By John O'Brien,
Tribune Staff Writer.
July 23, 1996
As part of an internal move to purge suspected
mob influence, officials of the nationwide laborers union have
seized control of one of its Chicago locals, charging a mysterious
loss of members and operating funds. The move involved Local 8 of the Laborers
International Union North America, and comes amid questions about
how it functioned under the leadership of an aging president and
operated out of an empty office no bigger than a broom closet.
The takeover is the first of a Laborers local
in Chicago and comes as the 750,000-member union, with a history
of hoodlum involvement, struggles under Justice Department scrutiny
to clean its own house. To that end, the union has hired 40 investigators,
mostly former FBI agents, and created the post of inspector general
with broad powers to root out corruption. Federal prosecutors are monitoring the union's
actions under threat of court intervention. Both sides have agreed
to this approach in an attempt to avoid costly and time-consuming
litigation to achieve the same result. The union has also established
a code of ethics and disciplinary procedures.
The emergency action at Local 8, including
appointment of a temporary trustee to protect what remains of
local membership and funds, was taken by the union's general executive
board. In a letter last week to 200 members of the
Near Northwest Side local, most of them semi-skilled factory and
foundry workers, Robert Luskin, the board's Washington attorney,
said the takeover and removal of 77-year-old Alex Metro as president
Metro is listed as the janitor at 1950 W.
Erie St., a building that houses Local 8 as well as the headquarters
of the Central States Joint Board, an umbrella labor organization
headed by another ousted Laborers official, John Serpico. The membership of Local 8, which numbered
1,400 when it was organized by Serpico in the late 1960s, "is
significantly indebted and appears not to be solvent," Luskin
wrote. ". . . Officers do not have . . . the reasons for
this indebtedness, and are taking no steps" to correct it.
The takeover follows a similar move earlier
this year in which the executive board seized control of the 5,000-member
Local 210 in Buffalo, alleging that organized crime figures were
in power there. Since that trusteeship was imposed, union
inspectors have brought internal charges against 28 officers and
members in a variety of disciplinary moves. In both crackdowns, Luskin has authorized
union investigators led by Inspector General Douglas Gow to seize
financial and health and welfare records pertaining to benefits
Metro, who succeeded Serpico as Local 8 president,
could not be reached for comment. A reporter who visited the Central
States Joint Board was referred to the temporary trustee, Richard
M. Johnson, a former U.S. Treasury Department official. He declined
to comment, pending a union hearing on the takeover in 30 days.
But sources familiar with the takeover said
internal inspectors were surprised to find Metro running the local
from an office measuring 4 feet by 8 feet in a corner of the Central
States building. They gained access to Local 8 records recently
after a brief confrontation with aides of Serpico.
The inspectors have told Johnson they suspect
Local 8's treasury may have been used improperly to pay the rent
for both it and the Central States board. Sources said the inspectors
also suspect local funds may have been siphoned off to pay the
salaries of some board officials. "Lots of money has been paid out under
questionable circumstances," said one reformer.
In attempting to bar inspectors from access
to the records, local officials contended that the membership
had voted to "disassociate" from the union in light
of Serpico's ouster as an international vice president. They claimed
the inspectors had no standing since the local had been "evicted"
from the premises "coincidentally" that same day.
The standoff ended with the inspectors getting
the records they asked for.
Union observers said the membership of Local
8 began to decline after Serpico was ousted by the union's executive
board, led by General President Arthur Coia. The Laborers' efforts at internal reform
include the granting of broad powers to inspectors, including
the authority to seize records without legal process and to question
members under oath. Failure to cooperate is a ground for dismissal
from the union. "It is a pro-active process," said
Dwight Boswick, a Washington attorney and union reformer. "The
Laborers are intent on cleaning house themselves."
Copyright 1998, The Tribune Company.