By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Almost always, it is a bad sign for organized labor when the mob is overheard discussing unions on government tapes. Grand juries, indictments usually follow.
But here was a veteran gangster praising one of New Yorks largest labor organizationsthe building service workers Local 32B-Jas an able representative of its members, which to the wiseguys way of thinking is a decidedly bad thing.
"Its a very good union for the men," Salvatore Aparo, 73, an alleged Genovese crime family captain known as "Sammy Meatballs," was grumbling. "Yknow what I mean? And, uh, usually whoever belongs to it dont want to give that up. The men get treated good, and they get good salaries." Aparos son Vincent, also a reputed Genovese member, chimed in with his own tribute to the unions prowess. "They got a good contract," said Vincent. "Anything that they give that up for, they gonna get less than what they already have."
Therein lay the crux of the problem confronting a trio of mobsters in the spring of 2000 as they drove to interview a potential client, a Brooklyn landlord named Abe Weider, who wanted their ideas about how to get Local 32B-J off his back. The union represented some 42 of Weiders workers at a sprawling and deteriorated 55-building apartment complex in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, called Vanderveer Estates. To Weider, the $17 an hour plus benefits he was obligated to pay his workers was way too high, particularly by the standard in Brooklyn, where maintenance workers can be had for as little as $8 an hour, providing the union doesnt spoil things.
"Thirty-two B-J is the biggest headache you can have," moaned Weider to the men in a back room at his Borough Park office. Making things worse, the landlord said, the union had become even more unreasonable since it was taken over by a team of dedicated, gung ho organizers dispatched by the parent union, Service Employees International. "I understand the new boss is not, uh, too much talkable," said Weider.
The search for a resolution to Weiders problem ended in federal court this summer when he was convicted at trial of labor bribery. The Aparos also were indicted for their role, and both men wound up pleading guilty to related charges. The convictions stemmed from the one foul-up none of the men had anticipated, which was that the third man in the car driving to Brooklyn that April day, a Genovese gangster on the associate level named Michael "Cookie" Durso, was recording everything they said on a tiny bug hidden in a costly Rolex watch. Durso, who became angry with his gangland pals after they tried to kill him over a loan dispute, has proved one of the governments most effective cooperators, helping to send a score of underworld figures to prison.
The prized informant also performed another significant public service: capturingon tapea virtual how-to guide for getting rid of legitimate unions, along with detailed descriptions of the high profitability of such exercises. These kinds of things are rarely spoken of openly and, by necessity, are never written down. But the Durso tapes, entered into evidence by the prosecution, provide a rare glimpse into the shady maneuvers that have plagued scores of New York union shops in recent years, as well as a snapshot of the crafty players who practice them. The tapes also reveal an enterprise in which the mob itself, the once fearsome Cosa Nostra, has been reduced to a decidedly secondary and supporting role to unscrupulous employers, lawyers, and well-paid consultants.
LESSON ONE in labor finessing was delivered by Weider himself as he sat with the wiseguys in his office. The landlords contract with Local 32B-J had expired and he had no intention of signing a new one, he told the men. He had already made one attempt to recruit a replacement labor organization to take over his shop, one that would be more reasonable in its demands, or, as Weider candidly described it, "You know, a sweetheart union." The sweetheart in question had been an independent Bensonhurst-based operation calling itself Local 187 of the Factory and Building Employees Union to which Weider had paid a whopping $350,000 to make his labor problems go away. It wasnt much of a union, Weider acknowledged, and that was just how he had wanted it. "Its a father and the son" outfit, he said, run "like from their pocket."
photo: Lauren Fleishman
Unfortunately that is exactly where Weiders $350,000 had gone as well. Instead of trying to replace Local 32B-J at Vanderveer, Joseph DOnofrio Sr., president, Local 187, had taken the money and gambled it away in Atlantic City, according to the federal Office of Labor Racketeering, which was probing DOnofrios local at the time along with New Jersey state police.
Weider told his visitors that he had lost his entire investment in that scheme with nothing to show for it. But he wasnt worried. "You cant aggravate yourself," he philosophized. "I never chase lost money." That notion puzzled his visitors, but it also indicated something more profound: There had to be a lot more cash where that came from. The gangsters listened avidly as Weider continued.