The Big Fix

Corruption In DC 37, Part Two: How the Union's Bosses Rule By Fraud and Intimidation

"We have Deborah on tape at a meeting of the members," says Little. "Listen to her tone; it was menacing. Then she came over to me. She had these long nails. And she went like this with her hand in my face. I'll never forget it." "We can't help you," was the response to repeated attempts by the Voice to contact Jennings at Local 957 headquarters. "I'm not at liberty to discuss the matter," said president Walthene Primus. It is a federal offense for a union official to threaten a member.

In DC 37's blue-collar division, intimidation has been even more common and more serious. Former Local 983 member Louis Hernandez, now the assistant commissioner of the Department of Transportation, recalls that in 1988, Local 983 president Frank Morelli threatened to have him killed if he didn't give up his electoral challenge. "I had a young daughter at the time," recalls Hernandez. "I feared for my family." After multiple threats, he says, " I actually started carrying a weapon for self-defense. I kept it in my car." The threats played a role in his decision to give up DC 37 politics and go into management. Morelli died in 1994.

Conrad Hunter was another blue-collar division worker who wanted to change DC 37. He worked as a street repairer in Local 983. "There was something wrong. You could never get through to call a rep," Hunter says. "The grievances just piled up, and then they put them in the garbage."

illustration: David Hollenback

Hunter decided to run for shop steward. "I wanted to find out how to get on the ballot." After days of calling, he was finally able to get President Morelli on the phone. "Who the fuck are you? What do you mean you're running for shop steward? I'll have your fuckin' legs broken," Hunter recalls Morelli yelling at him. "I'll tell you I was scared. I filed a police report. I didn't get no sleep. Every dark alley, I passed I wondered who was there."

Why have voter fraud and candidate intimidation been so prominent in DC 37? Simply because the union is a classic kleptocracy, like Tammany Hall. Political machines resort to crooked elections whenever their survival is threatened. What's at stake is never the interests of constituents. What the kleptocrats are defending is their control of the apparatus that provides them with patronage jobs, perks, stipends, credit cards, travel to exotic places, plus the illicit income from the corrupt schemes that tend to flourish under patronage regimes.

A classic study of the corrupting influence of patronage is provided by the double career of Lifeguard Supervisors union president Peter Stein. Although most of the year he has only a handful of members, Stein gets a full five-days-a-week city paycheck. That's his third check, because he also works full-time for the city as a teacher. And he's paid as a grievance representative by DC 37.

Stein also wears two labor hats: besides being the president of DC 37's Local 508, he's a delegate in the United Federation of Teachers. In that union, where dissent from the leadership is actually allowed, Stein voted against the '95 citywide contract. But in DC 37, he voted for it. Stein did not return phone calls from the Voice.

Besides patronage as an explanation for vote fraud, there are simple business reasons for the practice to persist. Elections are sand in the gears of trade union commerce: voting interferes with buying and selling of offices— as well as the sale of members from one local to another.

If, as Mark Rosenthal alleges, Joe DeCanio fixed Robert Taylor's executive board election in 1995, why did he do it? DeCanio made a deal with Taylor that if he performed his steamer routine, he'd get a payoff. Two hundred highway workers would go from Taylor's union to DeCanio's. Rosenthal claims DeCanio produced the fake ballots, but Taylor didn't deliver the workers. DeCanio had more luck with Rudolph Giuliani. After DeCanio made a $7500 contribution to Giuliani's 1997 mayoral campaign, the city transferred the workers into DeCanio's union.

A sale also preempted a vote in the blue- collar division, when Tommy DiNardo, head of the Boiler Room Workers Local 1795, decided to retire in 1993. He sold the local to Morelli, who agreed to pay DiNardo $1200 a month in consultant fees. Officially, the two locals merged, but the 983 members, who had to pay for the merger out of their dues, never got to vote on it.

"That's the way it's worked in blue-collar," says a DC 37 insider. "Each local is a business. When the top guy retires, he sells it to the next guy. The new president signs a legal agreement to hire the departing president as a consultant. That way he's always getting his piece."

But buying and selling union posts is incompatible with holding democratic elections. One or the other practice has to go, and in AFSCME, it's corruption that's triumphed.

"The first time, in 1992," says Ed Bennett, who was twice victimized by DeCanio's Coney Island count,"I thought it would be corrected [by the AFSCME judicial panel] in Washington." His appeal was rejected by the panel, even though he had documented what would become a familiar routine: control of the mailbox by the incumbent, the bogus election committee, the broken seal on the ballot box. Bennett's attorney even got an admission from the incumbents that they took the ballot box home with them.

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