By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The most blatantly mobbed-up union in the city—one that the great Mafia buster Rudy Giuliani somehow overlooked when he was running City Hall—is holding new elections next month. And while the vote will be decided by the 15,000 members of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, anyone whose child steps onto a city school bus has good reason to be interested in the race.
This is because it is now an undisputed fact that the Genovese crime family was allowed to run this union as a side business for more than 30 years while the city pretended it knew nothing about it. Giuliani roared that mob control of garbage haulers and fish wholesalers was an intolerable threat to public safety and the economy, demanding that every vendor be scrutinized and screened. But kids boarding school buses whose operators and drivers trembled under the Mafia's thumb? His people had nothing to say on the subject.
A measure of how bad things were was provided last year by former union president Salvatore Battaglia when he stood before a federal judge and admitted to shaking down bus operators for payoffs in return for letting them cheat his own members. This was part and parcel of how the union had always operated, another schemer admitted after his own indictment for the bus rackets. The son of Vito Genovese himself was a top official at one point. Battaglia did such a good job of running things that he was inducted as a sworn Genovese soldier. Even after taking his Mafia oath, Battaglia continued to trot up the steps of City Hall, where he sat with officials to discuss matters like the numbers of bus runs that the city's education department would order.
The rot in the city's school bus system emanated outward in waves. The same federal investigation that nabbed Battaglia and his allies has so far led to guilty pleas from three top supervisors in the city's Office of Pupil Transportation. The supervisors admitted to routinely taking bribes from bus operators over the past 15 years. They would tip bus companies when inspectors were on their way. They'd cut them a break on safety violations. And why wouldn't they? If the Genovese crime family is allowed to operate in open and flagrant control of the bus drivers' union, shouldn't they too be allowed to cut a few profitable corners?
Battaglia is away now, serving a 57-month prison term. But the core officials who helped him run the union for the past decade are now running for election in his stead. At the top of the ticket is a veteran union delegate named Michael Cordiello. He is a second-generation official, as his father was a top executive board member before him, working alongside a previous generation's mobsters.
Cordiello's running mate is Anthony Battaglia, one of Sal's sons. In their heyday, you couldn't walk into union headquarters on Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens without tripping over a Battaglia. The father pulled down $225,000 with expenses; Anthony held a $104,000-a-year post; Sal Battaglia Jr. was paid $55,000 to run the elevator and keep intruders out of the office. Last fall, Sal Jr. developed some aches and pains and went out on disability. His problems came into focus last month when he was arrested by federal agents investigating a Staten Island ring of peddlers of MDMA, better known as Ecstasy. "Beansy, where's my fucking stuff, Beansy?" the younger Battaglia was heard screaming at a fellow drug dealer on a wiretap.
Cordiello calls his slate "Advocates for Truth and Unity." This has not always been its approach to union business. Two years ago, when an independent counsel hired by the national parent union in Washington to investigate local affairs asked to interview them, Cordiello, along with Anthony Battaglia and other top members of their slate, all went mum, refusing to talk.
Normally, this alone is grounds for removal from office, but national union leaders declined to press the matter. The special counsel, Richard Mark, issued a report that minced no words: "Organized crime has infiltrated and controlled ATU Local 1181, and has used the local union to conduct criminal racketeering." He added that he might have learned a lot more if Cordiello and his associates hadn't clammed up.
Cordiello is still not talking. He ducked the Voice's messages all last week at his office. He also refused to talk to Richard Steier of The Chief, who has written numerous stories about the local.
The union's leaders in Washington steered clear of the notorious New York local and its frightening wiseguy ties as long as they could. They ignored an initial indictment in 2005 of top local officials along with their controller, the legendary Genovese capo Matthew "Matty the Horse" Ianniello. They only moved to place the local under trusteeship after Battaglia Sr. was re-arrested in November 2006 and forced from office by federal officials. After the takeover, several officers from the old regime were removed when names surfaced in the investigation. But Cordiello and most of the old crew were allowed to continue in their union jobs, apparently getting along fine with the trustees.
The loudest complaints about the abuses during Battaglia's reign have come from the rank-and-file group called Members for Change. The group has steadily agitated for tougher union action and sued to win early elections by secret mail ballot and under outside supervision. The national trustees said that elections were being planned anyway, but went along with an agreement to hold them next month. Ballots go out in two weeks and will be counted after the March 26 deadline.
School bus drivers and escorts are spread around the city at isolated terminals and yards, and the Cordiello slate and the Members for Change group have been campaigning there for weeks, as have other candidates vying in the election.
"We are trying to bring honesty back and get real representation," says John Bisbano, who is running at the top of the Members for Change ticket.
Bisbano, a driver for 15 years, remembers trying to argue a point with Battaglia Sr. at a meeting a few years back. "He says, 'You're out of order.' When I don't sit down, he sends over the sergeants at arms. They say, 'He wants you out—you gotta go.' Sal yells out, 'Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.' "
The ranks of the city's school bus workforce has increasingly filled with Haitians and other minorities in recent years. Battaglia managed to remain remarkably blind to this changeover, his executive board remaining totally white for years. Simon Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian and a driver for 21 years, is running for the number two slot on the executive committee with Bisbano. "These guys are not interested in reform. They don't see the need," he said of Cordiello's team. "But that's what we are all about."
Also seeking the local's top job on a separate slate is Tom Nero, a shop steward who once donned his own wire to expose Battaglia. "All these guys were put there by Sal Battaglia," he said of Cordiello's team. "That tells me where they're headed. If they win, it will be just the way it was." Which may be what many in the school bus industry are hoping.