Suspended Union Aide at Shipyard Appeals Case

Times Staff Writer

When union steward Joe Walsh represents a worker accused of breaking the rules at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, he wants to keep their discussions confidential, he says.

Walsh says he views his role as similar to that of an attorney representing a client.

But shipyard officials have taken exception to Walsh’s position. When he refused to cooperate in an investigation of an employee he represented, officials suspended the union steward for 30 days without pay.

Walsh is appealing the suspension, and union officials are rallying to his defense.

If the shipyard’s decision stands against Walsh, labor leaders say, all federal union representatives could be punished for refusing to pass on confidential information from workers.


“What that means to us is, why should an employee trust us, tell us their problems,” said Frank Rodriguez, president of the Metal Trades Council at the shipyard, an amalgamation of the various unions at the shipyard. “It could kill the unions.”

Hearing Set

Council officials filed a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which handles union disputes in federal agencies. The federal agency has scheduled a June 15 hearing on the complaint, which alleges that management “is interfering with, restraining and coercing” union representatives.

Walsh’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation of an employee’s alleged moonlighting activities triggered a year-long ordeal. Walsh, an 11-year employee, initially was threatened with termination. Eventually, he was suspended for 30 days in March and April without pay.

His case is scheduled to be heard June 6 by an administrative judge of the Merit Systems Protection Board, a federal panel that handles appeals of disciplinary cases involving federal workers.

Walsh’s attorney, Robin Maisel, said that while there is no specific legal provision protecting a steward’s confidentiality with a worker, there are sections in federal labor regulations and court cases supporting the steward’s position.

Gil Bond, who is in charge of shipyard personnel, could not be reached for comment on the Walsh case. But Charles Bell, group superintendent of public works at the shipyard, stated in a memorandum that Walsh was serving as “a personal representative” rather than as a steward for the accused worker. Even if their duties were considered within the scope of union activities, union stewards and workers do not have the same confidentiality protections as lawyers and clients, Bell contended.


“In this instance, Mr. Walsh asserted a right he did not possess when he refused to answer questions,” Bell wrote.

Bell said Walsh overstepped his authority, possibly because of “bad advice, ignorance of the law, and possibly (watching) too much Perry Mason on TV.”

Maisel said, however, that he believes Walsh is a steward around the clock and that the shipyard management cannot decide to limit his role as a union representative.

Worked on Safety Crusade

Walsh, 46, of Long Beach is a boiler plant operator/dispatcher at the massive facility on Terminal Island. He said his supervisors have consistently rated his work as outstanding, including as recently as three weeks ago. Last summer, a Times article detailed how Walsh and two former shipyard union officials launched a successful crusade to persuade management to clean up hundreds of safety violations at the shipyard.

An International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers steward for a decade, Walsh estimates he has represented more than 100 employees in disciplinary hearings.

“I’m don’t think (management officials) like the way I represent employees. I’m very aggressive (but) I’m very understanding with management officials if I think the employee is guilty,” Walsh said.


The issue first arose in April, 1988, when Walsh represented Rene L. Garcia, a worker who won a settlement for back pay from the shipyard after being suspended for a work-rule infraction. The shipyard then decided to fire Garcia for allegedly failing to disclose earnings he received while moonlighting during the suspension.

Last May, a pair of shipyard police investigators met with Walsh, read him his constitutional rights against self-incrimination and told him he was being questioned regarding the felony criminal case stemming from Garcia’s alleged misstatement of his side earnings. Walsh said he refused to cooperate.

Recommended Firing

Walsh said criminal charges never were filed, but shipyard officials recommended that Walsh be fired for refusing to cooperate in their action against Garcia. Citing his length of service and clean work record, officials eventually decided to reduce the penalty to a suspension.

Walsh said he is appealing on principle.

“I would have to say to the employee, ‘Anything you tell me can be used against you in an administrative hearing.’ I would have to act like a cop with Miranda rights,” he said.

Walsh has drawn letters of support from high levels within his own union, which is monitoring the case.

“It’s a very important case,” said Richard Barrus, a Walnut Creek-based international representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said in an interview. “It hinges on the very foundation of what unions are all about: not the right to represent (workers) but the responsibility to represent them.”


Maisel said described the shipyard’s action as “a union-busting attack, not just (an attack) on Joe Walsh.”