Union Jacked

How DC 37 became America's most indicted municipal union

Over 300 delegates from DC 37, America's biggest, richest, and most indicted municipal union, crowded into the basement of their 125 Barclay Street headquarters last Wednesday night to elect replacements for two fallen leaders: Stanley Hill and Al Diop. Hill stepped down last December as DC 37's $300,000-a-year executive director after a top aide confessed to rigging the 1995 contract-ratification vote. Diop, head of the 25,000-member clerical workers union, has been indicted— along with two other DC 37 veeps— for using the Barclay Street headquarters as a penthouse apartment and billing rent and maid service to the union. "We believe some of those expenses were for male prostitutes," Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau said when he announced the indictments.

It was a contest between Hill's heirs and his adversaries. The reformers were led by social-workers union president Charles Ensley; the regulars by DC 37 secretary Helen Greene, the highest-ranking Hill loyalist left unindicted. The outcome of Wednesday's election would reveal who really ran the union— and controlled its nearly $100 million budget. The winner would become a vice president of AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees)— and automatically become the favorite to fill Hill's job next year, when trustee Lee Saunders's term is supposed to expire.

The reformers were confident they had the votes, but by 11 p.m., Greene's followers were running through the halls ululating in triumph, past Ensley's supporters who sat in a windowless room in the building's sub-basement, griping about how they'd just been outmaneuvered. Only hours before the vote, the rules got changed.

The two locals with the most votes (and the most indictments) switched to "block voting," which meant that each delegate would cast the same ballot. So the delegates who supported Ensley couldn't express their choice. Greene beat Ensley easily, 59 to 40 percent, but take away the votes cast by the two power locals and Ensley would have won with 68 percent.

Clearly, Greene wasn't hurt with her core constituency by the corruption accusations that have been hurled against her. Critics want to know why she never released the vote totals of her local in the '95 citywide contract ratification vote. And her name was on a list of 10 DC 37 officials who'd run up $16,000 in questionable charges on American Express cards. "Who authorized the card?" a delegate demanded to know Wednesday night from the convention floor. Union sources say most of Greene's expenditures were local and district council related, but she was allowed by Saunders to pay back $6000 in personal charges. Greene reneged on a promised Voice interview. Pat Passantino, a DC 37 spokesperson, insists "every penny for all 10 officials— the entire kit and caboodle— went for union expenses."

Greene's record in the '95 ratification-vote scandal, her unwavering support for Hill, her cheerleading for Mayor Giuliani's reelection: all clash with the reform image Saunders has been trying to cultivate in the post-Hill era. But loyalty is as crucial to union bosses as dogma is to the church fathers. Besides, who else was there?

Of the 20 vice presidents who served last year on the ruling executive board, eight have been indicted. And five have actually died. There are homes for the aged with better excess morbidity rates than DC 37's executive board.

Ray Markey, dean of the DC 37 dissidents, summed it all up. "Tonight shows not just who has the power. It shows that to keep it, the new leaders resorted almost automatically to the same old undemocratic methods that corrupted DC 37 in the first place."

They can't prove it— because the election was held by secret ballot— but reformers are now convinced that, in the war against corruption, AFSCME sides with those who stayed loyal to the leaders who were marched off in handcuffs, not the ones who resisted them. Confiding to his supporters, Wednesday night, Ensley said, "I told [AFSCME aide] Elliot Seide, 'The buzz is you people fixed the election.' He denied it. But I wasn't born yesterday."

"Each side had a full and fair opportunity to present their case," said Chris Policano, DC 37's communications director. "The election was monitored by the American Arbitration Association. Observers from all candidates were present."

The institutions of DC 37 weren't engineered to be responsive to the wishes of the members. On the contrary, each constituent part— the local, the delegate assembly, the executive board, the benefit funds— has been designed to concentrate power, perks, and dues money at the top. And to keep accountability from ever reaching the elite.

It's a tradition that goes back— as Hill himself has often observed— to the Victor Gotbaum days, when the ballots in the social-workers union Local 371 were thrown down a staircase. Gotbaum, who ran the union from 1963 to 1988, prevented Hill, then a dissident, from getting reelected.

While patronage itself is not illegal, it's inherently corrupting. And the more the leaders resort to patronage, the more union politics is transformed into an inside game of deals with powerful outsiders: mayors who can help you get more patronage, top AFSCME officials who will ignore the members' protests, tough guys who are good at intimidating dissenters.

Consider how bats have evolved so they can live visionless lives in dark caves: they've developed exquisitely sensitive organs for hearing. In a similarly compensatory way, DC 37 has evolved over the last 50 years so members' voices have become almost inaudible. But their leaders have developed extreme receptivity to the voices of powerful outsiders.

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