By Joe Maniscalco, LaborPress
Three years ago, when Louis Mark Carotenuto first came to the union that would become Local 2013, he found the group’s 430 preexisting contracts in complete and utter disarray. Some of the 15,000 members hadn’t seen a representative in so long, they had no idea they even had a union representing them. The scandal that ended in the old regime’s imprisonment had forced the local into 18 months of trusteeship, but now it was time to turn the page — the only question was how?
“Trying to get your arms around such a huge thing that was already in place, and start from scratch, was a giant task,” Carotenuto recently told LaborPress. “It was a huge lift for any local.”
One of the first things that Carotenuto, the 53-year-old product of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union’s International Chemical Workers Division, quickly realized, along with Trustee Rich Whalen, was the need to reestablish the trust, confidence and pride the former leadership had destroyed.
“The first hurdle was getting to the membership and getting them to understand what happened, that they were going to be okay, and that we were going to move this thing forward, and make it a local they could be proud of,” Carontenuto says.
Connecting with the membership — many of them Latino émigrés working as home health aides — meant hiring bilingual staffers, appointing shop stewards who understood outstanding problems in the workplace to act as representatives, and opening up the bargaining process so that the rank and file felt as though they had a seat at the table.
The membership responded to the changes, first electing Carontenuto to head the freshly-minted UFCW Local 2013 in the spring of 2013.
“We made sure that the members sat with us at the table as we’re bargaining,” Carotenuto says. “We bargained hard and came out with vast improvements — and the membership has seen that. They got to see that there are no backdoor deals being made. That transparency was important. Many times, the old regime would walk into a room, close the door, come out and say, okay, here’s your contract.”
Another important piece of the reconstruction challenge involved overhauling the troubled local’s Health & Welfare Fund, which the old regime had left decimated.
“It was a mess because those guys weren’t bringing in enough of a contribution form the employer to pay for the benefit they were giving the worker,” Carotenuto says. “You came in here and found that these guys essentially weren’t paying the bills. It was upside down.
Carotenuto brought in Tri-State Administrators, Inc. and Frank M. Vaccaro & Associates as a third party to help straighten things out.
“These guys have done a tremendous job turning that fund around and taking it out of the red and putting it in the black,” the Local 2013 president says. “There’s still a lot more work to do on that because we want to get to a point where we can improve on the benefits structure. My goal would be to make sure that we can give better benefits to the workers, giving them the most bang for their buck.”
This year alone, Local 2013 has no fewer than 100 contracts to bargain, and even with dedicated new leadership and reconnected membership, important obstacles to securing better wages and benefits remain.
“There are issues and hurdles that are hard to get over for some of these employers because they’ve had it their way for so long, they’re not interested in a change,” Carotenuto says.
Increasingly, Local 2013 is coming up against employers willing to “pull out all the stops” just to avoid sitting at the bargaining table with a union that is committed to fighting for its members.
“We’ve had employers invest a truckload of money getting anti-labor lawyers out there and at the table, employing every tactic that they can, trying to keep us from getting to the table to bargain,” Carotenuto says. “We’ve had to file charges against employers just to get them to the table. But even in those cases, the members are saying, ‘Finally! We have somebody that is willing to fight for us — a real union that is will to go out there and bargain a good contract.’”
Reprinted with permission from LaborPress.