Malice's Restaurant

What Rao's and a gangster-run school bus drivers' union have in common

Straci represented the union, sitting alongside the employer's attorney throughout the trial. Straci called as a witness union delegate Nick Maddalone, who was accused by Clergeau of ignoring his pleas for help. Maddalone testified that he regularly helped people like Clergeau, and that some "70 percent" of the members are minorities. When Clergeau's lawyer, Noah Kinigstein, cross-examined the witness, he pursued the matter. The trial transcript reads this way:

Q: I want to ask you a question about that. How many members are there on the executive board?

A: Thirteen.

illustration: Thomas Fluharty

Q: How many of them are black?

Mr. Straci: Objection.

The Court: Overruled.

The Witness (to the judge): Answer?

The Court: You may answer.

A: No, there's not.

Clergeau had been driving for eight years when he was fired after asking to be paid overtime for several hours he had spent waiting in line to have his bus inspected. Most workers don't even ask for overtime, Clergeau said, because it is widely known that most companies won't pay, and the union reps back them up.

Clergeau said that once he reached the top wage scale in the contract, supervisors began giving him a hard time. "You become a target for them, especially if you make the top pay rate," he said.

Even after his court victory, Clergeau was unable to find work for more than two years as a union bus driver. "Any company I went to they would kick me out. They would say they don't have work for me, even though they are always looking for drivers." Instead, he worked in the non-union end of the business, making half the wages he'd made in his old job. When he finally did land a spot in a union shop again, Local 1181 made him pay a new $300 initiation fee.

As he waited on a Bensonhurst street this month to take schoolchildren home, Jean-Baptiste reflected on the racial changes in the industry. "For me, the way I look at it, is that many years ago the school bus industry was mostly white," he said. "At that time, it was OK to have a board that was 100 percent like them. But for the past 20 years, the membership has changed. It is not the same anymore. I think it makes good sense to have a board that represents the entire workforce."

Jean-Baptiste and others say the separation between officials and members is even more dramatic at the raucous union meetings that are held at either its headquarters on Woodhaven Boulevard or a nearby school. When a member not in good graces with the leadership tries to speak from the floor, they say, the tumult begins. "You stand up to speak and their people start yelling, making noise so no one can hear what you are saying," said Clergeau.

Jonas Saint-Fleur, a driver at a Bronx company for 15 years, said the meetings appeared to be orchestrated to prevent members from following the union's business. "If you have common sense, you wouldn't go," he said. "In the back a bunch of people start screaming."

"It is a family business," said Jean-Baptiste. "A business going on with a bunch of friends, a clique. It is not open to outsiders."

In Sal Battaglia's case, it actually is a family business. Federal records show that his salary last year as president of Local 1181 was $194,100 and he received another $31,840 for expenses. In contrast, Transport Workers Union Local 100 president Roger Toussaint, whose membership is more than twice as large as Battaglia's, received $102,000 last year. Battaglia's son Anthony, an executive board member, made more than that, receiving $104,000 last year, although members say his major task appears to be guarding the entrance to the union offices and running its elevator. Another son, Salvatore Jr., was paid $54,650 by the benefit funds.

Battaglia's co-defendants in the racketeering case also do well: Bernstein last year was paid $156,000, plus $19,000 for expenses; Anne Chiarovano, Bernstein's friend who runs the union's funds, was paid $135,000.

Two years ago, rank-and-file members of Local 1181 waged another bitter court fight in which they sat on one side, with the union and employers on the other. In that case, more than 80 employees of a longtime school bus vendor called Jo Lo Bus Company sued the firm after they lost their seniority status when the owner split his bus routes into three smaller units. Those workers, many of whom had worked at the firm for decades, were forced to handle the longest and most difficult routes. They sued Battaglia and the union as well for letting the company get away with it.

The lead plaintiff in the case was a driver named John Vecchione. "After 30 years, I couldn't even pick the borough where I wanted to work," said Vecchione, who lives in Long Island and ended up working in the Bronx. "I lost all my seniority." Another driver, Maureen Henry, who had worked for the company for 28 years, saw her workday grow by three hours. "The employer gave us the shaft and the union let him," she said. Henry, Vecchione, and the workers who filed suit were convinced the owner's switch was a scheme to get as many senior drivers, who earn up to $979 a week, to quit so that the company could use newer employees making half as much. The same thing had already happened at two other major school bus vendors. The union had failed to intervene and it was believed that scores of older members simply quit.

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