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All Politics is Local: A Letter to the Editor
October 8, 2007

The following is a draft of a piece written for publication in my local newspaper:

One of the last cases I worked on as a private investigator concerned entrenched union corruption. It was the early 1990s, and the PI firm I worked for was hired by Charles Ruff, then in private practice but soon to become White House Counsel for President Bill Clinton; Mr. Ruff wanted us to assist him in pursuing a civil RICO action against lawyers, accountants, real estate brokers and other professionals who had turned a blind eye to mob-linked corruption in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. (For more on Ruff, go here.) We succeeded in recovering more than $13 million for the union's pension fund that had been diverted to associates of organized crime.

One of the more memorable moments in this investigation was when I accompanied a barrel-chest trucker named Jerry Zero, one of the union's reformers, out into the Teamster City parking lot after a meeting. Using a remote device connected to his keychain bob, Jerry started his pickup from a distance of fifty feet.

"How ya like my anti-bomb device?" he said.

He was only half joking.

My connection to the Teamsters would continue, as it turned out. My most recent novel, Blood of Paradise, is dedicated to Gilberto Soto, a Teamster from New Jersey who was murdered in El Salvador in November 2004. (See my Weekly commentary for 4-2-07.) He had gone there to visit family members and to speak to port truck drivers throughout Central America, hoping to help them in their fiercely opposed efforts to unionize. Mr. Soto's murder remains unsolved.

He is of course not the only martyr for worker rights in the world. In Colombia alone, as many as four thousand men and women have been murdered since the mid 1980s simply for being linked to unions.

Even here in the U.S., anti-union efforts, though not deadly, have been increasingly insidious and sadly successful, especially under the current administration. Nurses who so much as help coordinate their shift schedule are deemed to be management, and thus barred from union membership. A similar tactic is used to keep port drivers out of unions—they are independent contractors, the NLRB says, and thus cannot avail themselves of union representation.

It is important to keep all of that in mind when discussing the current political environment here in Vallejo (which was the model for the city of Rio Mirada, featured in my second novel Done for a Dime).

The city is embroiled in a death struggle with the local firefighters union, which has a particularly dogged leader, a man who truly deserves the epithet "union boss." This boss and his lieutenants have used their positions to build a political empire, sponsoring candidates who ask no meaningful questions about the increasingly unsustainable salaries the city has bestowed on its firefighters.

Each individual firefighter earns more than twice the city's median income, is required to work a mere 28 hours per week (and thus has time for a lucrative second job), and enjoys benefits that are the envy of all—while driving the city they have vowed to serve and protect to the brink of financial ruin.

No surprise, the firefighters themselves are duly grateful for the windfall, and so the tenure of their leadership appears to lack an expiration date.

And that is sad, for both the city and the union.

The city now faces bankruptcy because of the salaries negotiated by a prior, firefighters-union-friendly city council. And to stave off the political backlash caused by this crisis, the union has sponsored and lavishly funded the campaigns of three candidates hand-picked by the union leadership. These three, in conjunction with two already on the council, would provide the union the majority it needs to prevent any meaningful renegotiation of the existing contract.

It is a well-known fact in nature that parasites who kill their hosts are effectively committing suicide, unless another host is readily at hand. Such is not the circumstance for the firefighters union. If the city is forced into bankruptcy, absolutely everyone will lose, including the firefighters, something the union and its membership should be contemplating more seriously than they have, instead of claiming repeatedly (and each time more ridiculously) that there's money hidden somewhere, spare change hiding in city employee drawers perhaps that will get us out of our financial straits. (They should also stop or at least publicly disavow the theft of yard signs for www.vallejoisburning.com, the website devoted to exposing the history of political manipulation that has led us to the current crossroad.)

Meanwhile, the firefighters themselves might benefit from reflecting on the courage exhibited by their union brothers and sisters elsewhere, some of whom, like Jerry Zero and Gilberto Soto, have risked bodily harm and even murder for the right to belong to a union—or a union untainted by corruption. They should rethink their commitment to a leadership that sees nothing but self-interest as its purpose; that files noxious and baseless lawsuits to intimidate those who speak out against it; that constantly and perniciously distorts the truth in pursuit of its single-minded agenda; that has so soured relations with the city and its citizenry that the firefighters themselves have come to be regarded with suspicion.

There's more to courage than rushing into a burning building. Sometimes it's as simple as putting aside your own selfish wants, seeing the big picture, and standing up to the leaders who have steered you wrong. I want to believe that the local firefighters have that kind of courage, the kind of courage I've seen in other union members in this country and abroad. The kind of courage I've seen in my nephew—a firefighter for over twenty-five years.

I'd like to say time will tell, but the city no longer has the luxury of further delays. The time for courage is now.

As for Vallejoans themselves, they too need to reject the union leadership's attempt to shanghai city government once again for no other purpose than perpetuating the flow of money into its own pockets, and the consolidation of its own power over that money spigot. It's time for courage all around.

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