John Riordan, union leader, doesn’t want another job.
And the current bosses of the local he once led don’t have a problem with that. They just want him to find some other union.
In pursuit of that goal, the newly elected leaders of Local 3369 of the American Federation of Government Employees are waging a legally questionable war to purge Riordan from their ranks.
The result has been a nasty split between Riordan supporters and Riordan avengers that makes a WWF match seem decorous. The local, which represents city Social Security employees, has been almost completely consumed by the fight. It has involved, at various times, shoving matches, a firestorm over a handful of fishy travel vouchers, allegations of gay-baiting against the anti-Riordan local leadership and, most importantly, a secretive slander trial that may violate Riordan’s constitutional rights.
“It’s a madhouse in there right now,” says 3369 member Pamela Allen, a Riordan backer. “Who wants to be part of a union that attacks its members like that? It’s sick.”
According to Riordan, the trouble began in January 1995 when, he says, he discovered that two of his top union officers, Andy Poulos and Charlie Fahlikman, were neglecting their duties. Riordan couldn’t touch their paychecks, but he tried to punish them with part-time duty completing tasks for management, instead of their standard full-time union work.
“I had to do something,” Riordan says. “I never knew where Andy was and Charlie would come to the office, but he wouldn’t do anything.”
Poulos and Fahlikman say the punishment was unjustified–but they didn’t have to wait long for their revenge. In the December 1996 leadership election, Fahlikman trounced Riordan, who had ruled the local for 16 years, by a two-to-one margin. Poulos became his vice-president. Soon after, Riordan filed a complaint with the AFGE National Council alleging that the election was run improperly. The investigation has yet to be concluded.
The probe was the second that year. Earlier in 1996, Riordan had aided federal investigators in examining Poulos’ alleged misuse of union travel funds.
In their November 1996 letter to Poulos, investigators explained how they snared him: “You had submitted a travel voucher showing a visit to Touro [an orthodox Jewish college] on October 4th, 1995, which was Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday on which the library was closed.” The Social Security Administration suspended Poulos for 60 days without pay from his full-time job at the union office.
Even though he served his time, Poulos isn’t letting the matter rest, charging that the former president slandered him five times in a letter he sent to federal investigators. He is especially piqued by Riordan’s charge that he played racquetball on union time. Investigators conducted an interview with a racquetball club manager, much to Poulos’ embarrassment.“ He meant to harm me,” Poulos tells City Limits. “He maliciously and willfully lied and misled the investigators.”
Fahlikman refused comment except to say “this is internal union business.”
Poulos formally charged Riordan with slander in June. If convicted by a three-member union tribunal, he could be expelled from the union.
When the trial began behind closed doors in the first week in June, it quickly degenerated into a screaming match. At the request of the trial committee, Riordan was ejected from the building by a federal security officer. A City Limits reporter was also tossed.
AFGE council observer Dave Glassford, who was flown in from Colorado by the national union leadership to observe the proceedings, thought Riordan was out of line, but had harsher things to say about the proceedings. “They have completely violated his due process rights,” he says. “We need to have actual justice instead of this sham.”
Ironically, the outcome may not matter much, according to Carl Biers of the Association for Union Democracy. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that internal union slander trials are inherently unconstitutional. “I’ve seen dozens of them go to federal court and not a single slander charge has ever been held legal,” Biers says.
Even if Riordan gets off the hook, there’s no end in sight to the nasty civil war that has drained union energy and funds.
Riordan, who is gay, attributes some of the animosity to homophobia. “The rumors were spread during the election to besmirch my reputation,” he says. “They said I was downloading pornography from the Internet, but our office isn’t even connected.”
Union member Nelson David says he has witnessed a Poulos/Fahlikman ally make homophobic comments. “I’ve heard [the official] say that gay people shouldn’t hold a union office.”
For his part, Poulos denies any anti-gay sentiment, personally or among his supporters, but admits, “I couldn’t work under his tutelage any longer. We have lifestyle differences.”
Instead, he claims that the hostility stems from Riordan’s inactivity in his last years as president. “This woe-is-me is absolutely insane. [He’s] been called on the carpet by the democratic process,” Poulos says.
But Riordan says that the problem is the opposite: that Poulos and company think he was too tough on management.
Riordan gives the following example: In 1988, he filed the first of four national health and safety grievances requesting new ergonomic chairs and desks for the workers, many of whom suffered from repetitive motion disorders. Six years later, an arbitrator ordered the federal government to spend $200 million on proper furniture for the 1,200 offices in the union.
The union’s strife is in part due to federal law, which prohibits government employees from striking. Although public employees can stage a sick-out, workplace actions are rare, meaning that leaders have no recourse other than to file time-consuming grievances.
“It’s a problem,” says union democracy expert Biers of the no-strike law. “At times it is used as an excuse by union officials for ineffectiveness.”
Efficacy seems to be the one issue not addressed by the current fracas, which has started to take its toll on the union’s bank account. The trial board has already allocated $10,000 for the trial, which could cost much more if Riordan is convicted and drags the case into the courts.
Riordan has begun circulating a newsletter, the Labor Center News, paid for out of his own pocket. To the undiscerning eye, the paper could be mistaken for the official union newsletter, and last September, after receiving his copy, AFGE’s national president John Sturdivant told Riordan to stop printing a “publication which purports to be an official publication.”
For now, the two sides cannot even agree on a date to continue the internal hearing. Riordan and his lawyer say they will not be available until October, but the trial committee sent a letter back asking to resolve the matter sooner. The committee tentatively scheduled the next hearing for August 17, but Riordan says he will be in Denver for an executive board meeting. Poulos says he’s ready to go whenever Riordan is.
If Riordan gets bounced from the union, he’ll lose his chance to trump Fahlikman in the next election, a year and a half away. But Riordan says he’s determined to stick around.