By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
January 3, 1999
A wave of union corruption, including a widening
scandal at New York City's largest municipal union, has thrown
the labor movement off stride at a time when it is straining to
improve its image and persuade millions more Americans to join
Labor leaders assert that the current wave
of corruption pales in comparison with labor's past, noting
that mob influence has largely been rooted out and
that hundreds of corrupt officials have been punished or
expelled through union and government efforts to clean
But the scandals, which have involved the
laborers, hotel workers, Teamsters and other unions,
have caused some labor experts to question the widely
held perception that union corruption has fallen
markedly since the 1950s era of "On the Waterfront,"
when organized crime dominated many unions.
There is widespread agreement among union
leaders that the current surge of accusations -- including embezzlement, vote rigging and associating with mobsters -- is an embarrassing setback because it
focuses attention on labor's seamy side when its
leaders are pushing the message that a revived labor
movement is going to bat for working Americans.
"I think it's terrible," said Sandra
Feldman, president of the United Federation of Teachers. "It
clearly gives a very negative image, and we have to overcome
it. But the fact of the matter is the overwhelming
majority of unions are good unions."
The current wave of corruption involves some
of the nation's most prominent unions.
Arthur Coia, the president of the Laborers
International Union of North America, may face expulsion
over internal charges that he associated with organized
crime figures and acquiesced in their running parts of
the union. An internal union judge is to rule this month
on whether to uphold the charges.
In New York City, a scandal has rocked a
union representing 120,000 municipal workers, District
Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County
and Municipal Employees. The president of one
of the union locals in the district council was ousted
after an internal union panel found that he embezzled
more than $1.7 million, while several top officials
have admitted to engaging in vote fraud to insure ratification
of a deeply unpopular contract.
And the Manhattan District Attorney's office
is investigating whether the same district council's officials received kickbacks from caterers,
lawyers and travel agencies.
Last summer, a federal monitor forced the longtime president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union to step down because of extravagant spending and other wrongdoing. The union president,
Edward Hanley, had the union pay for his
office and secretary in Palm Springs; bought a union-leased Cadillac sports car at a bargain rate, and
set up a phantom local in a Wisconsin resort town
to help union officials charge their vacation costs as
Two weeks ago a Minnesota-based official
with the operating engineers union pleaded guilty
to embezzling more than $200,000 for gambling, drinking
and other activities.
And many labor leaders voice fears that the
recent election of Jimmy Hoffa's son, James P. Hoffa,
to head the International Brotherhood of Teamsters
could open the door to more corruption in the union,
although Hoffa insists that he will fight corruption. Already
a court-appointed review board has charged
three officials, elected as vice presidents on
the Hoffa slate, with wrongdoing that could lead to
their expulsion from the union.
Hoffa's predecessor, Ron Carey -- who was
originally elected as a corruption fighter -- was ousted
from the union's presidency because three of his aides
siphoned more than $700,000 in Teamster funds into
his campaign treasury.
"What with the Hoffa victory and this
District Council 37 scandal, my impression is the gloss is
off the refurbished labor movement," said Herman
Benson, the founder of the Association for Union Democracy,
a New York-based group that has long fought union
Congressional Republicans and other critics
of the labor movement have seized on the scandals to argue
that unions have little moral leadership and are
hardly better than in the '50s and '60s, when Jimmy
Hoffa led the Teamsters. Back then, organized crime
figures embezzled tens of millions of dollars from
the Teamsters' pension funds, while many Teamster
locals were run by and for mob leaders, who occasionally
had their union opponents killed.
"Union corruption hasn't changed that
much since the '50s," said Ken Boehm, chairman of the
National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative research
group that publishes a biweekly newsletter, the Union
Corruption Report. "The cast of characters may
have changed. Some of the corruption is more sophisticated,
but it continues to be a very serious problem. If
there's any distinction, it's that there's less organized
crime than there was."
But labor's supporters maintain that there
is far less corruption now, largely because of government
efforts to eliminate mob influence in what were long
considered the four most corrupt unions: the Teamsters,
laborers, hotel and restaurant employees and the International Longshoremen's Association. In addition,
several unions have worked side by side with the government
to clean house. Over the past decade, the Teamsters'
union and a court-appointed review board have punished
or removed from office more than 400 Teamster officials.
"The labor movement is much better off
than 40 years ago," Benson said. "Even though
we're always criticizing and complaining, that's a real fact. This
stuff was festering all the time in unions. What's
new is they're getting rid of it."
Gerald McEntee, president of the AFSCME,
agreed that unions are far cleaner. "When you go
back to the '50s and '60s and Bobby Kennedy chasing after
Hoffa and all those kinds of things -- the longshoremen,
the laborers= -- you had corruption that went to the very
core of so many of those unions," McEntee said.
"I think all that has changed."
McEntee has gotten serious about corruption
by taking direct control of District Council 37 in
New York and by naming a trustee to run the union and to
Some labor leaders play down today's seeming
surge in corruption, insisting that it is merely the
exposure of wrongdoing that has gone on for years and
has been brought to light by union reformers or government officials on cleaning up unions.
"Reform sometimes works like a washing
machine -- it agitates the dirt to the top," John
J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO's president, said in a recent telephone interview.
Sweeney took pains to assert that the current
wave of corruption did not suddenly happen during
his three years at labor's helm, noting that much of
the corruption was uncovered recently, after
"I really think there is much less corruption
in unions than in past years," Sweeney said. "I
firmly believe there's no more wrongdoing in unions than
there is in business. But the bottom line is there is
no room in the labor movement for corruption or wrongdoing
of any kind."
There are plenty of suggestions about how
to clean up unions. Boehm called for legislation requiring
unions to have independent annual audits and to disclose
more financial information to members.
Richard Gilberg, a former general counsel
to the Teamsters, said not enough unions had adopted
serious anticorruption measures. Noting that many
defense contractors hired compliance officers after
several companies were found guilty of bribery, he
said few unions had established similar programs to
"You've got organizations with tens
of millions, hundreds of millions in assets, and there
ought to be procedures in place to make sure it is handled properly," Gilberg said.
"If labor figures out a strategy to hire competent people to take a look at where the money is going, and do things like develop new bylaws or set up an in-house ethical practices committee, that would be a big help," he said. "There are a lot of things unions can do if they think more than a week or a month ahead."