Loosening Mob's Grip On A Union

July 13, 1997


Contributing: Francine Knowles

When reputed mobster James DiForti was charged earlier this month with murdering a Chicago businessman, the one fact that shocked nobody was this:DiForti is an officer in the Laborers International Union.

The Laborers International is one of the most mobbed-up unions in the United States, according to the U.S. Justice Department. It is held in the grips of organized crime by means of ``force, violence and fear.''

So entrenched is the mob's influence in the union that when the Justice Department two years ago laid out its entire case in a 146-page draft complaint, the union barely peeped. Desperately seeking to avoid a federal takeover, the union asked only for time to reform, and promised to banish the wiseguys.

The Laborers International represents a wide range of largely low-skilled laborers, mostly in the construction field, including concrete pourers,bricklayer assistants, trash collectors and ditchdiggers. Some city Streets and Sanitation workers are in the Laborers union.

A major step toward reform is scheduled for Wednesday in the Loop, when the International begins two weeks of hearings on a proposal to place its Chicago District Council under trusteeship.

The outcome, many labor observers say, is a foregone conclusion. The International must and will place the Chicago council under trusteeship to demonstrate its commitment to reform.

The real question, experts say, is whether cracking down on the Chicago council truly is an act of reform or a gambit by the mob to placate federal investigators and retain their grip on the union.

``I like to think it's a start,'' said Tom Kirkpatrick, president of the Chicago Crime Commission. ``You go up the stairs. First you go after a couple of locals, then the district council and up from there. You squeeze it out of the toothpaste tube.''

If the International concludes a trusteeship is necessary, the Chicago council's four-man leadership would be dismissed and an appointed trustee would take over operations for at least 18 months. The trustee's immediate job would be to encourage more democracy in the union and open the financial books to the rank and file.

Organized crime has been linked to the Laborers International Union of North America since its founding in 1907.

``Big Jim'' Colisimo, a crime boss in Chicago in the days before Prohibition, helped establish the union by organizing the local street cleaners. Today, the International boasts about 450,000 dues-paying members,including about 14,000 in the Chicago council.

Joseph Moreschi, president of the International for four decades, was indicted in 1944 on charges of embezzling the union's money. Peter Fosco,who succeeded Moreschi, had ``ties to organized crime'' that date back to Al Capone, according to a 1982 Justice Department memo. And when Fosco died in 1975, his son Angelo took over in an election engineered by Anthony Accardo,the late Chicago mob boss.

``Angelo Fosco has followed in his father's footsteps. He is the tool of the crime syndicate,'' states the 1982 memo. ``Major decisions regarding Laborers' union contracts are made by organized crime leaders, not Angelo Fosco.''

The Laborers International was always secretive, famous then and now for a reluctance to engage in open political debate. Pressured by critics, the International in 1941 held a rare national convention. It would hold more conventions,officials said then, but a poll of the union's members showed they preferred not to.

The celebrated newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler discovered just why the union's members preferred no convention--they would be assessed $2 each for transportation costs.

When Angelo Fosco died in 1995, Arthur A. Coia assumed the presidency and,with the Feds bearing down, vowed to clean up the union. But Coia is by no means above reproach himself.

His father, Arthur E. Coia, as secretary-treasurer of the International, was a close associate of Raymond Patriarca, boss of the New England mob. In 1981, both Coias were indicted for allegedly taking kickbacks, but the case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out.

The Justice Department's 1995 draft complaint describes Coia as the latest union president ``to have been associated with, and controlled and influenced by, organized-crime figures.''

Indeed, Republican critics complain, were it not for Laborers' generous financial contributions to President Clinton and the Democrats, the Justice Department by now would have placed the union under trusteeship, as it did the Teamsters, and driven Coia from power.

From 1991 through 1996, the Laborers gave more than $3 million to the Democratic Party, which Clinton apparently appreciated. At a private meeting in the Oval Office in 1994, the president gave Coia one of his personal golf clubs, a nine-iron.

When the Laborers' International gathers at the Midland Hotel Wednesday, then, the surreal scene unfolding will be of a notoriously crooked national union grilling a notoriously crooked local affiliate, the Chicago council.

In another twist, the hearing officer will be Philadelphia attorney Peter F.Vaira, who is already on record as saying the Laborers union, including the Chicago council, is a ``captive'' of organized crime.

As head of the Justice Department's Chicago Strike Force in 1982, Vaira co-wrote the internal memo that spelled out the union's mob ties.

But Vaira said Friday that it is common practice for unions attempting to clean house to choose former judges and prosecutors as hearing officers to give the proceedings credibility.

In going after the Chicago council, the International goes after the larger family of organized crime in Chicago.

One of the Chicago council's four top officers, vice president John Matassa, reputedly is a powerful captain in the Chicago ``outfit,'' having moved up in rank after a slew of upper-echelon mob convictions in the 1980s.

A second officer, secretary-treasurer Joseph Lombardo Jr., carries the name of one of Chicago's most infamous mob bosses. Joseph Sr., released from prison five years ago, keeps a low profile in his old Grand Avenue neighborhood, but law enforcement agents suspect he remains in the game.

Among the other princes of the mob who stand to lose if the Chicago council is turned over to a trustee are Craig Kumerow, a Local 1001 field representative and Accardo's grandson; Michael Palermo, vice president of Local 1001 and an Accardo son-in-law, and Anthony Solano, director of the

Chicago councils' Training Center in suburban Carol Stream and son of mob captain Vincent Solano.

A trusteeship for the Chicago council, most labor experts appear to agree, is a welcome reform--but only if handled right.

Out of trusteeships have grown some of the ``most vital'' union locals in the country, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University.

But the trustee must rebuild the union ``from the bottom'' before moving on, she said, or ``the mob will come back.''

When organized crime grabs hold of a union, it squelches dissent, siphons off every possible dollar and leaves the average union Joe out in the cold.

Mobsters pay themselves excessive salaries.

Some schemes result in union members' paying inflated dues. Others destroy the reputation of the union, making legitimate businesses reluctant to offer jobs.

Still other schemes indirectly put the bite on the average consumer and taxpayer, who must pick up the tab for the higher price of building a road or building.

When the mob grabs hold of a union, the payroll is padded with wiseguys who do no work but need to show the Internal Revenue Service a legitimate source of income.

They extort kickbacks from businesses, usually by threatening physical harm.

They ignore union contract provisions, such as a strict adherence to overtime pay, in return for secret cash kickbacks.

They force legitimate businesses to hire mob associates as ghost employees.

They farm out lucrative union contracts at inflated prices to mob-owned businesses.

A few examples, all cited in the Justice Department's 1995 draft complaint:

In 1975, high-ranking officials of the Laborers International Union of North America used threats of assault to extort cash kickbacks from a company providing group life insurance. The kickbacks inflated the price of the insurance, forcing union members to pay higher dues.

In the mid-'70s, officers of a Chicago local of the Laborers union extorted kickbacks from a Near West Side dental clinic hired to serve union members.

In the early 1980s, the Columbo crime family in New York City routinely extorted money from construction employers, especially concrete contractors,by threatening work slowdowns and stoppages.

In the early 1980s, La Cosa Nostra commission in the New York area--a board of directors of all the New York crime families--established a ``Two Percent Club'' for concrete pouring contractors. On any construction job exceeding $2 million, the commission designated which contractor would be permitted to make the successful bid. The winning bidder paid the commission 2 percent.

In 1989, officers of a Laborers union local in Brooklyn spent pension funds to purchase six buildings at ``grossly inflated prices'' in a scheme to siphon off the money to themselves and their underworld associates.


à|à à|à à|à à|à à|à à|à à|à à|à à|à à|à

The executive officers of the Chicago District Council of the Laborers Union International of North America:

Bruno Caruso, president and business manager. Gross salary: $171,641.
Both his father, Frank ``Skid'' Caruso, and his brother, Frank Jr., are described by the U.S. Justice Department as formally initiated members of the Chicago mob. Bruno Caruso's predecessor as president was Ernest Kumerow, a son-in-law of the late Anthony Accardo, the Chicago mob's top boss. Caruso
also is paid $100,218 as president and business manager of Local 1001.

Joseph Lombardo Jr., secretary-treasurer. Gross salary: $155,314.
Lombardo is the son of Joseph ``Joey the Clown'' Lombardo, a convicted racketeer who once was--and still may be-- among two or three most powerful mob bosses in Chicago.

John Matassa Jr., vice president. Gross salary: $23,424.
Described by the Justice Department as ``an associate and suspected member of the Chicago La Cosa Nostra family.'' Matassa is a reputed North Side lieutenant of mob boss Joseph Andriacchi. Matassa also is paid $119,852 as president of Local 2.

Leo Caruso, sergeant at arms. Gross salary: $8,000.
Cousin of Bruno Caruso. Leo Caruso was named sergeant at arms two years after his cousin Frank Caruso--Bruno's brother--was dismissed from the job because he was a known mobster. Caruso also is paid in excess of $33,000 as president of Local 1006.

Return to

All original work Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.