Tefere Gebre
Photo: Getty

At the AFL-CIO, the 12.5 million-member strong coalition of unions, a strange conflict over alleged spending misconduct has divided the top leadership and sparked a power struggle that is now certain to play out—dramatically—in public.

One week ago, on April 23, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka sent a letter to executive vice president Tefere Gebre, the AFL-CIO’s third-ranking official. In the letter, Trumka charged Gebre with abusing his expense account. He wrote:

This is in reference to your claim for reimbursement for an expense you incurred on November 3, 2018. While I have been informed that, after our staff identified the claim as potentially inappropriate, you stated that the receipt evidencing the expenditures was submitted in error, I believe that it is prudent for the AFL-CIO to investigate the matter further.

Effective immediately, you are being placed on paid administrative leave. You will remain on paid administrative leave until this matter has been fully investigated and a decision can be made regarding what, if any, further action is appropriate.

The letter goes on to ask Gebre to hand off all of his responsibilities for the next 30 days to another staffer, and adds, “You are not to report for duty until notified and you are not to have any conversations with any of our staff, affiliates or allied partners in your capacity as Executive Vice-President of the AFL-CIO or concerning this investigation while the process is ongoing.”

Earlier this evening, Gebre sent the following letter to the members of the AFL-CIO’s executive council—the 55-member body of representatives from the coalition’s member unions that serves as the AFL-CIO’s board of directors. Gebre appealed to the executive council members to use their power to intervene in the situation on his behalf, saying that Trumka had exceeded his authority:

Members of the Executive Council, AFL-CIO

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

I am writing to advise you of an unfortunate and very serious situation that has arisen in the past week and to seek your immediate assistance and support.

Last week, on April 23, I received a letter from President Richard Trumka immediately placing me on administrative leave (with pay) and thereby denying me the right to continue to perform the constitutional duties I was elected to perform as Executive Vice President.

The basis for this action is a single receipt for $117.70 that was erroneously submitted to the AFL-CIO (not by me) and then withdrawn, without payment, once the error was discovered.

The AFL-CIO Constitution does not provide the President any legal authority to unilaterally remove me or any other officer from their elected position, even temporarily and with or without pay. It is the Executive Council that has the sole authority to undertake such an investigation under Section 8(b) of the AFL-CIO Constitution.

After I received the April 23 letter, I retained legal counsel (a union attorney), and we then repeatedly advised President Trumka and General Counsel Craig Becker that this action violated the AFL-CIO Constitution, and that the claim that the unpaid $117.70 receipt somehow constituted misconduct had no basis in fact. Copies of that correspondence are enclosed. Nevertheless, President Trumka decided to continue to prevent me from doing my job as Executive Vice President until the “investigation” is completed.

If President Trumka wants to continue to “investigate” the $117.70 receipt, he should refer the matter to you. But, regardless, unilaterally removing me from my elected office before completing any investigation is a violation of basic due process, as well as the AFL-CIO Constitution.

By this letter, I am requesting that you direct President Trumka to return me to office immediately and to refer any further “investigation” to the Executive Council. By copying President Trumka, I am repeating my request that I be reinstated to my elected office immediately.

Please let me know if you have any questions. Your assistance will be greatly appreciated.

In solidarity,,

Tefere A. Gebre

Gebre attached two letters that his attorney, William W. Osborne, sent to the AFL-CIO regarding his situation. The first, dated April 26 and addressed to Richard Trumka, says that “your decision to remove [Gebre] from office by placing him on administrative leave is not authorized by the AFL-CIO Constitution, and is in violation of the Constitution itself, as well as without any factual basis.” The letter from Osborne goes on to state:

Article X, Section 12 requires that there must be allegations of “malfeasance or maladministration” before a National Officer may be subject to internal Union charges. No such accusation has been or could be levied against Vice President Gebre.

The April 10, 2019 memo from Paul Lemmon of your office to Vice President Gebre, although acknowledging that the receipt (for $117.70) was submitted in error and then withdrawn once the error was discovered, claims that merely socializing at the nightclub where Vice President Gebre was socializing, Playmates Bar and Grill, somehow constitutes “misconduct.” The basis for that conclusion is unclear.

Advertisement

On November 4, 2018, Gebre was in Miami campaigning for Andrew Gillum. Playmates is a Miami strip club.

The second letter from Gebre’s lawyer, dated April 30, was addressed to AFL-CIO general counsel Craig Becker. That letter noted that four days had passed since the previous letter, and demanded that the “decision to place Vice President Gebre on leave... be immediately and publicly vacated, and that an appropriate apology be issued to him.”

Gebre’s remarkable appeal to the executive council for intervention sets up the possibility of a clash between the AFL-CIO’s elected union representatives and Richard Trumka. It is unclear what action, if any, the executive council will take. An AFL-CIO spokesman reached tonight said he could not comment on the situation. Tefere Gebre did not immediately respond to a request for comment. We will update this story with comments from either party if and when we receive them.

Advertisement

Needless to say, this is an unusual situation. Gebre, who was born in Ethiopia, became a refugee, and came to America as a teenager, is the only person of color in the AFL-CIO’s leadership, and has been a visible voice on immigration and labor organizing issues. The AFL-CIO’s website notes that in 2013, Gebre “became the first immigrant, political refugee, black man and local labor council leader elected as a national officer of the AFL-CIO.” The disciplining of such a high-ranking figure over a six-month-old expense report has now become a very public struggle for power atop America’s most influential organized labor group.