The Question of Corruption
October 21st, 1999
Metro Labor Press Association
I want to thank the folks at Wagner for letting
me speak here tonight. And also Marty Fishgold and Jack Shierenbeck
of the MLPA for inviting me to participate in the Critical Issues
series. Jack has been particularly helpful. He tried to get the
Fruit of Islam to provide security. They were unavailable. But
he did manage to get the Vegetables of Marxism. I can see they're
out in force tonight.
Let me start out with an admission. If there
was anyone who was oblivious -- even hostile -- to the issue of
union corruption it was me. Ten years ago, I was working as a
consultant for CWA Local 1180, on city economic development issues.
We were promoting the idea of reviving the port of New York. I
suggested one way to build a coalition was to support the candidacy
of Lou Valentino, the head of the Brooklyn Longshoremen. Lou was
running for an open seat on the city council. I got a big check
to put in his hand, that I walked over to him. As I walked across
the threshold of the Longshoremen's Hall on Court Street, I noticed
carved in stone above the door, "The Anthony Anastasia Memorial
Hall." Anthony was "Tough Tony." His brother, Albert
Anastasia was the head of Murder Inc. "The Lord High Executioner".
Together, they helped found the Gambino crime family. I remember
thinking, "Well, that was a long time ago." But when
I entered the hall, it was like a scene from the Soprano's. Women
in big hair filing their nails. I went up the stairs, it was just
a couple of days before the election. Lou was sitting there alone
yelling into a phone, "Get me a dozen Puerto Ricans. And
put them on a flat bed truck." He was busy but glad to see
me. I gave him the check. We shook hands. I thought I'd won an
ally. The next week, Wayne Barrett exposed Lou's ties in the Village
Voice. I was angry at Wayne. By writing about corruption,
he was missing the big picture.
My critics make three main points: number
one, I overemphasize corruption. "It's not that prevalent,"
they say. Two: my writing about corruption, is inaccurate and
unreliable. I get things wrong. And three, when I do manage to
get something right, the truth is no defense, because the net
impact of the stories is harmful to the overwhelming number of
good union leaders out there trying to organize workers, raise
wages and represent an increasingly cynical membership.
I worry a lot that the critics might be right.
Certainly I've made mistakes. Under deadline pressure, covering
a fast developing story, I've relied too much on a single source;
I didn't double check a fact. More generally, my academic conscience
tells me I've committed the two primal sins of journalism: over-simplification
But then I look back on the stories I began
to write when I left the union payroll in '94, and I ask myself,
"Would the stories I wrote have been better left unreported?"
Was it wrong to report in '96, the charges
that DC 37's citywide contract ratification vote in '95 was fixed?
The story turned out to be true: the Kroll Report found outright
fraud in 22 out of 48 locals. "Yes" was really "No."
In several others fraud wasn't so bad. DC 37 aides fixed the ballots
after they ate at the Gee Whiz Restaurant. The Gee Whiz? You
won't find it in Zagat's NYC restaurants.. But you will find it
in DA Morgenthau's indictments. At the Gee Whiz, DC 37 honcho's
could order a few dozen sandwiches and get back a bill for $12,000.
Which the members would pay. And the leaders would steal. Dining
at the Gee Whiz, DC 37 crooks could double their productivity:
at a single sitting they could furnish padded bills from the
Gee Whiz and inflate vote totals from the election. Besides the
moussaka was great. And only $8.95.
Staying with DC 37, was it wrong to suggest
in the summer of '98, that the biggest scandal in New York City
labor history was brewing -- This year there have been two dozen
indictments. There are 40 more in the works -- --"according
to sources." So far though, there've been only five for vote
fraud. The rest have been for stealing. Charlie Hughes ran up
a $350,000 bill at Victoria's Secret. Al Diop brought a 300 person
entourage with him to Waikiki; In one month, Fran Autovino --
who pled guilty this month to stealing $220,000 -- hit the Mirage,
the Desert Inn, Caesar's Palace and Bally's-- all in one month
at union expense.
Fran admits she's a crook. Charlie's lawyer,
says he was suffering from a bi polar disorder. So what? So
plenty. Here's the institution that for the last quarter century
has enforced the urban Establishment's program for labor discipline
on the municipal work force: from the 69,000 layoffs in the fiscal
crisis; to the WEP program; to a double zero contract during the
city's biggest boom since the '60's; to the political endorsement
and financing of Giuliani, the most anti-labor Mayor ever. And,
in the leadership of this most important disciplinary institution,
it turns out, corruption wasn't deviant, honesty was.
Let's be clear: we're not talking about a
few individuals going bad, we're talking about a racketeering
enterprise. A kleptocracy. To keep it in operation, a deal had
to go down between Gracie Mansion and 125 Barclay Street: Maybe
Rudy never said, " We need a billion dollars from you guys
in contract savings, stuff the ballots if you have to, and we'll
look the other way while you stuff your pockets."But that
was the deal. And you couldn't read about it in
the New York Times. Not to say the Public
Maybe like the premature antifascists of
the 1930's, I got on the story too early and stayed with it too
long. But even after the replacement of DC 37's executive director
by a trustee, it turns out that elections are still being fixed
in DC 37. Subpoenas went out last week for the fix I reported
last month in Local 372. So it's not ancient history that DC 37
presidents used death threats against would-be challengers. Because
threats are still being made. And the head of DC 37 is still blowing
off protesters with the slogan "local autonomy." I think
it's relevant too, that for the last decade, AFSCME judicial panels
have routinely dismissed election protests even when protesters
could show that the incumbents took the ballot box home with them.
Of all the stories I wrote, I think the one
really stamped me as someone out to get labor leaders was "The
Union from Hell." But in 1998, when I began working on the
story, I had no idea that UNITE was involved. A source told me
that Kathy Lee clothes were being made in a particularly revolting
sweatshop not in central America, or in Saipan, but at 446 Broadway.
Just doors from where UNITE was holding it's Christmas of Conscious
demo against Guess? It was the workers -- who hadn't been paid
in nearly 12 weeks -- who told me that the sweatshop had a contract
with UNITE. Then I learned of DOL documents that show that while
two thirds of the garment shops in the city are sweatshops, three
quarters of UNITE's factories are sweatshops by the unions own
standards. In violation of wage, hour and safety regulations.
Further research showed that UNITE officials -- in Local 23-25
UNITE's largest local and in Local 10 their flagship cutters local
in the garment district have confessed or been convicted of taking
bribes from bosses to ignore the contract. It's old news that
Local 102 the trucking local was run by the Gambino's for decades.
"We have never been able to control Local 102," the
President of the ILG explained. It turned out too -- after I wrote
the story that a top UNITE official, a UNITE lawyer, and the former
chief of organizing are on tape strategizing with Luchese crime
family operatives about which garment shops to shakedown.
A subject best left unwritten? Obviously,
from the standpoint of Jo Ann Mort, UNITE's director of Communications,
who told a meeting of Nation staffers that my stories
were all lies; But if they were, why didn't UNITE's EVP Edgar
Romney -- who's on the tape -- mention one of those lies in his
letter to the Village Voice. And why shortly after
the story appeared, did UNITE announce the formation of a task
force to suppress Sunday work in its shops?
In the book she edited, Not Your Father's
Union Movement, Mort herself writes about the need for
"core positioning and message discipline." But this
is not a strategy for journalists trying to find the truth; or
reformers trying to right what's wrong; it's the method of public
relations consultants trying to create an image. "Message
discipline" underpins UNITE's own strategy for presenting
itself as a fighter against sweatshops with its highly successful
campus campaigns against overseas garment makers. But the best
move UNITE could make in the battle against sweatshops -- if
it wanted to protect its members, instead of just its image --
would be simply to enforce its own contracts here in New York.
The truth is that UNITE has presided over the greatest collapse
of labor standards in this century, while piling up more financial
assets per member than any union in the country. If my stories
have made it harder for UNITE to stay on message, I think I can
live with my conscience.
I write about corruption in unions, because
I believe that trade unionism, is potentially the most important
force in the world today for justice, equality and the dignity
of ordinary people. As historian David Montgomery says, "for
straightening people's backs,". Homestead, Lawrence, Patterson,
The Uprising of the 20,000, Flint, Gastonia, Hormel. Long after
the names of AFL-CIO leaders kept alive by their public relations
staff have been forgotten, the names of these great labor battles
fought by anonymous workers will live. They show how, through
concerted action, through individual sacrifice and common courage,
working people can challenge the injustice and inequality that
comes with the capitalist territory.
But this countervailing force is running
very weakly in America today. It's become weak because the brand
of unionism that's triumphed is not the kind that's celebrated
by the busts on display here in Wagner. "You could just
as easily clean up a garbage pile by spraying it with attar of
roses" Gene Debs once said, "as reform the AFL."
The problems are pretty much the same as
in 1905 when Debs helped found the IWW as an alternative to the
AFL: The Federation is still made up of a lot of fragmented, patronage-driven
political machines, over-staffed and overpaid, tied to the Democratic
Party machines locally and the Democrats nationally. Our
unions minimize the possibility for participation of the members
and maximize the potential for corruption of the leaders.
It goes without saying that a corrupt union
is a bad union. One that will never be a school for solidarity.
But absent market conditions that no longer exist in the US, like
a regulated trucking industry, a corrupt union will always be
weak union, too. And weak unions explain a great deal of what's
wrong with this country's economy and its political system. Is
it just a coincidence that today, in America, we have the weakest
unions in the advanced capitalist world and the greatest income
inequality? How else do we explain that Americans work longer
hours than any people in the world. Retire later. And take the
shortest vacations. Why is child poverty here ten times what it
is in Finland? Lazier kids? Why don't we have universal health
care coverage yet? Obviously the main reason is insurance company
resistance. But the main countervailing force is missing in action.
Trade unions have private health plans. Doesn't the Federation's
historic failure to enlist in the struggle for universal health
insurance count for something too?
In our political system -- marked by the
world's highest cost and the world's lowest voter participation
-- -- a labor party candidate for president is too far-fetched
for serious discussion. Why should it be more far-fetched than
the candidacies of Donald Trump, Warren Beatty and Oprah Winfrey,
Cybil Sheperd? They're all out there.
Yes, political scientists talk about the
decline of the party system, the rise of consultants, the spread
of polls and focus groups and all that. But isn't part of the
reason labor can't hope to play an independent role in the political
system -- even at the local level -- is that with the eclipse
of the socialist Left and the merger of the CIO into the AFL --
unions no longer act as agencies for political participation
for working people? They no longer mobilize, educate, activate.
A lot of members don't even know they're members. "What union
are you in? " Outside the uniformed officers and the trades,
most workers can't tell you. The more knowledgeable, will answer,
"Local 237", or "Local 1549, "But the question"
Of what?" is usually a stumper..
Supporters of the trade union status
quo will agree with some of this analysis. Some will
acknowledge that weak unions are economic inequality go together.
Privately, some are dissatisfied with a political role that's
shrunk to little more than paying protection money to the Democrats.
But all agree that the reason unions are weak can be entirely
explained by factors external to unions -- the
unfavorable regulatory environment, the courts, the NLRB, the
culture of individualism, globalization, the strength of employer
resistance and so forth.
It's a curious position. For the last two
decades, labor history has been dominated by the
idea that workers aren't just acted upon by external forces. They
make their own history. But when it comes to labor's present
the consensus is that nothing workers do; nothing about the way
they're organized explains why they're weak. And so union leaders
bear no responsibility whatever for union decline
Oh, yes, John Sweeney now says that under
his predecessor, Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO failed to devote
enough resources to organizing. But I think the root of the problem
is less organizing, than the way the AFL-CIO is
organized. A lot of unions that could double their membership,
without increasing their strength. Look here in New York. The
problem isn't the unions lack paid members. UNITE still has almost
fifty percent density. Municipal unions, led by DC 37 have even
higher densities. But they're still weak with a membership that
is mainly nominal. Unions would like to be strong. But not if
it means bringing in the members. Our unions are designed
to minimize participation of the members; and maximize opportunities
for corruption of the leaders. How that design is engineered into
our AFL-CIO unions; what explains it, is the principle question
I'm researching in Sell-Out! .
The Metaquestion of corruption
But tonight, I want to raise what Professor
Stanley Aronowitz, my distinguished predecessor in this series
last year, has defined as a "metaquestion." A metaquestion
is the question about the question. Why should corruption be a
question at all?
Labor movement officials are unanimous in
thinking it shouldn't be. As Rosa Luxembourg once observed, "Unlimited
praise and boundless optimism are made the duty of every 'friend
of the trade-union movement." These friends of labor raise
three main objections to writing about corruption in general.
No.1. This is the most common. Corruption,
they say, is simply not that widespread. Union leaders
are no more corrupt than business leaders. So why pick on them?
Objection No.2. If corruption charges are
widespread, it's not because there's corruption. It's because
the government uses corruption charges to discredit militant labor
No.2. chimes with the most powerful and devastating
charge which is. No.3: people who raise the corruption issue,
say defenders of the trade union status quo, are
collaborating with management. "Exposing corruption helps
the boss." No. 1 denies the importance
of corruption; No.2. attacks the motives for the
charges. No.3 argues that the consequences of ventilating
corruption charges are negative.
(a) Let's start with No. 1 -- the claim
that corruption is unfairly overemphasized. At the '95 Columbia
Teach-In With Labor sponsored by SAWSJ, Richard Rorty, America's
most famous philosopher, minimized the corruption problem of American
unions.: "their record is no better or worse than that of
American churches; American law firms, American business firms,
and even American academic departments." The mainly academic
audience laughed and cheered.
But does the mob tells department heads whether
to hire analytic or postmodern philosophers? Do the Five Families
have a religion panel -- one that divides the congregations between
the Baptists and the Methodists the same way they have a construction
panel that regulates construction unions here in Manhattan? Crime
families have regularly chosen the leaders of the Teamsters, the
Laborers, Longshoremen, Hotel and Restaurant Workers union. And
my research suggests, they have played a role in choosing leaders
in the blue collar division of AFSCME DC 37 which paid for the
Columbia Teach In.
What Rorty says about the corruption of churches
and universities is provocative but ultimately halfbaked. His
insistence that business and unions are "just as corrupt"
is more plausible, but it's systematically misleading. Misleading
in three main ways.
First, there's small business. Throughout
the American economy --particularly in construction, trucking,
garment, carting, restaurant industries -- bosses bribe trade
union leaders to protect themselves against the outbreak of strikes.
For the right to ignore the contract, not to have to hire unions
workers; pay into pension and benefit funds; so they can blow
off safety regulations. Labor leaders in turn, pay mobsters for
protection, for the right to shakedown bosses, splitting the proceeds
they receive from the contractors. Adults know this. But how does
the fact that bosses' participate in these schemes make the corrupt
labor leaders any less culpable? Should members feel better
about being sold out, because their bosses are in on the deal
Then there's big business. Here the relationship
with racketeers is very different. Is there any evidence that
Goldman Sachs or G.E.. pay protection money to the Gotti's for
the right to sell bonds or light bulbs? None I've come across.
The corporate and banking elite are at the top of the capitalist
food chain. That's why we call them the ruling class
They do really bad things. I've seen figures
that show that in a given decade, one fifth of the Fortune 500
will be convicted of a serious crime. But how meaningful it is
to call giant corporations "corrupt"? For something
to have become corrupt, it once had to have been good. There
has to have been some deviation from a previously upheld standard
of morality or justice. The tobacco industry appears to have
conspired to keep information about the addictive properties of
their product secret -- so they could earn billions, while treating
millions of their customers to a slow, agonizing death. Most would
agree that this is wrong, the courts are starting to rule that
it's illegal, but do these horrific acts make tobacco companies
corrupt? When was the golden age of tobacco companies?
People are angry when they
hear that Ford knew that rear-end collisions would cause the Mustang
to explode or that Johns-Mansville knew how lethal asbestos was
even as they pushed its use in schools and hospitals. But how
many people felt betrayed? The corporations were
simply delivering on their mandate to put the stockholders first.
Unlike the unions, the corporations didn't sell out the people
whose interests they supposed to promote.
Unions are supposed to be run for the members.
But corrupt leaders sell them out. Instead of the protecting
the worker from the boss, the corrupt trade union leader protects
the boss from the workers. The nature of the betrayal is truly
unique. When has an American union leader ever been indicted
for giving a bribe to a boss to sell out his stockholders?
The upshot is that corporate executives can
hurt us only once. But because unions have stood for something
besides the worship of the golden calf, union leaders can hurt
us twice. First with the blow to our wallets and second with
the blow to our hearts.
So, I would argue, you can't get rid of the
union corruption problem with the mechanism of moral equivalence.
But what about the claim, that there's simply not that much corruption
to worry about. Recently, a trade union leader with who knows
the New York City movement very well, complained to me along these
lines. He's one of the most honest guy I know. He puts every check
he writes on the bulletin board of the union hall, so all the
members can challenge him. "You exaggerate corruption,"
he said.waving a dinner fork at me. "I think eighty percent
of all trade union leaders in this city are honest,"
"Joe," I said, ( let's call him
Joe), do you realize what you're saying? We've got nearly 2 million
Americans in jail or prison. Let's say that for every one they've
got behind bars, there are 10 crooks they haven't caught. That
would still mean that less than 10% of the American people are
criminals. Twenty percent is huge. It would mean trade union leaders
are more than twice as corrupt as the American people. It would
explain why polls show that even pro-union workers think their
leaders are corrupt.
Besides, "were 80% of the leaders in
DC 37 honest?" On the executive board 8 out of 20 have already
been indicted. In the two largest locals, containing 40% of DC
37's membership, most of the members of the executive board were
indicted. Corruption is not a new development. The Vaira report
estimated in 1978 that in New York city 100 out of 600 locals
were not just corrupt but controlled by crime families. In other
words, nearly 17% of city unions aren't just corrupt, they're
Are 80% of the construction unions honest?
Why then are there trusteeships over the Carpenters, Laborers
district councils and the teamsters local 282 that handles construction
To get a sense of what corruption means in
the trades, I would offer a brief longitudinal study of the NYC
District Council of Carpenters. I'll go back only as far as 1982.
That's when the wallet belonging to Ted Maritas, President of
the District Council, turned up beside the East River. They never
found Ted. The consensus explanation was that he had a family
problem. His mob family was concerned that after he got indicted
in 1981, he'd cooperate with the feds.
Maritas was succeeded by Paschal Maguiness.
Paschal Maguiness was first indicted in 1991. He beat the charges.
But he was finally forced to step down in 1995 for his
mob ties. As part of the settlement, Maguiness was banned from
the district council for life. Evidently though, this experience
looked good on Maguiness' resume as for as the International Brotherhood
of Carpenters was concerned. Because following his resignation
in New York he got appointed almost immediately as an international
vice president in DC.
Fred Devine came in 1995 to clean up the
mess left by Maguiness. Devine fired a foreman at the Javits for
being an associate of the Genovese crime family. (Fred worked
for the Colombo's.) When he ran for office in 1995, Devine got
nearly a million dollars from something called the Labor-Management
Cooperation Fund. He used some of the money for a billboard campaign
promoting his candidacy. Finally he was indicted by the Manhattan
District Attorney and convicted in March 1997.
Devine was brought down by a conflict between
his two mistresses. First, there was his Rochester girl friend,
Lucy Virginia who was on two union payrolls. Devine traveled regularly
to see her from New York on a private jet paid for by the union.
Then there was his other girl friend Jonni Clause-Stanton. A golf
pro from New Jersey who Devine hired as his consultant.
The problem was that Devine told his Rochester
girl friend, Lucy, that he'd hired Clause-Stanton as his bodyguard.
When her picture appeared in the union paper. Lucy said Jonni
didn't look like a body guard. The next thing you know, Fred was
That brings us to the present regime, headed
by a trustee. But under the new trusteeship, business agents who
tried to report nonunion work got fired. Just a couple of months
ago, the District Attorney seized the District Council's files.
Just a few weeks ago, Tom Robbins reported that one of the prime
sources in the DA's investigation, a dissident carpenter, had
been killed in an accident on the job.
By this time Joe had put his fork down. He
conceded. In exchange for his concession, I agreed to pick up
the check. But I take Joe's point -- there are
tens of thousands of honest, militant, hard-working officials
and staffers in the American labor movement. Particularly at the
local level. My point is that they're swimming against
a corrupt tide. And that you can't turn the tide if you refuse
to acknowledge which direction it's running.
(b) The second objection I hear is that indictments
of union leaders are really just punishments for their militant
actions. Charlie Hughes a militant? In 1994, Charlie was the first
trade union leader in New York City to endorse the Mayor. Charlie
hugged the Mayor so often, we used to call him the 'serial Giuliani
hugger.' Who was the second?. Turkey Joe DeCanio, chief of DC
37's ballot stuffing division. In exchange, for DeCanio's cash,
Rudy Mastro took 200 workers from one DC 37 local and put them
in Turkey Joe's local
"Laborers President Arthur Coia has
been an acknowledged leader in fighting for change, for a stronger
labor movement, and for cleaning up corruption wherever he could
find it." That's why he was being attacked.
So testified John Sweeney before a House Committee. Actually,
there's more to it than that. In 1994, Coia Jr., was the target
of a 212 page Justice Department complaint alleging he and his
father were long time associates of the Patriarca crime family.
In the early 80's-- Father and son were indicted with the Patriarca's
for ripping off a LIUNA dental plan. They escaped conviction on
a technicality. Coia Jr. even admitted he became Secretary Treasurer
of LIUNA only with the approval of the Chicago Outfit.
Yes, that's all in the past. But if you want
an example of how far Coia's clean-up has gotten in LIUNA, download
the audio tape of Vice President Steven Manos being beaten last
year at a meeting of Local 230 for protesting a union expenditure.
It's at http:www.laborers.org. You can hear Charlie LeConche,
the head of Connecticut LIUNA district council saying to Manos
at an executive board meeting, "I'm about ready to tear your
fucking throat out." You can hear Manos' cries. And LeConche
saying, "We own you." as Steve is thrown down the stairs.
Afterwards,the guy that beat him, the sergeant at arms, Frank
Freeman, was promoted to Vice President of the local. International
LIUNA VP President Vere Haynes was in the room, watching the beating.
He never said a word. Later, LIUNA's GEB attorney issued a reprimand
for this Hobbs act violation. Some clean-up.
But what about Ron Carey? Wasn't he
punished for his militant role in the UPS strike? Alexander Cockburn
wrote in the Nation that the charges against Carey
were being driven by a Larouchean conspiracy in the service of
big business. "Harass Carey...Harass the AFL-CIO leaders
to whose project Carey is vital," he wrote," Now probe
anyone trying to build a combative even radical labor movement.
Get them on the run. Get them in front of a grand jury. Get everyone
frightened and persuaded that trying to build a radical, combative
labor movement is against the law."
A strong statement of the case. But not an
altogether unfamiliar one. More than a dozen years ago, similar
words were spoken by an even more prominent Leftist. "Bust
unions, discredit union leaders; now take over unions. Teamsters,
you are the starting point."
These were the words of Jesse Jackson at
a 1986 Cincinnati Convention Center rally in support of Jackie
Presser, who'd just been indicted. The truth was that Presser
was both a mob puppet and a FBI snitch. But this didn't prevent
him from getting the traditional leftist defense: a combination
of flat denials; and broad claims about plots to destroy the labor
Let's look at the Carey case: As the federal
election officer who ordered the '96 Teamsters election rerun,
Barbara Zack Quindel would have to have been in on the plot.
But according to Quindel, she made the decision before
the strike. But she didn't reveal her decision so as not to affect
the strike's outcome. There's evidence to back her claim. But
in any case, why would Barbara Zack Quindel, want to expose a
money laundering scandal that implicated her husband and forced
her own resignation? Quindel was making nearly a $1,000,000 a
year when she stepped down.
So far, we've examined the claim that corruption
charges are just a punishment for trade union militancy; the efforts
to deny the scope and seriousness of union corruption; the argument
that the participation of businessmen in trade union corruption
somehow renders it less objectionable. None of these contentions
seems very convincing. A more effective argument doesn't impugn
people's motives or deny the facts or try to make corruption go
away by the method of moral equivalency. Instead it talks about
the consequences of corruption stories: they help
the boss and demoralize trade unionists fighting the good fight
inside the union.
I heard this a lot after the Voice
series on UNITE. "What you don't see," I was told,"
is that there are honest people in UNITE. They're doing real organizing.
It's them you're hurting.".The general concern was well put
in a pamphlet put out by the National Interfaith Committee
on Worker Justice," As wrong as union corruption
is, it is unfortunate that union corruption receives so much front
page media attention, compared to the important justice work done
by unions to raise wages, benefits and working conditions for
low-wage workers." (Newsday, 9/5/99) As we've seen, the
DOL estimates that 75% of UNITE shops in New York City are sweatshops
by the union's own definition. Some members make as little as
a dollar an hour while the contract calls for over $9.00 an hour.
There's even a system whereby the workers buy their checks to
make it appear that they're getting the federal minimum wage.
What's "unfortunate" is not what's in the media but
what's in the shops; not the exposure of the conditions but the
refusal of the union to fight them. Maybe if the ministers spent
more time in the shops talking to workers instead of on the dias
dialoging with labor leaders, they'd be more effective apostles
of justice they seek.
There remain the concerns of honest leaders
of the trade union movement who sincerely believe that corruption
stories weaken them. Your stories," I've been told by people
I respect," strengthen the cynics who think all trade union
leaders are corrupt." But why don't these honest leaders
themselves rebel against the dishonest ones? Why run the church
sale out of a crack house? Would corruption stories create cynicism
if AFL-CIO leaders themselves drew the line against the dishonest
leaders? They rarely do anymore.
After the McClellan hearings in 1957, George
Meany proclaimed how surprised he was to discover corruption in
the Teamsters and the Longshoreman. But he kicked them and their
per capita's out of the Federation.He also established an ethical
practices committee. Which last met in 1959.
But can anyone imagine Sweeney-- doing anything
similar? Meany established the principle that if you took the
Fifth on corruption charges you were out. Sweeney supported Rich
Trumka, the Fed's no.2, who took the Fifth three times in connection
with charges he illegally funneled $150,000 in AFL-CIO cash into
Ron Carey's 1996 campaign.
Sweeney never uttered a negative word about
Gus Bevona -- the highest paid union leader on the planet; who
illegally hired a gumshoe to harass a union dissident and then
billed his members for his private legal expenses when he sued.
And you can understand Sweeney's silence: until 1995, Sweeney
was getting upwards of $90,000 a year from Bevona. Even more
directly, Sweeney participated in violating the dissident members'
"But if you didn't write about corruption,
no-one would know, "I can hear people say,". And at
the end of the day, the labor movement would be better off."
In the end, I can't refute the claim that corruption
stories undermine unions. Not because it's true, but because we
can never know for what the consequences of any political action
Writing stories about corruption can be a
form of political action. I try to shape them into that form by
denying what defenders of the trade union status
quo affirm: that unions have only one side -- and
it is represented exclusively by union leaders. Even when the
leaders obtain office by fraud and use office to sellout the members
to the boss. In my experience the union can have two sides.
On one side are Luxembourg's "friends
of labor" -- who produce "unlimited praise and boundless
optimism" on demand for the leadership; and on the other
are the members who believe in unions must have a horizon higher
than "where's mine?" and broader than "what's
the deal?". I'm on their side. Without them
I could hardly write a word. Because where do stories about corruption
from? Not from the bosses. I didn't get the DC 37 story from
the Giuliani Administration but from the reformers, from Mark
Rosenthal, Robyn Little. Ray Markey, Tom Dawes, Roy Comer. Not
from the owner of the sweatshop on 446 Broadway but from Chinese
Staff and Workers association, from Wing Lam and Joanne Lum. In
the laborers, not from the contractors, but from Gary Wall; Barney
Scanlon; Pete DiNuzzo and Louise Furio. In SEIU-- from Paul Pamias
and Carlos Guzman- not the cleaning company bosses. They got on
quite well with Greedy Gus Bevona.
The point is to show in these unions there
really are two sides. A corrupt side and the reformers side. The
labor establishment insists that the voices of Hill, Bevona and
Coia are the authentic voices of American trade unionists. Who
is promoting cynicism? Who is providing hope?
hope? Will the reformers win? It's impossible to know for sure...
If the reformers win, will they do better than the status quo
leaders they seek to replace? Maybe once in power the DC 37
reformers will produce triple zero's. We can't
know the consequences. But what's the alternative? We know the
consequences of keeping silent about corruption..
America needs a lot more than a raise: it
needs a rank-and-file movement against corruption, one that will
reform trade union organization along participatory lines. The
idea of such a movement makes a lot of people on the left nervous.
Orthodox Leftists will argue that workers' protest must be a protest
against the factory boss, not the union boss; the factory floor;
not the union hall; against objective conditions; not workers'own
But the revolt against "objective conditions"
won't win unless new institutions replace the corrupt ones now
in place. Labor can learn something from the 16th century reformation
of the church. The problem then too was defined in terms of corruption.
"The canonization of a long line of saints could not detract
from the blatant lack of saintliness in the Church as a -whole,"
writes Norman Davies "Europe was full of tales about simoniac
bishops, nepotistic popes, promiscuous priests, idle monks and
above all, the sheer worldly wealth of the Church."
Top officials were using the Church's role
as defender of the poor to enrich themselves. Just the way the
Gus Bevona's and the Stanley Hill's use the union's role as defenders
of the workers to disguise their role. The medieval popes canonized
the St. Francis and St. Teresa, the way the AFL-CIO bigs invoke
Gene Debs, Mike Quill and Mother Jones.
Historians say Luther set off the Reformation
when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg castle.
But they rarely say what was in the theses. It turns out that
many were accusations against a corrupt church official named
Johann Tetzel, whom Luther had caught selling indulgences. Medieval
kickbacks. Of course Luther's protest went well beyond corruption.
His point was to use the corrupt state of the clergy to argue
for new congregations in which people worked out their own salvation.
Without Rome. And its official hierarchy. It's a stretch from
Luther and the Popes to the Wobblies and the executive council
of the AFL-CIO but if there's a common thread it's that we're
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