DC 37 Crashes

While the union leadership sinks, one reformer tries to stay afloat.

Many of the charges against Commer range "from the laughable to the deplorable," said Richard Steier, a veteran labor reporter. But the only credible charge was that he advocated pulling the local out of AFSCME, which Commer denies.

"I've been trying to find out what we get for the $12 million we give to DC 37 every year," explained Commer sitting at the dining room table of his Staten Island home, where copies of the local's documents are spread out. "One of the things we get is PELS [Professional Employee Legal Services]. The members are supposed to get help with divorces, mortgage closings, wills. But look what's happened over the years," said Commer, pointing to an old investigative report. "The fund starts out in 1981 spending $100,000. Now it's spending over half a million at the same time the caseload handled by the lawyers is falling." Commer charges that PELS attorneys are running a private business on union premises. "It's theft of services. The trustees either knew this was going on or looked the other way.

"I asked Stanley Hill why he signed off on these expenditures every year," said Commer. "He said it was a matter of local autonomy."

Ousted Local 375 president Roy Commer
Michael Kenneth Lopez
Ousted Local 375 president Roy Commer

According to Commer, one of the first things he did after taking office was to alert City Comptroller Alan Hevesi to the PELS fund irregularities. The comptroller's office acknowledges that Commer reported the fund's problems. "We're taking his allegations seriously,' said David Neustadt, the comptroller's spokesperson. "We're including Local 375's legal services fund in the audit."

But what of the charges that Commer tried to turn control of the fund over to Stuart Salles, a lawyer who the board says gave Commer free office space and free legal advice?

"My plan," said Commer, "was to bring in an outside attorney who had experience running these funds. Salles said he could save the local a couple of hundred thousand a year." Commer displayed canceled checks from Salles to prove he didn't get something for nothing.

What insured Coomer's downfall was the struggle over union release time. "These guys were promised by Commer that if the slate won, they would get release time," said a former Local 375 staffer of the controversial practice in which union officials receive their city salary for carrying out union work. "Commer went back on his pledge." That bitterness was expressed in Uma Kutwal's first act as president once he replaced Commer—he moved to take away Commer's release time. Mike Gimbel, political action chair, was especially angry. He had gotten only three days a week release time instead of five. And he became Roy's bitterest enemy.

mike gimbel brings rare credentials to the labor movement. He's a nationally recognized expert on baseball statistics. Moreover, in the early '90s, his large collection of reptiles, including alligators and boa constrictors, attracted widespread media and law enforcement attention. He has also been a tireless proponent of Workers' World, a Leninist sect, which oddly enough has a contract with DC 37 to work on city workfare issues.

Some Local 375 members interviewed by the Voice say it is Gimbel who is really running the opposition. "Gowda and Kutwal are just his puppets. You can actually see him give them hand signals," said Bob Parkin, a Local 375 activist who attended a tumultuous meeting on November 12 that included about 30 members. At the meeting, Kutwal and Gowda tried to explain their actions and justify using member dues to pay for their legal fees in fighting Commer. "Mostly, Gimbel stayed in the background," observed Parkin. "But he'd put his hand to his throat when he wanted Kutwal to shut up. And Kutwal would obey." Asked if he was being controlled by Gimbel, Kutwal replied, "Mike Gimbel is a fine union person who would never do anything to harm the cause of labor or the union." Gimbel refused to talk to the Voice.

Tom Dawes says it was Gimbel who was most vocal in insisting that he be fired for distributing the Times article. "But it's okay for him to distribute Workers' World," said Dawes. "He accused me of red-baiting." Actually, Dawes says he tried to update Workers' World leader Larry Holmes on the progress of CRC. But according to Dawes, Holmes didn't seem very enthusiastic about reforming DC 37. "Holmes told me Stanley Hill was funding three positions in his group Workfairness." (Holmes did not return Voice calls.)

"I also tried to get Mike involved in the reform movement," said Dawes. "But he wouldn't join the CRC. He said the workers weren't ready for reform."

Now Gimbel & Company are on top of Local 375. But without Stanley Hill backing them, they would never be running the show. In a reptilian metaphor Gimbel might appreciate, he and his triumvirate are like the birds that perch on the jaws of the alligator and feed on the food that's stuck between its teeth. Still, with Morgenthau and the national media putting pressure on AFSCME, the trio's tenure is highly precarious. After all, they shoot crocodiles, don't they?

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