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"Sal wouldn't even come to the yard to talk to us," recalled Vecchione angrily. "He sent the delegates. They said, 'Our hands are tied. Sal says there's nothing to be done.' "
The union president did issue a memo, however, chastising the members for criticizing the union. "Change always creates problems!" he wrote. When several dozen protesters picketed the union's headquarters, the task of explaining the union's position to a Daily News reporter on the scene fell to Straci. "A couple of workers have misread the collective bargaining agreement," Straci told the News' Donald Bertrand, who noted that an SUV kept circling the block as a man in the passenger seat snapped photos of the protesters.
Privately, Battaglia was livid. When the protesters held a meeting in the Bronx, Battaglia and Bernstein summoned a shop steward named Tommy Nero to the union office and ordered him to attend, so that they could find out who was behind the protests and bring them up on charges. Nero, however, was also angry at the union's default and tape-recorded his conversation.
"Take all the names. Make them see you standing there taking their fucking names," Battaglia was heard to say on the tape, later introduced in the court case. "You got a couple of ball breakers you want to bring with you? Bring them with you." The union president cautioned Nero not to "use your hands," but said he needed to "get the crux of the disease . . . get them all out of the fucking union."
As it happened, the courts dismissed the lawsuit, but not before the city's department of education agreed to tighten rules under which bus company owners are allowed to break up their firms. "It was a pretty obvious fast shuffle by the owner using and abusing the seniority system to get rid of people they didn't want," said Paul Shoemaker, an attorney who represented the dissidents. "The union was in bed with management."
The bus workers had many reasons to be suspicious about their union's shadowy relationship with their employers, in fact a few decades' worth. The mob's involvement in the school bus industry has long been one of the city's worst-kept secrets. Back in 1978, journalist and Goodfellas author Nicholas Pileggi detailed in a New York magazine series the unsavory characters who had snuck into the bus business. The scandal led city officials in 1979 to try and open up the bus routes to outside bidders. But that sparked a 13-week strike, one that drivers who were around at the time recall as being pushed by union officials hand in hand with the employers. Even a 1995 effort by mob-buster turned mayor Rudy Giuliani to smoke out the bad guys in the business led to a stalemate. While Giuliani helped drive the mob out of the private carting industry and the Fulton Fish Market, the school bus wiseguys endured.
One of them was Richard Logan, the owner of Jo Lo Bus Company, the firm targeted in the 2004 lawsuit. Logan, who died last year, was one of the most powerful players in the city's school bus industry. He was also considered by law enforcement officials as an organized crime associate, affiliated with John Gotti's Gambino clan. Logan's original Gambino handler was said to be a hulking hoodlum named Angelo Ruggiero who died while serving prison time for heroin trafficking. A 1982 FBI wiretap picked up Ruggiero telling Logan, "You're partners with Genie [Gotti brother Gene] and me." In 1989, a surveillance team of city detectives spotted Logan, Gene Gotti, and another Gambino soldier walking out of Local 1181's offices at the same time.
Tommy Nero remembers seeing Ruggiero swagger through Jo Lo's bus yards. As for Logan, Nero said, "he spent more time in the union's office than the delegates. I told him, 'You should get yourself a union jacket.' And he did."
As late as last year, Logan's companies were still playing games with their employees. A probe by Richard Condon, the school's special commissioner of investigation, found that Jo Lo was using uncertified matrons who had not received special emergency medical training from the department of education. Those matrons were being paid $30 a shift, less than half the starting union wage. Condon's investigators learned that Battaglia had been warned about the practice but had failed to act. Nero said he personally told the union chief. "He said, 'Don't worry about it. Leave it alone.' " Last year, the education department fined Jo Lo $100,000 for the scheme and banned it from further work.
But Logan wasn't the only bus company operator with powerful friends. At Pupil Transportation, a company owned by the late Walter Greene, who was long one of the largest providers of buses for the city's schools, the enforcer was Nicholas "Nicky Black" Grancio, a Colombo crime family capo later shot to death by mob rivals. "When you'd go in for disciplinary hearings, he'd be standing there," recalled Warren Zaugg, 63, a driver since 1978. "He wouldn't say anything until you got to impasse. Then he'd say, 'Here's the way it is.' And that was that." Zaugg said Grancio appeared to be the one in charge. "One time I saw him tell Walter Greene to sit down and shut up."