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Pro-Democracy Union Head Tells Staffers Whom to Back in Election

Feb. 18, 2021, 5:02 PM

Robert Martinez, president of the 600,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, recently warned his top staff members that they should support the incumbent for the No. 2 position at the labor organization, despite accusations the candidate failed to investigate an alleged scheme involving her sister that is now under federal investigation.

Martinez urged about 75 Grand Lodge Representatives and Special Representatives in a Feb. 8 memo to “remain loyal” to him by voting in the election for the incumbent, General Secretary-Treasurer Dora Cervantes.

He emphasized the union’s commitment to democratic processes, but at the same time made it clear to staff that a vote against Cervantes would “undermine” his work—language that some staffers saw as a thinly veiled threat.

“If you, as appointed, non-elected employees of the Union, are viewed as supporting policies or agendas (including candidates) that are contrary to my administration, you will undermine my ability to carry out the will of the membership who elected me,” he wrote.

The memo’s suggestion that staffers cannot support a challenger in the secretary-treasurer race goes too far, according to Barbara Harvey, a career litigator of union free speech rights and a board member of the Association for Union Democracy.

“I think he has a right to say you can’t attack me,” Harvey said of the IAM’s president. “Whether you have to also support his allies, I’d say that crosses the line.”

Cervantes is squaring off against Ian Scott-Anderman, who alleges that Cervantes was responsible for an alleged “coverup” of a “shortage” of funds, attributable to Cervantes’ sister and others, while she was president of a Houston local. The union strongly denied the allegation and said a proper internal investigation was conducted. It also confirmed the U.S. Labor Department is investigating.

The memo doesn’t appear to violate federal labor law on union elections because it’s narrowly targeted to non-elected union staff, according to Michael Hayes, the former director of the Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards under President Barack Obama.

That’s due to the unanimous 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Finnegan v. Leu. The court held that labor law protections and free speech and voting rights apply only to union members, not to a labor organization’s employees.

Martinez released the internal memo on the same day he wrote a separate message to the union’s members, extolling the virtues of democracy.

“Our union is a democratic, member-driven organization. At every level, from Locals to Districts to the Grand Lodge, the members should decide our future. The IAM’s democratic system of governance ensures that every member has a say in our vision and direction,” he wrote.

“Democracy is how this union has not only survived, but also thrived, for more than 132 years,” he continued. “With your help, support and work, we will continue to strengthen and build our union for the future by engaging and encouraging our members to vote in the upcoming IAM Grand Lodge Officer Election. Democracy is not a spectator sport. Member participation is essential.”

One longtime staffer who received the internal memo said the directive’s “threatening” tone was highly unusual, as was the unexpected announcement of an internal investigation into staff conduct. The staffer asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

A statement by the union said that the letter “makes clear” that membership “has every right to speak out, to dissent and to oppose this administration or any of our policies,” but unelected staff must “remain loyal to the union’s agenda as set out by its elected representatives, and have no right to retain their positions if they oppose the elected leadership or its agenda.”

Scott-Anderman, Cervantes’ opponent, described the memo as “very concerning.”

“I’m disgusted,” she told Bloomberg Law. “I’m embarrassed. Every conference or convention I’ve gone to, we’ve advertised the fact and been very proud of the fact that we’re a democratic organization.”

Those who received the president’s staff memo are full-time international union staff members appointed by the leadership and tasked with organizing, bargaining, cultivating employer relationships, and supporting local union lodges.

In the alleged scheme Cervantes’ opponent referenced, three union officials, including Cervantes’ sister, were removed from office or resigned after auditors found them responsible for a shortage in union funds. Cervantes’ sister and another official repaid the money, according to the union. The Department of Labor, when contacted by Bloomberg Law, declined to confirm or deny any investigation.

Scott-Anderman claimed Cervantes and her staff “refused to investigate” the scheme and said the union’s transportation department launched a full investigation which revealed that Cervantes’ sister was involved in the alleged theft of more than $100,000 from the members of Local Lodge 2198. Scott-Anderman is secretary-treasurer of District Lodge 142, where Local Lodge 2198 is located.

Bloomberg Law attempted to contact Cervantes’ sister, Norma Ramirez, who is the former president of the Houston local. through a phone number listed on federal labor disclosures. A voicemail asking for comment wasn’t immediately returned.

The union spoke for Cervantes in her capacity as General Secretary-Treasurer and didn’t make her available for an interview. However, in a Facebook post, her campaign wrote: “Dora’s integrity was on full display when she and the GST Department investigated a misappropriation of funds in Dora’s home local. The matter was dealt with in strict compliance with the IAM Constitution and the law.”

Martinez’s memo to staff also mentioned an ongoing investigation of some Grand Lodge Representatives and Special Representatives regarding allegations of misconduct. Martinez didn’t provide specifics but said in the memo that he considers the allegations, if true, to be a “serious breach” of duties by those staffers.

A union official declined to clarify what conduct was being investigated, citing a policy to not comment on ongoing investigations. The official said that, to date, no representatives have been dismissed as a result of the probe.

Mail-in voting is soon to be underway in the election and members can vote in person on April 24. Martinez is running uncontested for another term.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Wallender in Washington at awallender@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Dunbar at jdunbar@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com