It’s one of the oldest forms of corruption: a union official accepts a bribe from an employer in exchange for an assurance the workplace will remain nonunion. Michael Townsend believed, wrongly, he could avoid detection. On Monday, December 23, Townsend, a former business agent and trustee of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 337, pleaded guilty in Detroit federal court to conspiracy in connection to receiving illegal cash payments from an official of the Detroit-based LaGrasso Brothers Produce Inc. and promising, in turn, not to organize employees. The company, having already pleaded guilty last January and facing a heavy fine, had agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Labor Department in its investigation. Sentencing for Townsend is set for March 24.
According to court records, Michael Townsend, now 69, a resident of Dearborn Heights, Mich., used his position with the Detroit-based Teamsters Local 337 to take about $18,000 in bribes from an officer of LaGrasso Brothers Produce Inc., founded a century ago. This was for the purpose of forming a front company called LaGrasso Produce Co. In this way, family members and managers of the real company could help create a phony collective bargaining agreement and thus avoid unionization. Somehow the Department of Labor got wind of the scheme and conducted a probe. After collecting evidence, it referred the case to the Justice Department. Barbara McQuade, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said after Townsend’s plea: “This defendant was a union official who was entrusted to help working people organize. He betrayed the Teamsters and workers for his own profit.” While this is true, the scam likely would not have occurred if unions in this country did not have a guarantee of monopoly representation under federal law. Union membership should be a choice, not a mandate, for individual employees.