Reform Caucus Launches Suit Against UFCW, Seeks 1 Member 1 Vote

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By Henry De Groot

CHICAGO – Speaking at an event on the first day of Labor Notes, workers from Essential Workers For Democracy (EW4D) announced a lawsuit by two rank and file members which they are bringing against the United Food and Commercial Workers international (UFCW).

“UFCW’s system is rigged to keep certain rank and file members’ voices quiet, just as CEOs and corporations rig the workplace to keep workers’ voices quiet,” said one of the plaintiffs, Iris Scott, who is a grocery worker in Western Massachusetts and member of UFCW 1459.

“We’ve seen how equal representation has transformed the Teamsters, SAG-AFTRA, and UAW into fearless, powerful forces, winning big raises for workers, and organizing more members, through strikes and coordinated bargaining. We want to make UFCW a stronger and more effective force for more than 1 million current members” Scott said in a press release. Scott is a member of River Valley DSA who has previously written on the UFCW reform movement in Working Mass.

The lawsuit focuses on the apportionment system of convention delegates, which appoints larger locals fewer delegates per member than smaller locals. The EW4D suit alleges that this diminishes the rights of members in larger locals.

“Voting rights for union members should not vary by a 300 to 1 ratio depending on the size of the local union you belong to,” said Kyong Berry, UFCW 3000 member and grocery worker in Washington state who is the other plaintiff in the lawsuit.. “My union is the largest with more than 50,000 members but we have fewer votes per member than other unions. This isn’t an accident, it’s the way UFCW International has rigged the system to keep certain people in power indefinitely and it’s illegal.”

The lawsuit also takes issue with how the UFCW constitution privileges ex-officio delegates, by allowing locals to appointment of officers and staffers as delegates while refusing to pay the cost of rank and file delegates to attend convention, thereby elevating the influence of the union officialdom. The constitution also requires that the local president and secretary treasurer serve as the first two delegates of each local’s convention delegation, preventing members from having an equal opportunity to serve as delegates.

“As the Teamsters and UAW show the rest of the nation how to empower rank and file members and win big for workers, other unions like UFCW are lying dormant,” said Steve Williamson, Executive Director of Essential Workers for Democracy, a funder of the lawsuit. “Rank and file members are waking their sleeping union giants. We want to put workers back in control of their own unions to build power so they get what they need to care for themselves and their families.”

One member one vote is largely seen as a transformation reform in the labor movement. The reform, enforced by the federal government on the Teamsters and UAW unions in separate legal actions, helped open a path for opposition candidates Sean O’Brien and Shawn Fain to win contested leadership elections in those unions.

The lawsuit alleges that the issues with representation outlined above result in a violation of Section 101(a)(1) of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, 29 U.S.C. § 411(a)(1), which states as follows:

Every member of a labor organization shall have equal rights and privileges
within such organization to nominate candidates, to vote in elections or
referendums of the labor organization, to attend membership meetings, and
to participate in the deliberations and voting upon the business of such
meetings, subject to reasonable rules and regulations in such organization’s
constitution and bylaws.

Changes in the Teamsters and UAW unions were part of larger investigations into corruption in those unions. It is not clear whether the EW4D lawsuit would have a similarly viable legal path to enforcement.

The lawsuit has been filed by attorney Thomas Geoghegan of Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan in Chicago. Geoghegan represented the Teamsters Democratic Union against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Department of Justice, which helped establish the permanent right of rank and file Teamsters to directly elect their principal officers, also known as one member, one vote. The complaint on behalf of Kyong Berry of Washington state and Iris Scott of Massachusetts was filed with the D.C. District Court on Friday morning. 

Henry De Groot is the Managing Editor of Working Mass, and formerly the Organizing Director of UFCW local 1445.

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