Lawsuits filed by members of the International Union of Operating Engineers… (Joshua Roberts / Getty Images )
The 380,000-member International Union of Operating Engineers likes to tout a history stretching back to the 1890s of bringing skilled labor to construction projects and the operations of large buildings across the nation.
But a group of dissident members from the southern reaches of California and Nevada say that proud record has been tainted by union bosses they allege have engaged in embezzlement, kickbacks and intimidation.
The insurgents are members of two of the union's biggest units, Locals 12 and 501, which represent a total of nearly 30,000 workers. They have mounted a withering online campaign against current managers, forced a potentially pivotal August election in Los Angeles and filed a pair of federal class action lawsuits.
The former leaders, including the 90-year-old founding member of one of the locals, assert current officials have violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations — RICO — Act. They are seeking the return of union funds and the appointment of a receiver to manage the operations of the two locals.
Among the insurgents' allegations: The union's former national leader made death threats against restive members; officials took kickbacks from employers who shortchanged pension and training funds; one former local official siphoned off union money for entertainment and his girlfriend's breast enhancement; and another flew to auto races and family get-togethers on an $8.6-million jet ostensibly purchased for union business.
"This is my baby," said Robert Fox, the nonagenarian who once led Local 501 and now is among those suing current management. "I can't stand to see what they are doing today."
Lawyers for the parent union say the allegations are baseless. "It's all very dressed up and flamboyant," Jack Leary, co-general counsel of the IUOE, said in an interview. "But that part of it is pure fantasy land."
A spokesman for the national union, Jay Lederer, called the lawsuit allegations "a complete work of fiction" and part of a "campaign to smear the union" by losers in an earlier election who are hoping to reverse the outcome. He predicted that all of the allegations ultimately will be dismissed by the courts. Current officials at the union locals targeted in the suits did not return calls seeking comment.
If the stakes weren't already high enough, they have become entangled with a bitter political fight in Washington.
Congressional Republicans are determined to short-circuit the tenure of National Labor Relations Board member Richard F. Griffin Jr., previously chief counsel with the operating engineers' union. Griffin, a defendant in one of the lawsuits, was placed on the labor board by President Obama in a controversial "recess" appointment that sidestepped Senate confirmation.
GOP lawmakers, citing allegations in the internal union battle, are preparing for a delayed confirmation fight and a probe of Griffin's role with the operating engineers. Griffin's attorney, Fred Woocher, said his client is being "unfairly tarred."
"Mr. Griffin has been added to this case for political value," Woocher said.
Griffin and other defendants have asked U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson to throw out one of the lawsuits, filed by dissident Local 501 members. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.
The insurgent union members contend they are trying to protect not just their middle-class jobs, but also trust funds that pay for their training, healthcare and pensions. Local 12 represents heavy-equipment operators who work in construction; Local 501 includes "stationary" engineers who tend to air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems in buildings. Members can earn more than $40 an hour.
"I could just retire, but I have gotten a lot from the union, and I want to give something back," said Patrick Adams, 61, a high-rise engineer and plaintiff in the lawsuit against Local 501. "These jobs can and should go on forever, but they won't if the union is corrupt."
Adams is part of a slate of candidates calling themselves "The Resistance" that is campaigning to replace officials at their Los Angeles-based local. The slate says it is part of a larger nationwide movement that trades information via Facebook and an anonymous email correspondent who identifies himself only as "The Man in Black."
The rupture in Local 501 began in 2007, when longtime leader Jim McLaughlin found what he contends was more than $2,300 in improper expenditures by the group's apprenticeship coordinator, Dennis Lundy.
McLaughlin and two deputies demanded a refund from Lundy and launched a deeper investigation. They eventually concluded, according to allegations in the lawsuit, that Lundy misspent union funds on drinks, meals and breast-enhancement surgery for his girlfriend. Lundy denied the allegations.