LEADERS of Laborers' Local 500 have their work cut out, and the job has nothing to do with the tasks that usually come with the construction trade. Rather, it concerns rebuilding members' trust in the union local's leadership, which was tainted when an elected official and an officer put thousands of dollars on the local's credit card for improper visits to strip clubs.
Fortunately, union officials are trying to get back on track. But since key people were allowed to get away with so much, it will take time before members give their trust again.
While business manager Steven Thomas and recording secretary Thomas Leonard had a good time, spending more than $21,000 in union funds on nearly 100 visits to Toledo and Columbus strip clubs in 2004, the local's membership dropped as budget deficits shrunk assets and $15 holiday gifts to retirees were canceled.
Union membership nationwide has dropped, and incidents like this are not good for organized labor. Luckily, the Laborers International Union of North America has provided oversight of the financial and management mess left by Mr. Thomas and Mr. Leonard for nearly a year. Officials are getting detailed reports of business agents' daily activities, closely monitoring credit card use, and ensuring that membership is properly represented.
The two are no longer at Local 500. Mr. Thomas was kicked out for embezzlement and Mr. Leonard retired after being banned from holding office.
It's not clear why, though, Mr. Thomas remains a trustee of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
And perhaps there's an effort afoot to keep it all in the family. Phil Copeland - a Toledo city councilman, the local's longtime secretary-treasurer, and nephew of the late union official and county commissioner Bill Copeland - may make a bid to succeed his cousin, Mr. Thomas, as business manager. Union members should think twice about lending their support. While the pair reimbursed the union $15,000, reports show that Mr. Copeland didn't question the credit card receipts or reimbursement requests.
Any adult can visit strip clubs. But it becomes an issue when a trusted labor executive uses the union's MasterCard for activities some union families may believe are immoral or just a waste of union money. Toledo Public School parents may take a dim view of Mr. Thomas' activities and in hindsight no doubt are glad that he lost a 2005 bid to keep the school board seat he was appointed to.
Trust is important for any office holder and elected officer, whether at unions or schools, and, once lost, it's hard to regain. Laborers' Local 500 is to be commended for its efforts to repair the damage done.