The Buffalo News




DAN HERBECK, News Staff Reporter
November 22, 1999

The forced marriage between Laborers Local 210 and its parent union has been rocky and angry, but it has limited criminal influences.

Last year, the supervisor of Laborers Local 210 got into a disagreement with a union member during an advisory board meeting in the Franklin Street union hall.

One angry word led to another, and the two decided to take the dispute outside. They duked it out on the sidewalk.

Two months ago, a Local 210 job steward on the Niagara Thruway project was challenged by one of the workers on the site. They wound up in a fistfight that left the worker in a coma for several days and nearly killed him.

To observers of Local 210 -- allegedly the most corrupt employee union in the history of Western New York -- such incidents are evidence that a government-monitored takeover of the local has not gone smoothly.

Four years ago, Laborers International of North America gave in to pressure from the U.S. Justice Department and agreed to take over the operations of Local 210 and other locals throughout the country that had allegedly been dominated by organized crime.

Since then, more than two dozen alleged mob associates have been pushed out of Local 210 jobs, including leadership positions. A number of supervisors, appointed by the international and closely watched by the Justice Department, have been running the local, promising to keep mobsters from influencing who gets jobs.

How is the transition going?

The Justice Department and the international say they are generally pleased with the progress. Some union members vehemently disagree.

"I don't think the job is complete yet, but I'm happy with what I have seen," said U.S. Attorney Denise E. O'Donnell in an interview last week. "I do think the new leadership has established a remarkable track record, in terms of who they have been able to remove from the local and in terms of reforms in the hiring hall."

"I think we're about 60 percent of the way toward our goals," said Steve K. Hammond, a supervisor from the international who has been assigned to drive the mob out of Local 210 and several other labor unions. "We're seeing some of the members, people who were intimidated before, stepping forward and saying, 'I'll get involved. I'll run for office.' "

Union member Peter Capitano Jr. and Buffalo lawyer Joseph V. Sedita, who represented a man who was kicked out of the union, say the takeover was an unfair process that targeted Italian-Americans.

"Our members have less rights than they've ever had," said Capitano, whose father was forced out of a leadership position by the international. "We have no votes. Administrative costs that come out of our paychecks are higher than ever. It's a crooked operation. People were accused of being in the mob without ever having a hearing in a real court of law."

Sedita said leaders of the international have used a "very unfair . . . kangaroo court" administrative hearing process to remove Local 210 leaders and replace them with cronies from the international.

In some cases, according to Sedita and Capitano, reformers from the international removed leaders because of alleged mob ties and then replaced them with others who had mob ties that were equally alarming.

"They took one guy, who admitted in their hearing that he had been an enforcer for the mob, and they made him a steward. What kind of reform is that?" Capitano said.

That man, Jerome Piniewski, was the steward who allegedly beat a fellow worker into a coma in a confrontation on the Thruway work site in mid-September. Buffalo police arrested Piniewski, and a grand jury is investigating the beating incident, Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said .

Piniewski insists he threw only one punch in self-defense, after the other worker physically and verbally attacked him, according to Piniewski's attorney, Robert Walsh. Walsh said police have talked to at least two witnesses who confirmed Piniewski's account of the incident.

The injured worker's lawyer declined to discuss the incident, but legal sources said the worker is considering a lawsuit after coming close to death from a head injury.

Piniewski is no longer a steward, Hammond said, and the local is looking into the incident.

"Regardless of who was the aggressor, we would not want our stewards getting into fights with workers," Hammond said.

He and Walsh declined to comment on the allegations that Piniewski has had past involvement with organized crime.

Local 210 has workers on most major construction projects in Western New York. The local has about 1,100 members, including approximately 250 retirees.

According to Hammond, only "about 2 or 3 percent" of the members actively support the old guard of the local -- the alleged mob associates who were removed. But the old guard supporters still trouble the federal government.

Sources close to the union said last week that the U.S. Attorney's office, under O'Donnell, may ask U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara to allow closer government scrutiny of the local. Arcara has been overseeing some litigation surrounding the international's takeover of Local 210.

O'Donnell declined to comment, except to say she does not think the local is ready to operate with no government monitoring.

Hammond, who helped the international push mobsters out of one of New York City's most corrupt unions, said he welcomes government inspection of his efforts.

"Having someone from the outside looking in on us would be more a positive than a negative," Hammond said. "We've made some progress that we're really proud of."

When they took over Local 210, officials of the international said the Buffalo local had been dominated by organized crime for 40 years, and that favoritism and mob connections often determined which laborers would get job assignments.

Hammond said favoritism no longer plays a role in job assignments. Each week, he said, the local posts a list of workers, showing the order of who will be called first when construction jobs are available.

The list is based on seniority, work skills and how long an employee has been waiting for work, Hammond said.

How long will it be before Local 210 allows its members to choose their leaders? Hammond said he could not estimate. "Three months, six months, a year -- I can't say," Hammond said. "I can only say we're making progress."

He added that the most visible symbol of Local 210 -- the fortresslike union hall at 481 Franklin -- may soon be history.

The local decided last year to sell the hall, which has been watched and bugged by dozens of FBI agents over the decades.

"We think we have an interested buyer and may have it sold in the next few months," Hammond said.


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