Richard Trumka and Tefere Gebre,
Photo: Getty

The remarkable dispute that has gripped the leadership of America’s biggest labor union coalition peaked yesterday with a testy exchange of letters in which two top officers denigrated one another’s professional conduct in rather strenuous terms. You can read them below.

Tefere Gebre, the executive vice president and third-highest official of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO, was abruptly suspended by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka on April 23. Trumka said that Gebre had improperly attempted to expense a $117 receipt from a Miami strip club in November of last year. Gebre said that the receipt was submitted in error, and that it was withdrawn as soon as he was alerted to it; he also charged that Trumka was exceeding his authority in suspending him, and appealed to the labor federation’s executive council to intervene and return him to his job. The entire episode has played out against the backdrop of serious political differences inside the AFL-CIO, raising questions internally about the motivations for Trumka’s zealous punishment of Gebre, who is generally considered a progressive to Trumka’s establishmentarian. The AFL-CIO’s own employees released a public letter in support of Gebre.

Yesterday, after a meeting of an executive council committee, Gebre’s suspension was lifted. But that was hardly a sign that everything is now back to normal. Splinter has obtained a scathing letter that Trumka sent yesterday to the executive council and Gebre, scolding him for his conduct, as well as Gebre’s letter in response.

Trumka’s three-page letter summarized the findings of the internal investigation into Gebre’s receipt. He notes that he is ending Gebre’s paid suspension because the investigation found that he “did not intend to violate” reimbursement policies or other rules. But Trumka goes on to express “my serious concern” about the fact that the receipt was submitted at all, and seems to question the assertion that it was an honest mistake:

Moreover, the conduct revealed in the report cannot be excused as an accident. The accident was the product of negligent practices by you and those acting under your direction. A receipt was submitted that on its face had no business purpose and reimbursement was requested for a meal when the receipt on its face contained no meal charge. In addition, the exigent circumstances cited by your administrative assistant to the investigator (that she was in a rush in late March of this year to submit the expense in question before the end of the fiscal year) did not exist, as our fiscal year, as you know, runs from July 1 to June 30.

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Trumka orders Gebre to “immediately develop a detailed, written protocol” for expense reimbursement going forward and to submit to further training in office management. He continues:

Third, your negligent practices subjected a state federation president to embarrassment and forced him to demand that the AFL-CIO conduct an investigation and that you issue an apology to him and his Executive Board. I ask that you issue such a written apology.

Fourth, I must express my view that your conduct in patronizing the Playmates Bar & Grill, which, the report finds, advertises itself as a “strip club,” while traveling on behalf of the AFL-CIO and after engaging in pre-election canvassing, demonstrates poor judgment and is inconsistent with the values of the AFL-CIO. Moreover, your patronizing such an establishment on November 3, 2018, after appearing with various elected officials earlier in the day and after engaging in activities to support endorsed candidates standing for election on November 6— three days later, potentially compromised those elected officials and candidates as well.

While the investigator’s report states that “the AFL-CIO does not have a policy prohibiting officers or employees from attending venues like Playmates on their own personal time,” I do not believe an executive officer is on his or her own personal time while traveling on behalf of the Federation. Moreover, I would have thought that no such express and specific prohibition of obviously inappropriate conduct was necessary for officers of the AFL-CIO. In light of this incident, we will explore revising our Code of Conduct to be more specific. Until the Code is revised, I ask that you exercise better judgment in your choice of venues to patronize while traveling on Federation business.

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He also charges that Gebre “failed to cooperate” with the AFL-CIO’s investigation, because “your counsel would not make you available for an interview in a timely manner and without preconditions. In relation to a matter having potentially serious implications for the AFL-CIO, you placed your own personal interests above the interests of the Federation.”

Trumka concludes:

Finally, I am deeply saddened on a personal level by the manner in which you have conducted yourself in relation to the proper and prudent actions the Federation took once this matter came to our attention approximately 30 days ago. The Federation took all appropriate steps to keep this matter confidential until it could be fully investigated. You chose to communicate about the matter widely, leading to inaccurate reports in the press that were embarrassing to you and the Federation.

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(Because the AFL-CIO has declined multiple requests for comment on this story, it is unclear what inaccuracies Trumka is referring to.)

I assure you that I will continue to treat you with the respect due an elected officer of the AFL-CIO and I will expect that you will cooperate fully with the officers of the Federation and our staff as we continue to do the critical work of the labor movement.

I request that you arrange to meet with me as soon as possible.

In response, Tefere Gebre sent the following email yesterday to Trumka and the Executive Council:

This email is in response to your letter of May 6 sent just prior to today’s Executive Council meeting. I feel the need to correct several of the more important omissions and misstatements in that letter in time for the meeting.

1. Your letter does not acknowledge or address the objection to the complete lack of authority under the AFL-CIO constitution for your decision to “suspend” a fellow national officer elected by the membership. We have repeatedly raised this objection to you and to the Executive Council.

2. Your letter does not address the complete lack of any factual basis for the allegations which relate to a single receipt for $117.70 that was submitted in error (not by me) and then immediately withdrawn upon discovery.

3. Perhaps most disturbing is the suggestion that I did not cooperate with the “investigation.” I sent a detailed statement of the undisputed facts to your “investigator” on Friday, May 3, while I was traveling to Sacramento, and those are the same facts listed in your report. A copy is [sic] of the letter is enclosed.

Your report both mischaracterizes and exaggerates the facts and completely avoids the lack of authority for your investigation. By copy of this email I am so advising the Executive Council. I assume you will discontinue your interference with my performance of the duties of my elected office immediate.

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Gebre has not returned requests for comment. His attorney declined to comment. Though this issue will certainly arise again at the next executive council meeting, for now, both men are back to work as usual.

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My colleagues and I are members of the Writers Guild of America, East, which is a member of the AFL-CIO. If you know more about issues inside the AFL-CIO, email me.