When he recently took up genealogy, Larry D. Kump was thrilled to find he is a direct descendant of Patrick Henry. "That just tickled me to death, because I liked his feisty attitude," he says.
The last place you'd expect to find Henry's literal or spiritual descendant is at the head of a public workers' union. But Kump, executive director of the Indiana State Employees Association (ISEA), is no ordinary union boss.
For one thing, he runs a voluntary group and doesn't think workers should be forced to join the union in order to work for a unionized employer. "Sometimes employees need to be protected from the caprice of their OWN union, and an open shop is the best way to do that," he says. And Kump even evinces some sympathy for people who cross picket lines. "I have a problem when people face reprisals for choosing to come to work." (As public employees, ISEA members are forbidden by law to strike.)
He isn't a typical public-employee advocate, either. Most unions, especially those of government workers, fiercely oppose privatization. But Kump, a fan of science-fiction writer Keith Laumer's satires of bureaucracy, supports some efforts to shrink the state. "I don't think any services ought to be provided by the government just because they always have been."
The ISEA has proposed legislation that would require the state to demonstrate that a job is really necessary before replacing any employee who quits. The bill would also require cost-savings studies of any proposed privatization of government services.
But Kump wants government either to do a job itself or to get out of the business completely—not to hire private contractors. "The problem with contracting out is you don't want it, as with the Pentagon, to be underground political patronage, often tied in to 'contributions' to politicians."
A handful of career state employees formed the ISEA in 1953, Kump says, because "they were tired of scurrying to save their jobs every four years." The union has been fighting patronage ever since, but politicians still control about a third of state jobs. With the Indiana Libertarian Party, the ISEA has filed suit to overturn the system. The Republicans, who dominate the state, have tried to have the suit dismissed, to no avail.
The ISEA has also championed the rights of whistleblowers. "Nobody knows what's wrong with government more than government employees," says Kump. After a four-year fight, the legislature enacted an ISEA-backed law that protects the rights of state workers to belong to unions, to participate in political activity, and to report corruption without fear of reprisal. Now the ISEA is pushing to add criminal penalties for those who harass whistleblowers.
The ISEA receives whispered phone calls revealing political corruption. It cooperated with the press and FBI in investigating a scam in which state corrections department officials skimmed state funds and inmate benefits for personal use. Among other misdeeds, reports Kump, the department's commissioner used state funds to restore his already lavish state-provided home, even goldplating the bathroom faucets.
Kump didn't plan on a career as a union leader. As a student in Hagerstown, Maryland, he wanted to become an electronic engineer—until he hit calculus. "I sold my calculus textbook on the black market in high school to someone who'd done something obscene with his book."
In junior college, he edited the school paper and managed to offend the administration with his libertarian approach to students' rights. "They were so upset that they took away the scholarship which I was supposed to get as a perk for being editor," he recalls. After college, he spent a few months as chief aide to the Pennsylvania state senate's minority leader, then settled down for six years at a public workers' union in Maryland before moving to Indiana.
In Kump's eight years as executive director, the ISEA has grown from 2,900 members to 4,000—despite a 20 percent reduction in the total number of state workers. (Indiana is the state with the fewest public employees per capita.) The ISEA is now the state's largest public employees' union. But Kump has paid a steep personal price for his success.
Kump says that, after encouraging him to take the job, his wife decided she couldn't put up with the long hours he was working. About six months after he joined the ISEA, she left him. The same day, he was diagnosed with cancer.
"When she told me she was moving back east with our two kids, that upset me more than finding out that I had terminal cancer." An operation took care of the cancer, but his wife is still gone. They share the children. Kump, a Mormon, lists himself on his business card as "father of David & Sarah Kump," right under his ISEA title.
The union's success—often at the expense of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), an AFL-CIO affiliate—has also drawn unwanted attention from the AFL-CIO's archrivals, the Teamsters. Without his knowledge, Kump says, "One of our staff cut a deal on the side with the Teamsters to get the ISEA to affiliate with them. A Teamster representative came into my office and said 'We're going to get your membership anyway, so why don't you do it the easy way, and we'll give you a similar position—and save you the embarrassment of being run out of the state professionally.'"
The man told him one of the benefits of Teamster affiliation, says Kump: "'You have trouble with anybody, you point him out to us, and we'll punch him in the nose.' I thought he was kidding, but then I saw he was serious. I told him to do what he could and if they could take over, I'd get a job slinging hamburgers."
In a free market, Kump is confident that this brand of union leadership sells best.
John Dentinger is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Individualist in the Oddest Place".