The Storm at DC 37

Rumblings of reform are finally breaking through at the city's powerful municipal union

If Stanley Hill, the executive director of New York's District Council 37, still feels jet-lagged, it would be understandable. Hill's been back for a week from the 33rd annual convention of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees held at the Sheraton Waikiki. But he returned to bad news. Here in New York, DC 37 is currently being probed by no less than four separate sets of investigators, including Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau. And just last week, one of Hill's executive board members was expelled from his own union on charges of having run up more than $400,000 in "unauthorized expenditures."

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:

  • Mark Rosenthal toppled DC 37 vice president Robert Taylor for the presidency of the 2300-member Motor Vehicles Local 983, which is predominantly African American and Latino. In Rosenthal's first effort against Taylor, who is African American, he received an offer of a vice presidency from a member of the white inner circle that actually ran the local--on condition that he quit the race. In the second, Taylor managed to get only 33 votes. "Check Ripley's Believe It or Not," suggests Rosenthal, "but I think that's a record low for an incumbent."

  • Roy Commer, leading a new multiethnic coalition of South Asians and Haitians, finally beat 17-year incumbent Lou Albano for the presidency of the 6800-member Civil Services Technical Guild Local 375, after an initial election that featured the disappearance of ballots from a locked room in a DC 37 security office. Albano continues to serve as a DC 37 vice president at $43,000 a year.

  • In the 700-member Metropolitan Museum Local 1503, Bob Schirmer, who lost an election in 1994, came back this year with the help of the Association for Union Democracy to win by a 3-1 margin. Schirmer, who now says he "has a foot in both [reform and Hill] camps," nonetheless won with a reform platform. One of his leaflets contained these heretical but increasingly popular sentiments: "A labor union is supposed to serve the members it represents. The members are the sole reason for its existence."

    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."

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