By Steve Weinstein
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In the months after law enforcement agents raided his state assembly and union offices, Brian McLaughlin, wary of surveillance, started conducting his business at the Hollywood Coffee Shop, a soup and sandwich place at 16th Street and Sixth Avenue, around the corner from the New York City Central Labor Council. He would sit at a table against the windows, over-looking the subway entrance, facing the door where he could see who was coming and going.There, he told those who asked that he really had no clear idea why a battery of agents from the FBI, the federal labor-racketeering office, and city investigations department had burst into his offices on
March 2 and seized scores of boxes of records. He sat there in his dark labor statesman's suit, six foot three, built like a tree trunk, shaking his big handsome head of black hair laced with gray from side to side. "That's what my lawyer's trying to find out," he said.
People wanted to believe him. New York is considered a union town, and over the 10 years he headed the 1.5 million- member labor council, Brian McLaughlin, more than anyone else, was the face of labor. He rarely missed a rally or a picket line, and you couldn't fail to spot him as he stood literally head and shoulders above the crowd, always with a determined set to his jaw. He was there for the transit workers at their huge thundering demonstrations; for the firefighters, cops, and teachers when City Hall balked at new contracts; and for labor newcomers like the graduate school students trying to win union protections. He talked about immigrants and the rough deal they got, and how unions were reversing years of policy to now embrace them. He fought Wal-Mart over the way it treated its workers and helped block the giant chain from opening in the city. He had his troops organize the annual Labor Day parade (the weekend after Labor Day to avoid vacation conflicts), and every elected official in town, and those seeking to become one, had to be there, to be seen marching with big Brian McLaughlin, the face of labor.
Which is why many were inclined to give him the benefit of their many doubts when federal agents appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, at his doorstep. New York's unions have been plagued for generations by thieves who used their official positions to wrongful advantage. But most had the decency to keep to the shadows, to grow fat and prosperous in the dark like plump mushrooms. Who ever heard of a thief who clamored for the limelight? What burglar made sure his face was in every photo, his name in every article, the more times the better?
The minute he became president of the labor council in 1995, McLaughlin put a public relations adviser on the payroll. He went through half a dozen of them over the years, his instructions always the same: Get me coverage. He was an easy media sell: good-looking, charming, able to give a good speech. The resulting profiles were so flattering that he began discussing his political future with consultants. Why not mayor? he asked. He was a moderate blue-collar Democrat, a veteran assemblyman from Queens, a natural heir to those who had crossed party lines to vote for Rudy Giuliani, the Republican mayor McLaughlin had endorsed for re-election. He let the notion float in the press and began raising a campaign war chest.
At St. Patrick's Cathedral in September 1999, he sat upright and earnest in a front pew as his dying friend, Cardinal John O'Connor, proud son of a union painter, praised him during a Sunday homily for bringing energy and integrity to labor. "There is a wonderful new breath in the movement," said O'Connor, eager to reaffirm the dignity he believed unions offered to his flock. McLaughlin nodded in solemn agreement.
That fall, when scandal engulfed leaders of the huge municipal workers' union, District Council 37, McLaughlin rushed to repair the damage. He spent several Sundays touring neighborhood churches, where he climbed to the pulpits, offering an apology and a plea for forgiveness of the wayward unions. "Neither the church nor the unions are perfect institutions," he said. "Sinners belong in church, but workers belong in labor unions if they want a better future."
That was Brian McLaughlin for you: ever sensitive to the PR demands of the moment, always aiming his pitch at the soft spot held in the hearts of most New Yorkers for labor, always standing tall for working men and women, so tall that you always knew he was there.
And that's why the betrayal by Brian McLaughlin of the labor movementa movement that has suffered a thousand such betrayals by lesser leaderscuts so deep. Despite his claims of innocence, McLaughlin has few believers these days. He faces 50 years in prison if convicted, and a trial (for which no date has been set) would be likely to smear the city's unions even more. "I'm as angry as angry can be," seethed veteran union organizer Kevin Lynch last month, echoing the rage of scores of colleagues. "It's going to take us years to dig out from this one."