By Michael Klam
Organized labor extends deeply into the history of America and has played an essential role in defining this society. Trade union carpenters were present at the Boston Tea party in 1773. Printers and cabinet-makers went on strike in the late 1700s to fight for shorter hours and higher pay.
Unions have struggled in the United States to improve working conditions through negotiation or strikes, and have provided workers with economic and legal protection from exploitative employers.
Today’s unions serve as political powerhouses.
Right now, California is the battleground between corporate employers, conservatives and labor. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has defined teachers, nurses, firefighters and other organized public employees as “special interest groups.”
Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 75 would restrict political involvement by unions, but do nothing to limit big corporations that often spend shareholder money on politics without permission.
Corporations outspend unions in national politics by a margin of 24-1. The nation’s eyes are on the governor’s special election. Many are looking to see if unions can have enough of a unified voice to claim victory in this largely unpopular and expensive election.
At its very best, organized labor protects employees and their rights by standing up to big business and big money.
However, while unions have been capable of uniting workers, they have also been fraught with internal division and dissent.
In late July, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) split from the American Federation of Labor-Committee for Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO).
In a recent interview, SEIU President Andy Stern described the AFL-CIO as “pale, male, and stale.”
At the national level, workers’ reactions to the split have ranged from worry to frustration. But the one hope that workers seem to share across the board is that the shake-up will force out-of-touch union leaders to listen to members, and that it will bring back union democracy.
Here in San Diego, former Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9509 President Linda Sexton has filed a federal lawsuit against CWA for unspecified amounts for lost wages, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
Sexton, according to her Web site, also seeks through the federal court to set an example: “to hold appointed union representatives accountable to the same civil laws, social responsibilities and ethical values as corporate directors and corporate officers.”
Sexton is the daughter of a migrant worker and a union leader. Her father worked with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers to achieve union representation in the fields of California. Sexton spent 34 employed with Pacific Bell/SBC Communications and describes herself as a lifelong union supporter. She believes that workers can and should band together to improve their working conditions, and the quality of life for their families.
In 2002 Sexton won a three-way race for the CWA Local 9509 presidency. She was then accused by CWA member Foxyne Hinton of violating union policy by reporting fellow union member Maria Blair Ramirez to an SBC manager for misusing company time.
Sexton denied the allegations, but was found guilty of the charge by a CWA judicial panel, “a kangaroo court,” according to Sexton. She was charged $5,000 and suspended from union membership.
Following the verdict, Sexton still won a run-off election and the general membership of Local 9509 voted to overturn the guilty verdict and make her president. The membership voted three times for Sexton to be president.
“The will of the membership is being thwarted by the few and that’s what we want to vindicate,” says David Duchrow, Sexton’s current attorney.
Less than six months after the union judicial panel, Hinton filed the same charges at the national level.
Sexton was removed from her position in 2003 at the order of CWA President Morton Bahr.
Sexton contends that she was ousted in a coup orchestrated by fellow presidential candidate Frank Sarmiento, and supported by current President Sandra Martinez, Vice President John T. Young, Secretary-Treasurer Robin King, and “a whole cast of co-conspirators,” she says.
CWA Local 9509 officials did not respond to repeated attempts for comment by La Prensa San Diego.
“I had a different style of leadership,” explains Sexton. “I was making everyone accountable to their jobs, including the higher ups. I would follow up on all complaints.”
“I couldn’t be bought. There were a couple of grievances I was told to forget about. They undermined the rights of the membership. They picked and chose who to represent. Grievances were lost. There was a lack of process. I had an original plan to clean house,” she says.
As a “member not in good standing,” Sexton attended a regular membership meeting in 2004. Secretary-Treasurer King tried to physically remove Sexton.
Sexton filed a police report that led The Superior Court of California to issue a temporary restraining order, and then an injunction, prohibiting King from further physical contact with Sexton.
Acting President Martinez then issued a no trespassing notice for all union events. Sexton was barred from the meetings.
Sexton believes that union officials have attempted to “assassinate” her character.
Sexton denies the charge that she inappropriately allowed Union Steward and Chief-Steward Designee Alex Tejeda to attend a union conference in Hawaii. Sexton did not go to the conference. She was accused of cronyism and of having an inappropriate relationship with Tejeda.
Sexton scoffs at the idea. She quips, “You don’t get your meat where you make your bread.”
According to Sexton’s Web site, on July 15, 2003, union member Tejeda stated he was in the office when District 9 representative Ed Venegas told Sexton not to file an appeal protesting the Jan. 21, 2003 membership vote, which purportedly reinstated a guilty verdict against Sexton, as reported by the Minutes of the General Membership meeting for that date.
“Then suddenly,” according to the Web site, “just 10 days after his appointment, on Aug. 27, 2004, Alex Tejeda claimed he lied when he swore Ed Venegas ordered Sexton not to appeal. Was this turnaround Tejeda’s payment for receiving the union position?”
Images of both memos can be read on Sexton’s Web site.
Tejeda also did not respond to repeated attempts by La Prensa San Diego for interview.
“They picked on the wrong union leader, the wrong community leader, and the wrong activist,” says Sexton. She quotes Emiliano Zapata: “I’d rather die fighting than spend the rest of my life on my knees.”
“What is insulting,” suggests Sexton, “is that our union funds are paying for their defense. Union dues are being used to defend those who stole. I want these people to reimburse the Local.”
Sexton wants people to know that the federal lawsuit “is for the purpose of restoring democracy to CWA not for the purpose of destroying it.”
Sexton believes in the Constitution of CWA:
“We, the Communication Workers of America, believing that as an integral part of society we are entitled to an equitable share in the products of our labor and realizing that our welfare can best be protected and advanced through the united effort of all workers, do, through this Constitution, under God, seek to form a more perfect means of securing for ourselves and labor generally full employment of the inherent rights and dignities which our institutions were ordained to preserve.”
As Proposition 75 looms over the heads of all union workers, Linda Sexton’s federal court case is in the discovery phase. Sexton has three main goals: quality leadership for the members; that the rights of the membership be restored and their votes be honored; and that representatives be held accountable.
“Even though I’m not inside the union hall, I’m still fighting for member rights and that is what a good union leader does,” she says.