By DEBRA PRESSEY
URBANA – When Randy Perring and Marc Manuel first joined Laborers' Local 703 some two decades ago, they remember construction workers were judged largely by the strength of their backs.
But it was the strength of their personal connections within the local that often got workers their jobs. "The old system was a patronage system. There wasn't a level playing field," Perring, 49, said. He and Manuel have vowed those days are over. Perring, the new secretary-treasurer at Local 703, and Manuel, the local's new business manager, are part of a new leadership team elected at the Laborers' Hall in Urbana last fall.
The election was held after Local 703 emerged from a 28-month trusteeship imposed by its parent organization, the Laborers' International Union of North America.
The trusteeship, a period of enforced supervision, was the result of misconduct proceedings involving five former Local 703 officers who were eventually removed from office.
Manuel and Perring, who joined the local in 1977, said monthly union meetings were suspended during the trusteeship, and once meetings started again late last year, members had a lot of complaints to air.
Both men say they and other new officers know they'll have to earn the members' trust, and that won't happen overnight. "Our goal is to pull this membership back together," Manuel, 45, said. "After 30 years, you don't just walk in and say, 'OK, it's going to be all right now.' "
He and Perring say the local, which operates in Champaign, DeWitt, Logan, Menard and Piatt counties, must put its past troubles behind and position itself for today's more highly technical construction industry.
About three-fourths of Local 703's approximately 1,000 members work in the construction industry, and construction jobs are calling for an increasing skill level. Some jobs require a special certification. "It used to be laborers were unskilled work," Manuel said. "The way construction has progressed and the technology of it, you don't just walk in and pick up a shovel anymore."
He and Perring say the new union officers have made training for members and recruitment of new members priorities.
They've also launched what they call a more professional and fair method of assigning jobs to better serve members and contractors.
Under the old order, the union would send contractors the workers it chose, and the contractor had to live with them. "Nowadays, you can't have the philosophy that I'm going to shove this guy down your throat and you're going to keep him," Manuel said.
He and Perring say the union now regards contractors as customers for union labor, and just as in any business, customers have to be kept happy. "We're one of the biggest employers in Champaign-Urbana. We have to conduct ourselves like a business," Perring said.
To supply contractors with qualified workers, the local is requiring members to fill out forms twice a year updating information about their skills and certifications. The information is kept in a database, and Manuel says he can pull up rotating lists of members appropriate for various jobs.
Another change new officers have made are checks and balances in handling the local's money to avoid abuses, Manuel said. "Everything is accounted for," he said.
The trusteeship imposed in 1998 was part of an anti-corruption campaign within the Laborers' Union, which made an agreement with the Justice Department to clean up its internal affairs to avoid government-enforced supervision.
Charges leading to the trusteeship at Local 703 included the thwarting of a fair election in May 1996 and misuse of union money by some former officers.
The former officers were booted in the summer of 1998 and subjected to union disciplinary proceedings.
Longtime business manager Gene Johnson and his son and successor Jamie Johnson signed settlement agreements with the international's board in which they permanently resigned from the union, according to documents provided by the international's legal offices.
Three other former officers – Dennis Gleason, Jim Felkner Jr. and L.T. Robertson – were barred for life from holding an office or employment within the union but were allowed to keep their union cards and work as laborers in the field, the documents state.
Robertson is still an active member, but the other two men retired, Manuel said. Robert Luskin, the union's General Executive Board attorney in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on whether he knew of any criminal investigation pending against former Local 703 officers.
However, he said, the union's current practice is to share with outside authorities any illegal activities it uncovers during an internal investigation.