Labor Department Probes Michigan Food and Commercial Workers Local

Local 951 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is a deceptively major force in the Michigan economy. The Grand Rapids-based union, representing some 33,000 employees at Meijer Inc. and other retailers, has been on a roll under longtime President Robert Potter. But all along, there was a dark side to success. Potter and his allies dished out payback to dissenters, making their share of enemies. Now it looks as though their good luck streak is about to end.


The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced it had filed a complaint against Local 951 over election irregularities in 2004. The DOL is charging that union leaders, among other things, traded candy bars and pens for election ballots, threatened a challenger candidate, and required some members to cast ballots in front of pro-incumbent officials. The department is seeking a new election. And that may be just the start of the local’s troubles. In addition, the Labor Department has demanded a full accounting of union expenditures for 2003; a federal grand jury also is investigating union spending; and at least two former local officers have pending lawsuits.      


There’s no question Robert Potter has done well for himself. In 2003 he drew a salary of about $250,000, plus another $20,000 as a vice president of the UFCW international union. There’s another $269,000 in union expenses that DOL wants to know about – money that went for additional payments, golf equipment, luggage and vintage wine. Potter’s friends aren’t going broke either. Local figures show that more than a dozen of its officers in 2003 enjoyed a salary of at least $90,000. That contrasts with rank and file, whose current pay is in the $6-to-$18-an-hour range. In other words, even the best-paid full-time workers make well under half of what a typical boss makes. 


If undue luxury is one hallmark of the Potter regime, vindictiveness is another. Charles Ardingo, former business representative and organizer for Local 951, and Michael McMillan, the local’s former recorder, each filed suit last December following an earlier dismissal. The pair had cooperated with the Labor Department and a grand jury, while contributing a less-than-desired amount to the local’s legal defense fund.


Local leaders aren’t too keen on competition either. Russell Blunden, a longtime Meijer employee in Sterling Heights, Mich., ran for local president in 2004, getting 45 percent of the vote to Potter’s 55 percent. Blunden filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that after announcing his candidacy he was threatened by union officials who demanded he back down. In July the NLRB dismissed Blunden’s complaint for insufficient evidence.          

Union leadership denies all allegations. “We believe very strongly this is a case of the Department of Labor abusing its authority,” said Michael Potter, Robert Potter’s son, a communications official for the local. “It’s a case of trying to pick out the worst possible time to interfere with our politics and (our) attempts to do something good for our members.” The Labor Department responded that it has no interest in the outcome of any union election, only that the election process be conducted in a fair manner. Any number of current and former members of Local 951 will attest that fairness is a commodity in short supply there. (Grand Rapids Press, 10/2).