Letter to the Editor of the Kansas City Star
Note: The following letter to the editor was submitted to the Kansas City Star May 14 in response to the newspaper’s attack article directed against the Brotherhood’s leadership. The newspaper advised that it would only publish “an edited version” of the letter.
JUDY THOMAS’S MAY 13, 2012 front-page article attacking top leaders of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (“United in Largesse”) for the pay and benefits they receive and the travel they take contains factual errors and fails to provide needed context, resulting in a distortion of the truth.
Before we get into some of the faults of the story, it is worth pointing out the extreme hypocrisy of publishing such a piece in the first place. The CEO of the Star’s parent company, McClatchy Company, had total compensation of $3,753,229 in 2009 (the latest figures we could find), according to Forbes. Yet the Boilermaker leaders you criticize make a small fraction of CEO Gary B. Pruitt’s considerable compensation. Moreover, while Mr. Pruitt’s compensation is determined by a board of directors, pay for top leaders of the Boilermakers union is voted on, in true democratic fashion, by delegates representing rank-and-file members, every five years.
It is revealing that in describing the process of approving officer salaries at the 2011 Boilermakers convention, Ms. Thomas states that “a debate broke out,” as if a riot ensued and chairs were thrown. She misses the point that debate is what union conventions are all about, as delegates renew their constitution and elect their officers. It appears that Ms. Thomas, in her zeal to frame her story with contempt for Boilermaker leaders, demonstrated her ignorance of how unions work.
The tone of Ms. Thomas’ article conveys an implication that there is somehow wrongdoing by Boilermaker leaders because they make (and earn) substantial salaries and travel to nice destinations. One thing that is missing from her article is the fact that all labor unions operate under strict oversight of the Labor Department, which punishes any unlawful actions involving union finances. The Boilermakers file every required report detailing the monies spent and the purposes of the expenditures. In fact, unions are often held to a higher standard than are companies. It is true that Boilermaker leaders travel to some nice destinations — as well as some not-so-nice. Extensive travel is part of the heavy responsibility of our top leaders, who are away from home more than most traveling salesmen. This degree of travel is a necessary burden they are willing to undertake for the benefit of the members they represent. It is not a luxury.
And Ms. Thomas is factually wrong about the Boilermakers having a policy allowing family members to fly first class at the union’s expense. There is no such policy. Family members who are not directly employed by the union travel at their own expense.
Ms. Thomas also does not understand the culture of the Boilermakers. Much of our work is very specialized, often dangerous, and requires years of training. Those who work in our trade often do so because it is what their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers did. There is a multi-generational love of the work and a tight-knit respect for each other and the union. It is quite common for working members — and their leaders — to have relatives employed in the industry at various levels. It is unfortunate that Ms. Thomas prefers to characterize our traditions and connectedness with a pejorative term like “nepotism.”
In composing her article, Ms. Thomas relied on unnamed sources, preventing us from facing our accusers. Moreover, she relied extensively on the opinions of those who don’t like unions in the first place. Just what kind of opinions did she expect to get when she interviewed members of conservative think tanks?
Americans have seen over the last several years an unbounded animus towards labor unions by the far right. Unions have been attacked as though they were responsible for the excesses of Wall Street bankers that led to the near-collapse of our economy. While we can’t say what motivated Ms. Thomas in writing such an attack piece — or what reasoning led the Star to publish it — we suspect it is that same bias against unions perpetrated by the Right.
Leading newspapers in America once had labor beat reporters that understood the purpose of labor unions and the good that they do, as well as their faults. Those reporters could be trusted to provide factual and balanced stories. Unfortunately, they are all but extinct.
— International Brotherhood of Boilermakers
- Letter sent by the Boilermakers general counsel in response to an inquiry from Kansas City Star reporter Judy Thomas, prior to the publishing of her inflammatory and inaccurate story.