By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
DC 37 is not just another city union. Over the last half century it has grown from a few hundred blue-collar workers protesting bad treatment at the hands of parks czar Robert Moses into the richest, largest, and most politically generous union in New York. The Council's 120,000 dues payers come from 56 constituent locals, which take in $88 million a year from members.
In 1993, DC 37 topped the list of all state political contributors, outspending even the Rent Stabilization Association, the landlord lobby. Every incumbent councilmember got a check. In 1996, when Hill signaled his support for incumbent mayor Rudolph Giuliani, it helped freeze the field for potential Democratic challengers, leading to last year's one-sided race.
But besides anchoring both conservative and liberal political establishments, the District Council provides the foundation of New York City's labor stability. DC 37 hasn't been on strike since the Lindsay administration. For nearly a quarter century, DC 37's consistent acceptance of austerity--from the '75 fiscal crisis to the present Giuliani era of cuts amid billion-dollar budget surpluses--has determined the horizon for the entire public-sector union movement.
Now this well-upholstered engine of stability is being rocked from side to side by the members below. For the first time in the District Council's 54-year history, "opposition" means more than palace intrigue. Passionate, highly partisan, even violent contests have emerged in a once politically moribund institution where elections were often only formalities.
The reformers are riding a wave of anger and revulsion against the Hill machine that's welled up from the dingy motor pools, rat-infested parks, and crumbling city offices where DC 37's generally low-paid members work. In the last couple of years, lousy contracts, forced buyouts, and the threat of replacement by the Work Experience Program workfare workers led to widespread member dissatisfaction. Reformers arose to fight the Hill machine. The machine fought back, say dissidents, as machines often do--with threats and rough stuff. And when that didn't work, by election rigging and ballot theft. When the reformers finally won anyhow, they started uncovering what one leading dissident calls "DC 37's culture of corruption."
In the last six months, three reform presidents have ousted Hill allies:
Rosenthal and Commer have now joined with Ray Markey, president of the New York Public Library Local 1930, who's been the lone voice of dissidence in DC 37 for two decades. They've formed an organization called the Coalition for Real Change (CRC). Their meetings are open to ordinary DC 37 members, whom they actually encourage to attend.
The CRC aims at something more than just another coup designed to transform outsiders into insiders. Under their common program, human suffrage would finally come to the Council. Ordinary members could for the first time vote directly for District Council executive board members. The leaders would be compelled to tell the members what they are doing with their money. (Under a loophole for public employee unions in the Landrum-Griffin Act, most DC 37 locals don't have to file public financial reports.) Concludes Tom Dawes, who helped topple the corrupt Doris Turner 1199 machine that brought in Dennis Rivera, and who is now an unpaid organizer with the CRC, "It would be a real union revolution."