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Cairo housing workers' union leader promises review, welcomes investigation

From the Story collection: Chaos in Cairo series

CAIRO – The business manager for the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 773, which represents employees of the financially troubled Alexander County Housing Authority, said its lawyers will be reviewing salaries and retirement incentives negotiated outside of collective bargaining between its members and the former, longtime executive director.

Those deals may have violated the contract agreement, as well as federal labor laws established by the National Labor Relations Act, said Kevin Starr, who is the business manager of the Local 773.

Starr sat down with The Southern Illinoisan for nearly two hours Wednesday after an investigative report published Sunday titled “Chaos in Cairo” that detailed a pattern of mismanagement by the housing authority’s leadership, including questionable spending and allegations of discrimination against African-American residents and their children living in squalor, and black employees who claimed they were paid less than white counterparts.

Starr took exception to the fact that James Wilson, who was the agency’s executive director from 1989 to 2013, and who appears to have approved most of the spending, said that he’s not the only one to blame for the financial turmoil.

Wilson said Wednesday he does “take blame” for signing off on pay and incentives that he called “too good” to be sustained over the long haul, even as he described housing developments as “third world” and the authority bled tens of thousands of dollars during the course of a few years. The financial turmoil was to the point where meeting payroll for less than a dozen remaining employees and keeping the lights on for residents was a tenuous situation. But Wilson added that he shares blame with “union negotiators,” the board and employees.

Starr said that Wilson, who he described as someone he’s known a long time and whom he previously trusted as a leader, seems to be trying to get some of the spotlight off himself, and onto others.

“This seems like somebody who knows the milk has spoiled and the cash cow is gone,” Starr said. “We all know that HUD is investigating this, which we want. We welcome a federal HUD investigation.”

Wilson, in a phone message, said he has no comment except to say that he’s a strong union supporter, has been a 25-year member, and plans to continue to pay dues.

Starr said the wages listed in the contract for beginning maintenance workers at between $13 and $16 an hour is on the lower end of wages in contracts where the Local 773 represents housing authority employees in other counties. The union also represents housing authority employees in Union, Williamson, Jackson, Franklin, Saline and Perry counties.

As for HUD documents that show some maintenance employee wages in Alexander County that are higher than that, more than $20 hourly for some, Starr said contracts allow employees to receive extra pay for credentials or training, as well as time on the job, but acknowledged that a weakness in the contract is that it does not spell out how much someone should be compensated for those items, leaving one to question whether the wages were assigned equitably over the years.

Upon reviewing salary discrepancies in a HUD document, Starr said that did appear problematic, but the union was not involved in setting those wages above what’s listed in the contract, and he would have to examine the situation further to determine if a violation was made.

The five-year contract, which expires next month, also does not set wages for clerical employees, such as leasing agents or the finance director. Wilson claimed that as executive director he had the ability to individually determinate salaries of administrative employees in the collective bargaining unit.

But, Starr said that to do so likely would violate the National Labor Relations Act, as well as the contract.

Starr also said he thought that a retirement plan managed by the authority, and to which the employer paid in 25 percent of an employee’s salary, was higher than the norm for second retirement accounts managed by housing authorities. The authority also pays a per-hour rate for each employee into a pension system managed by the International Laborers’ Union. Starr said the healthy retirement plan may have been to make up for the fact that wages were on the low end, but backed off that when he was shown information that many were earning salaries above the negotiated rate.

Still, Starr said the union has done “nothing wrong” as far as he’s aware. Starr said he did not personally know about the retirement incentives.

“We didn’t negotiate any of the retirement settlements. He (Wilson) negotiated with the employee by their self. We were not involved, not there, not even consulted. There is no signature lines on those agreements for the union.”

Starr said, in hindsight, he may have called for filing a grievance against the authority for inappropriately negotiating deals with union members because “when they’re in the bargaining unit the management does not have the right to negotiate independently with one person.” He said his lawyers will review whether a grievance may still be warranted, or allowed given the time that has passed, related to any of the retirement contracts.

“That’s what we stand for. We stop those things,” Starr said. “We don’t allow one person to get something and someone else doing same job does not get.”

Starr denied any knowledge of deals offered employees over and above the negotiated contract even though a high-ranking union official, John Price, who is listed at the Local 773’s secretary/treasurer, was for years a member of the Alexander County Housing Authority Board until he was replaced in January. During that time, he also served as the union representative for the employees. Documents show Price not only approved at least some of the retirement contracts offering large payouts, but in at least one case, made the official motion for the board to do so.

As an example of some of the deals Wilson and the board approved, one employee received a $30,000 cash buyout, full health insurance benefits until age 65, and the ability to remain employed for one day a week at a rate of $20 hourly. Another contract allowed an employee to work just one day a week so that he could also draw full unemployment insurance benefits from the state – Wilson described this employee as a goose hunter who enjoyed taking the winters off – while maintaining his employer funded health care benefits, full payments to the authority’s retirement fund, and payments to the union pension fund based on hours worked.

When the newspaper contacted Price for this story, he declined an interview, and directed all questions to Starr or the union’s attorney.

Starr defended Price’s right to serve on the board as a concerned citizen of Alexander County. But as a union negotiator and board member, some have questioned whether Price’s dual role, and may have allowed him to take part in, or overhear, sensitive information regarding the authority’s position in labor negotiations or disciplinary actions.

Starr said that as HUD officials began investigating the authority in 2013 and 2014, they asked Price to recuse himself from voting on any employee issues, and to remove himself from the room when employee issues were being discussed. Starr said he always did that after HUD made the request.

But in a follow-up interview, after documents were discussed showing Price signed off on at least some of the retirement contracts, and after learning that the negotiated union deal included an unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” for Price to individually negotiate salaries for clerical workers, Starr said Price would not be allowed again to serve on the housing authority board while working for the Local 773, and he also has been removed from duties of representing housing authority employees in Alexander County.

Starr acknowledged the contract was “sloppy” and added: “All I can tell you is it is coming due, and it will not be the same going forward.”

Local 773 is a powerful chapter of the Laborers’ International Union, its seventh largest in the nation. The district represents some 4,800 private and public-sector employees, including presently the roughly 10 employees at the Alexander County Housing Authority, across the Midwest, as well as railroad construction workers in 41 states.


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Note: This story launched a series of stories about the Alexander County Housing Authority. Read the rest of the stories here.

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