Solidarity Forever 

Teamsters accuse social justice official of union busting

Montana People's Action leader says allegation is politically motivated

Having marched alongside members of the Teamsters and other labor unions during a protest in Billings this fall, Jim Fleischmann might have expected his potential allies in the labor movement to know better than to accuse him of trying to bust a union.

But Fleischmann, who this year will close out a decade as the executive director of Montana People's Action -- one of the state's foremost progressive organizations -- has found himself defending against an attack coming from some of the same labor organizations he's befriended.

Last week, the Independent obtained a 25-page package from Joe Dwyer, of the Teamsters Local 190 out of Billings, alleging that Fleischmann engaged in "harassment and intimidation" when MPA employees sought to resolve a personnel dispute by unionizing.

At the heart of the Teamsters' vitriolic complaint is an allegation that Fleischmann -- once made aware of his staff's effort to organize -- called a meeting and forbade them to continue. It's a charge which Fleischmann denies, pointing to an email he sent to Dwyer in November asserting that MPA would voluntarily recognize the union.

MPA is known not only for its progressive politics, but for working the front lines with union organizers.

This year, under Fleischmann's leadership, MPA opposed a bill in the Montana House of Representatives that would have limited unions' political work. The group has marched during efforts to organize nursing home workers in Helena, and several MPA staffers trained alongside would-be union organizers as part of the Union Summer campaign in the Flathead this year.

MPA has also been active for many years on the tenants' rights front in Missoula and elsewhere, most notably working with trailer park residents.

Those interviewed for this article say MPA's problems stemmed from personality conflicts. Some spoke of interoffice jealousies, others seemed troubled by Fleischmann's management style. Fleischmann himself acknowledges the challenges of getting people to work as a team in a field where financial rewards are few.

The internal controversies came to a head a few months ago. Toward the end of October, Dwyer says, Local 190 had received enough union authorization cards from MPA employees to approach the organization's directors regarding representation.

Armed with the requisite three out of five signatures, Dwyer contacted Fleischmann. Soon thereafter, Dwyer says, he received notice from one of those three, Janet Robideau, saying she had changed her mind about working with the Teamsters. With less than a majority of the employees supporting organization, the Teamsters had no grounds to pursue unionization.

That, according to Dwyer, caused him to conclude that staffers had been coerced by Fleischmann into dropping their plans -- which would have been a violation of federal labor law -- and prompted a missive to the state AFL-CIO.

Despite a professed interest in keeping the skirmish behind closed doors, Dwyer released last week the letter he sent to Don Judge, executive secretary of Montana's AFL-CIO. In it, he writes:

"As incredible as it might sound, MPA, and in particular its Executive Director, Jim Fleischmann, has done everything imaginable to prevent MPA's own employees from organizing.

"I am calling upon you and the Executive Board of the AFL-CIO to disassociate Montana's men and women from Mr. Fleischmann and MPA.... We can no longer hold this viper to the bosom of organized labor."

In an interview at his Missoula office in the Union Hall this week, Fleischmann says that the effort to organize was not resisted by the board of MPA. Rather, he and the other senior staff agreed to recognize the union voluntarily, he says; but by the time that decision was made, the staffers who had been most upset found alternative manners for resolving their complaints.

One employee has since ceased working for MPA, and was unavail- able for comment. Another, Janet Robideau, says that she had become enraged by an on-the-job dispute which has been resolved. Robideau, who works with the Indian People's Action arm of MPA, says she changed her mind about joining a union, and asked that her request for representation be thrown out.

This week, Robideau's anger is reserved in its entirety for Joe Dwyer, who she accuses of attacking both her integrity and her honesty. "If Dwyer had invested a quarter to call me, he would have known I never went near Jim [Fleischmann]," she says.

"It's a sad and sorry state of things when an organization like ours that gives a voice to the poor and impoverished should have to deal with these attacks," Robideau continues. "I want this crap to stop. We're working internally on more communication, and if down the road we need a union, I'm sure we'll get one."

Dwyer, while ad-mitting that he never called Robideau to ask why she changed her mind about the union, remains steadfast in his assertions that Fleischmann and MPA busted a fledgling union drive.

"I believe we're not going to be successful in organizing MPA," he says when confronted with Fleischmann's denials. "It is clear that they've been coerced."

Fleischmann maintains that MPA has respected its employees' desires. "We were drawn into a series of dynamics," he says, "that any number of non-profit organizations have faced across the country. Groups have to struggle with how to control your staff, and we were making efforts to discuss how to function as a team.

"It may have had something to do initially with a desire to represent our workers," Fleischmann says of the Local 190's interest, "but it subsequently seems to have become politically motivated."

For its part, the Montana AFL-CIO has been ordered by its board to disassociate itself from MPA for the time being, Judge says.

Fleischmann, however, responds that such a move is meaningless, as MPA has always functioned independently of the AFL-CIO.

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