DisUnion

Rent by charges of corruption and ineffective representation, Teamsters Local 988 may be driving itself to destruction

Lately, Groweg says, the actions are coming faster and more furiously than ever. "I've never seen us get our asses kicked by management the way we're getting our asses kicked now," he says.

Kenneth Davis had his kicked in August, when UPS fired him for taking too much time on his lunch break and falsely logging deliveries on a hand-held computer while actually waiting in line at a bank and Burger King. Davis filed a grievance against the company, but he says union business agent Dennis Bankhead, who was hired after the trusteeship was in place, failed to help him with his case and even took management's side, at one point suggesting he resign so the termination wouldn't appear on his record.

Davis gathered his own evidence, including written statements from package recipients that he'd actually been delivering to them when the computer indicated, and a bank slip that noted a transaction time coinciding with his claim. He drove to Oklahoma City, where the grievance panel met to hear and rule on the charges, and presented his own case, though Bankhead was there. The panel deadlocked, and Davis' case will be reheard by another panel next month. Asked by the panelists if he felt he'd been adequately represented, Davis answered no. "I had to do what I had to do myself," he says, "because I had nobody representing me."

Bankhead says he recommended resignation as an option because he truly believed the evidence against Davis was overwhelming, and that he had no chance to beat the rap. And he disputes Davis' assertion that he left Davis to the wolves at the hearing, saying he was ready to present the case if the driver had failed to show. "I quite honestly felt like Ken was going to lose his job at that panel," he says.

Next to collective bargaining, nothing is as close to the heart of a union's reason for being than its representation of workers. If the business agents are ineffective and employees lose confidence in them, the ability of the union to withstand management pressure can be seriously undermined. And a number of Teamsters say that since Hammond's ouster, the quality of their representation has severely deteriorated. "It's kind of like trying to run a mule at the Kentucky Derby," says Consolidated Freightways driver Tommie Jones of the business agents he considers ill-equipped to go toe-to-toe with management.

"Our office can't seem to get help from the union," says Emma Clardy, a clerical worker and steward at Consolidated Freightways. Clardy says the new staff members at Local 988 freely admit they're not familiar with the portion of the 1994 Master Freight Agreement covering office workers, and that the assistant shop steward resigned a couple of weeks ago in frustration.

Bill Groweg and others believe their companies are exploiting the disarray at Local 988 and the lack of experience among the business agents, an assertion that even Jim Buck acknowledges is true. "The employers seem to think that a trusteeship is an opportunity for them to screw everybody," Buck says. He says he's heard complaints about certain business agents and is investigating them case by case. "If I find the agent is not doing his job," he says, "I'll terminate him."

Buck, in fact, did fire two business agents last week, including Dennis Bankhead.

On the other hand, most of the disgruntled workers are also supporters of Richard Hammond, and it's not hard to find rank-and-file Teamsters who believe that they're better represented under Jim Buck than they ever were under the Hammond regime.

"It's totally different," says Rainbo Baking Company driver and steward James Johnson, who's currently under suspension for alleged union organizing at a grocery store he delivers to. "They are hearing every case," he adds, a contrast to the old days, when grievances would disappear without explanation. "Every grievance we file, they're there."

Roosevelt Yancey agrees, and he should know -- Yancey has been a Teamster for 48 years, and was the first full-time black driver hired at Rainbo. Before, he says, "People would walk through [the plant] and bat their eyes, and if they didn't like the way you batted, they'd fire you." Because of weak representation, he says, a number of members left the company, and new employees wouldn't join the union. In contrast, says Yancey, "I've been represented more since the trustee took over than I had [in years]."

To some extent, the difference in perception has as much to do with the skill of the individual business agent as with who's in power. "You're gonna have some people who are better than others," says staunch Hammond supporter Bobby McCoy, who admits that even before the takeover, disciplinary cases were lost that should have been won. "There's gonna be mistakes made."

But if a problem exists, the best way to solve it is with good communication between union staff and workers, something that the factional infighting has made almost impossible. Company supervisors, trying to further drive the wedge, have alternately suggested -- and workers have repeated -- that each side is in bed with management, a mortal sin to faithful Teamsters.

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