Barack, Hoffa march hand-in-hand

Business as usual for Teamsters

Following decades of corruption and criminal activity under the leadership of Jimmy Hoffa and his minions, our federal government did the right thing: it flexed muscle and ordered the Teamsters to submit to governmental oversight. Now, Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President of the United States, suggests that federal oversight of Teamster activity may no longer be needed.

Voters will decide for themselves whether Obama genuinely believes that Teamsters now walk the path of righteousness, or whether he simply is under the influence of Teamster money. But, regardless of what Obama thinks of Teamsters, and regardless of what voters think of Obama, he is wrong. The Teamsters have not changed.

Hyo Chol Lim worked for Hilltop Services, a company owned by Universal Studios in California. The Teamsters represent roughly 2,500 employees working for California motion picture studios, and the union's contract with the studios requires all employees to join the Teamsters. But, Lim did not want to be a Teamster, so he exercised his right under a U.S. Supreme Court case, Communications Workers of America v. Beck, to opt out of Teamster membership.

(Beck says that an employee can refuse to join a union so long as he or she agrees to pay a fair share of the expenses actually incurred by the union for representing the employee in management negotiations. While Beck is a step in the right direction, it does not fully restore our right to free association, as guaranteed by the Constitution. People such as Lim do not want to be affiliated with unions in any manner. They prefer to ask for their own pay raises, work for their own promotions and demonstrate their own worth. Forcing Lim to pay union dues, even at a reduced rate, makes him associate with people against his will).

The Teamsters responded to Lim's withdrawal from the union by assessing him for representation. But, the union overcharged for its services. At the same time that the Teamsters were collecting dues from people such as Lim, it also was generating revenue by settling arbitration claims that it filed against the studios. The union did not give employees monetary credit for the funds collected from arbitration. Instead, the Teamsters used the extra money to make political donations.

Lim objected. He thought the Teamsters should have used the arbitration funds for the benefit of the employees. Had the Teamsters used the funds for the employees that it claimed to care about, then Lim's monthly assessment would have decreased. The Teamsters did not seek approval from Lim to make political contributions.

May 12, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rendered its opinion in National Labor Relations Board v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Court agreed with Lim that the Teamsters were wrong.

The amount of money involved in Lim's case was not large. Some people might argue that the case is no big deal. I disagree. If an organization will siphon small change from a working man whose best interests it claims to represent, then imagine how that organization will conduct itself when the amount at stake is large.

- Bill Clifton is a management employment lawyer in Macon with the national labor firm of Constangy Brooks & Smith.


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