Chicago Tribune



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 was necessary.

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 for members.

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.

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