San Francisco Independent

Changing Labor From Within

Bosses don't like plainspoken union rep, but rank and file love him


By Matt Isaacs

October 20, 1998

On a cold, still morning last winter, Alex Corns drove his truck out to a little hill beside the San Francisco International Airport. As the sun began to rise, he looked through a pair of binoculars to see who was showing up at the sprawling construction site. One truck appeared, then another. Corns' hunch had been confirmed.

Corns, a union representative, had been told by the contractor that he would be informed as soon as work began on the project. But as Corns suspected, the contractor had begun working on the sly with non-union, non-minority laborers.

The contractor learned very quickly that is was not a good idea to try and sneak anything past Corns. "I busted them so fast they didn't know what hit them" Corns said. "They thought they could cut a that hog in the ass, but they found they didn't know who they were messing with."

If there is any question of whether San Francisco's once thriving labor movement still has a pulse, Corns is a good person to ask. And he will probably tell you more than you want to know. Unlike many union representatives, Corns is willing to go to war for his workers-whether the fight is with management or the union's top brass.

In San Francisco, a town with a strong and sometimes brutal labor history, it is easy to find union representatives willing to make grand statements on behalf of the workingman. But how many labor leaders are willing to step outside the movement and say what they really think about union leadership.

Meet Alex Corns, business agent for the oldest union local in San Francisco and a general nuisance to any union representative who gets to cozy with management.

Corns, a 47-year-old San Francisco native, has worked with the Hod Carriers Union, Local 36, since he was a teenager. In that time, he said, he has become sickened by the large number of union representatives earning gargantuan salaries who are more frie ndly with management than they are with the members of their local.

"There is something wrong with the system when most of your union leadership wear Rolex watches and pinky rings," he said. "They say they sympathize with workers-they don't even know about their workers."

Corruption cited

The Hod Carriers have a long history in San Francisco. Chartered in 1863, the local represents construction workers who mix mortar and assemble the scaffolding on masonry projects. Not only is the union one of the oldest in the city, it is also one of th e smallest with about 200 members.

The local is one union among many within the larger network called the Laborers International Union of North America. LIUNA has been the target of numerous investigations by the Department of Justice, most notably for its involvement with organized crime , and the close relationship its president, Arthur Coia, has with Bill Clinton. In recent years, internal investigations have resulted in the termination of many of the union leaders.

Since Corns was elected to the local 12 years ago, he as done his best, he said to call attention to what he considers corruption within the LIUNA' statewide leadership. He publishes a newsletter called The Voice Of The Rank And File ( for the members of his local every month, listing the alleged crimes and salaries of the union's top officials.

"Your elected delegates from the California construction locals failed to stand up and fight for you, the dues paying members of this union. Instead they rolled over and voted against you...," one newsletter begins, "... and raise all vice presidents' salaries..."

Retaliation suspected

Corns has not made many friends in LIUNA's statewide office called the District Council. In 1992, Corns wanted to picket a project building a sound wall along Interstate Highway 280, but the District Council, he said, told him to drop the idea.

By asking for the request in writing, Corns forced the District council to come on record as telling him not to picket, a message no union would like to make public. When the District Council refused, Corns went ahead with the protest. Not long after tha t, the District fined him $900 for not contributing to a fund that supported construction contractors. The fine, Corns said, was a significant burden at the time.

"That was in the pits for the recession," Corns said. "Everyone had a hard time finding work. I was only working three days a week."

More recently, the District Council decided to spring a surprise audit on the Hod Carriers, one of the first in the local's history. Corns said the local passed without any questions. ` Corns called both incidents retaliation for speaking out against leadership in his newsletter.

"I'm not exactly welcome at any of the District Council's meetings," he said. "I don't trust myself to go to the labor junkets for fear I might get jumped."

The District Council referred any questions about Corns to its lawyer, Victor Van Bourg. Van Bourg said he was unaware of any retaliation by the District Council against Corns.

Respect From Peers

Corns may not be on good terms with the District council, but he has earned the respect from many of his peers.

Robert Luskin, director of LIUNA' internal compliance program, said he had worked with Corns on many occasions and said he took the union representative's complaints very seriously.

"I have never had a moment's doubt that Alex has had the best interests of the rank and file at heart. In our interactions, he has never let a personal agenda get in the way of truth," Luskin told the Independent.

Of course, Corns has tremendous support from his members. Workers from the local who spoke to the Independent talked about their representative's toughness.

"Alex has more balls than any representative I know," said Hans Hoogendooren, a member of the Hod Carriers since 1963. "Once most workers get into his position, they immediately start drinking from management's teat."

Corns also has the respect of many of the city's union representatives. Dan Fross, business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 6, said he gotten to know Corns through a policing process in which eight or nine union representatives walk onto a job together to see if the project foreman is using union workers.

"Alex really considers himself the voice of his workers more than others I've seen," Fross said. "Many reps slip into a kind of managerial role once they get elected, but not Alex. For him it's all about getting workers involved in the process."

Corn's assaults on the union's management structure have attracted the attention of conservatives looking for ammunition against labor. At the end of August, Corns was used as a source in the right-wing national publication The Weekly Standard. Referring to LIUNA's convention in 1996, where Corns ran as a reform candidate against Coia's slate card, the article stated:

"Alex Corns...was part of Gideon's army of rebels determined to defy Coia's convention combine. He opposed the dues hike, proposed salary cuts for the top officers, and demanded a full accounting for every dollar spent on the cleanup process."

A Union Man

Despite his criticisms, Corns said even the worst union was better than no union at all. He said he wanted to make clear that he was not against everybody, that he was more than a loose cannon on the fringe of the labor movement. There are many good unio ns, doing good things, he said. But like any social movement, he said, the leaders have to be held accountable.

"As long as union reps continue to take off on Fridays to play golf with management, I'm going to continue doing my job," he said.

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