Thomas Russow announced his retirement as head of one of Maryland's biggest union locals yesterday, a week after the government filed suit to overturn his re-election to the post last fall.
Mr. Russow, 60 years old and president for more than a decade of Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said his departure had been planned since February and isn't related to the U.S. Department of Labor's attempt to nullify his election and that of 19 other union officers.
He said he had planned to serve a full, three-year term when he ran for re-election in October. "I do have some things that are personal that have changed from a year ago, and I do want to take care of those," he said.
He declined to elaborate but said he plans to move to Florida.
Mr. Russow's resignation, disclosed to Local 27's board Tuesday night, is effective July 31. He asked the leadership to appoint Buddy Mays, the unit's secretary-treasurer, to his remaining term as president. The board has not selected a successor to Mr. Russow yet.
The Labor Department claims Local 27's elections last fall were invalid, alleging that about 2,500 ballots didn't reach union members. Mr. Russow won by fewer than 200 votes, and some other officers also won by slim margins. Last week, the department filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore asking for new elections.
Labor Department investigator Charles Weber said yesterday that Mr. Russow's departure won't affect the litigation.
"It will go ahead through normal channels," he said.
What's unclear is whether the court would require the union to take new nominations for the presidency if another election is held, said John Singleton, an attorney for Concerned Union Brothers and Sisters. CUBS is the group that sponsored a dissident slate of Local 27 candidates last fall and asked the Labor Department to investigate the vote.
Local 27 represents about 26,000 supermarket and chicken-plant workers in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware. About half are in Maryland.
Mr. Russow started his labor career as a business agent for a Detroit retail clerks' union in 1955. He has run Local 27 since February 1984, consolidating three smaller locals and expanding membership by 30 percent in a decade when unions nationally shrank drastically and lost influence.
Several supermarket operators said they were surprised by his departure. But Roger Olson, senior vice president at Giant Food Inc. and sometimes Mr. Russow's opposite in contract bargaining, said he had expected the move. "Tom's planned this for several years . . . and he feels it's time," Mr. Olson said.
He called Mr. Russow a tough negotiator and "a good trade unionist. I think he's done a good job for his folks, and they'll miss him."
Larry Johnson, spokesman for Safeway Inc., said Mr. Russow's exit "is somewhat surprising. We will miss him because he's worked well with us over the years."
Despite its growth in membership, Local 27's record has been mixed in recent years.
It succeeded in organizing workers at a ConAgra chicken operation on the Eastern Shore, several nursing homes, the Farm Fresh supermarket chain and a big hypermarket store operated by Leedmark in Glen Burnie.
But the Leedmark store lost money and shut down. Local 27 failed in an attempt to organize 1,100 Playtex workers. And the union was unable to avert the shutdown of Esskay Inc.'s ham and sausage plant in Baltimore and the loss of its 500 jobs.