union leadership selling out the already heavily disadvantaged cause comes from the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, the “premier maritime labor union for the officers of the United States Merchant Marine.” According to opensecrets.org, the MEBA is one of the hundred most generous political contributors of the past 20 years, with over half a million dollars spent in the 2004 election cycle alone. The MEBA exerts considerable influence in Democratic Washington, as shown by the access given to union president Ron Davis, who was invited in March to testify before the House Committee on Homeland Security in order to lobby for greater union involvement in the importation of natural gas into America’s ports.

Unfortunately, Davis is also the same union boss who is accused of conspiring to hide his responsibility for constructing the new West Coast headquarters of the MEBA using cheap, nonunion labor. The evidence against Davis is damning: not only have four credible witnesses told me that they repeatedly heard Davis personally insist on using nonunion labor to “avoid wasting money,” but paperwork I have obtained show Davis’ signature authorizing the payment of nonunion subcontractors. According to Michael Pontarelli, the contractor in charge of the construction project at 548 20th St. in Oakland, Calif., “It is a moral abomination to see how this man is lying to the MEBA membership, wasting their money on expensive lawyers, and bringing a reputable union into total disrepute — all so he can save his political skin.”

Louis Accaria, the project superintendent and a self-described “blue collar pro-labor guy,” is similarly appalled. “I can’t understand how a union leader can be so hypocritical and self-destructive that he rather spend the membership’s money on expensive D.C. lawyers than on paying for legitimate union subcontractors. How can anyone take organized labor seriously if a national labor union leader is on record as saying that hiring union labor is not worth the cost?” Steve Sutton, the project’s architect, says that “Mr. Pontarelli and myself argued face-to-face with Davis at length, insisting that it would be improper and possibly scandalous to build a lavish union HQ with nonunion subcontractors, but Davis just kept saying he didn’t to ‘waste’ the union’s money.” The MEBA refused to comment on the record for this piece.

The disagreements between the two sides turned acrimonious when the MEBA became chronically late with payments and refused to answer phone calls and acknowledge invoices. Finally, after what described as “months of delinquent payments” and dissembling from the MEBA, Sutton threatened to halt work at the site until the arrears were met. In response, President Davis fired everyone connected to the project, claiming that they had used “unsafe” nonunion labor without authorization. Lawsuits were soon launched by both sides.

This is one of the most pivotal eras in union history, when an inability to unite and affect serious cultural and political reform will result in the eventual irrelevance and extinction of the US labor movement. It is a particularly sad commentary that precious union resources are being wasted on colossally expensive and unnecessary lawsuits. Unfortunately for the dues-paying men and women of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, it seems that they may have their leadership to thank for this wholly self-inflicted scandal.

Matthew Randazzo V is a freelance writer. The opinions are his own.

(preceding from The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2007)

Letters to the Editor, Sept. 1, 2007, issue:

Labor Union Responds to Non-Union Labor Story

[Re: "Union HQ Built with Non-Union Labor" by Matthew Randazzo V, 7/1-15-07 TPP]:

Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association ("MEBA") is currently involved in litigation in Alameda County, Calif., against an architectural firm and a project management firm, arising out of excessive projects costs and serious delays relating to the reconstruction of a building in Oakland being refitted to replace MEBA's prior headquarters and clinic facilities in San Francisco. MEBA's Oakland facilities are now in full operation, but were delayed by at least a year due to what MEBA believes to have been negligence, breach of contract and other more serious misconduct by the professional firms it hired in connection with the project as well as some of their subcontractors. Although the case is still being investigated and litigated, MEBA is confident that it was billed at least $2,000,000 in excess of any reasonable or appropriate cost for the project.

MEBA President Ron Davis, and MEBA Secretary-Treasurer Bill Van Loo made the decision in November 2006 to terminate the original architect and project manager when the terminated firms attempted to insinuate themselves into internal MEBA governance issues; refused to provide MEBA with credible explanations for the delays and cost overruns; and unlawfully shut the job down in violation of their legal duties to MEBA. After the replacement, the project was completed quickly and cost-effectively with the assistance of a new professional consulting and project management firm and a well-respected general contractor. The original architect and project manager are also suing MEBA for fees they claim to be owed, and are now asserting, implausibly, that they were somehow acting as a general contractor on the project despite the lack of any documentation for this and their lack of a contractor's license as required by California law.

The suggestion by sources named and unnamed in your article that the termination of the architect and project manager was related to union labor issues is false. In fact, MEBA West Coast VP, Louie "Bud" Jacque, who was originally in charge of the project, reported to the MEBA membership that he had been referred to the original architect and project manager by the Alameda County Labor Council and had the approval of organized labor. The Union's investigation has suggested that this was not the case, and that the original architect and project manager were longtime friends of Mr. Jacque.

An internal investigation within MEBA is ongoing to determine how and why these events occurred. President Davis had directed all MEBA officers to preserve documents and to cooperate fully with the Union's ongoing investigation of these events as well as the investigation being conducted by the United States Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General's Office.

Charles A. Hansen,
attorney for MEBA
Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean LLP
Oakland, Calif.

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