The Storm at DC 37

If Stanley Hill, the executive director of New York's District Council 37, still feels jet-lagged, it would be understandable. Hill's been back for a week from the 33rd annual convention of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees held at the Sheraton Waikiki. But he returned to bad news. Here in New York, DC 37 is currently being probed by no less than four separate sets of investigators, including Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau. And just last week, one of Hill's executive board members was expelled from his own union on charges of having run up more than $400,000 in "unauthorized expenditures."

DC 37 is not just another city union. Over the last half century it has grown from a few hundred blue-collar workers protesting bad treatment at the hands of parks czar Robert Moses into the richest, largest, and most politically generous union in New York. The Council's 120,000 dues payers come from 56 constituent locals, which take in $88 million a year from members.

In 1993, DC 37 topped the list of all state political contributors, outspending even the Rent Stabilization Association, the landlord lobby. Every incumbent councilmember got a check. In 1996, when Hill signaled his support for incumbent mayor Rudolph Giuliani, it helped freeze the field for potential Democratic challengers, leading to last year's one-sided race.

But besides anchoring both conservative and liberal political establishments, the District Council provides the foundation of New York City's labor stability. DC 37 hasn't been on strike since the Lindsay administration. For nearly a quarter century, DC 37's consistent acceptance of austerity--from the '75 fiscal crisis to the present Giuliani era of cuts amid billion-dollar budget surpluses--has determined the horizon for the entire public-sector union movement.

Now this well-upholstered engine of stability is being rocked from side to side by the members below. For the first time in the District Council's 54-year history, "opposition" means more than palace intrigue. Passionate, highly partisan, even violent contests have emerged in a once politically moribund institution where elections were often only formalities.

The reformers are riding a wave of anger and revulsion against the Hill machine that's welled up from the dingy motor pools, rat-infested parks, and crumbling city offices where DC 37's generally low-paid members work. In the last couple of years, lousy contracts, forced buyouts, and the threat of replacement by the Work Experience Program workfare workers led to widespread member dissatisfaction. Reformers arose to fight the Hill machine. The machine fought back, say dissidents, as machines often do--with threats and rough stuff. And when that didn't work, by election rigging and ballot theft. When the reformers finally won anyhow, they started uncovering what one leading dissident calls "DC 37's culture of corruption."

In the last six months, three reform presidents have ousted Hill allies:

  • Mark Rosenthal toppled DC 37 vice president Robert Taylor for the presidency of the 2300-member Motor Vehicles Local 983, which is predominantly African American and Latino. In Rosenthal's first effort against Taylor, who is African American, he received an offer of a vice presidency from a member of the white inner circle that actually ran the local--on condition that he quit the race. In the second, Taylor managed to get only 33 votes. "Check Ripley's Believe It or Not," suggests Rosenthal, "but I think that's a record low for an incumbent."

  • Roy Commer, leading a new multiethnic coalition of South Asians and Haitians, finally beat 17-year incumbent Lou Albano for the presidency of the 6800-member Civil Services Technical Guild Local 375, after an initial election that featured the disappearance of ballots from a locked room in a DC 37 security office. Albano continues to serve as a DC 37 vice president at $43,000 a year.

  • In the 700-member Metropolitan Museum Local 1503, Bob Schirmer, who lost an election in 1994, came back this year with the help of the Association for Union Democracy to win by a 3-1 margin. Schirmer, who now says he "has a foot in both [reform and Hill] camps," nonetheless won with a reform platform. One of his leaflets contained these heretical but increasingly popular sentiments: "A labor union is supposed to serve the members it represents. The members are the sole reason for its existence."

    Rosenthal and Commer have now joined with Ray Markey, president of the New York Public Library Local 1930, who's been the lone voice of dissidence in DC 37 for two decades. They've formed an organization called the Coalition for Real Change (CRC). Their meetings are open to ordinary DC 37 members, whom they actually encourage to attend.

    The CRC aims at something more than just another coup designed to transform outsiders into insiders. Under their common program, human suffrage would finally come to the Council. Ordinary members could for the first time vote directly for District Council executive board members. The leaders would be compelled to tell the members what they are doing with their money. (Under a loophole for public employee unions in the Landrum-Griffin Act, most DC 37 locals don't have to file public financial reports.) Concludes Tom Dawes, who helped topple the corrupt Doris Turner 1199 machine that brought in Dennis Rivera, and who is now an unpaid organizer with the CRC, "It would be a real union revolution."  

    Reversal of Fortune

    Last Monday, in an unprecedented action, the ex-president of Local 983, Robert Taylor, was expelled from the union by the local's newly elected executive board. The action was the culmination of a union trial in which the new board ordered Taylor--who's also a member of DC 37's executive board--to pay back $400,000 in unauthorized expenditures. Taylor didn't appear at his trial.

    "We did something that's never been done before in DC 37," said newly elected president Mark Rosenthal. "No action like this has ever been taken against a sitting member of DC 37's executive board. We did it to show the membership that the constitution can work. That the members can bring a president to justice. And to send a message to other presidents in this union that the members won't tolerate this shit."Taylor couldn't be reached for comment.

    Mark Rosenthal is a short man who wears suits over his heavyset frame and sits behind a large desk in the office immediately next to Stanley Hill's. People from all over the building come in to shake the hand of DC 37's principal dissident, give him information, and draw inspiration from his up-from-the-ranks triumph. Asked what he's going to do for the members, Rosenthal hits the table. "We're not 'members' of this union," he says. " 'Members' are just people who pay dues. We're the workers. We do the work. We are the union. We are sick of the way Local 983 has been run. And now we're taking over."

    Only three months ago, though, Rosenthal was cleaning parks in the Bronx, where he'd worked since 1971. In October 1994, Rosenthal decided to bring his concerns--which included lack of step pay, lack of advancement, and worries about being replaced by a WEP worker--to a 983 union meeting. The reply he got at the sparsely attended affair was, "You're lucky to have a job." When he returned to the Bronx, he told his fellow workers, "I've got to get someone to run for president." They suggested he run himself.

    In January 1995, Rosenthal put out his first flyer. By the end of the year, he was receiving anonymous death threats. "At the '95 Christmas party," Rosenthal says, "I'm walking over to the food line. There are guys making gestures and threats. 'Don't you know who we are?' one says. 'We're from Bensonhurst. I could have your legs broken.'"

    Three years later, Rosenthal is still standing. Meanwhile, Taylor's trial attracted a cross-section of 983 members. Two of them, disagreeing on Rosenthal's present course, expressed the two main possibilities for the insurgency's future. "I love Mark," said a computer operator. "But I didn't vote for him for president. I knew he'd move too fast. Mark should be mending fences with Stanley, not knocking them down. Our local is out of money. Stanley could help us." His companion from the car pound replied with a snort, "You think Stanley's going to be here forever?"

    The Education of a Dissident

    For three years, Tom Dawes worked for the 6000-member Local 375 technical guild as a grievance rep. According to Dawes, president Lou Albano turned to him after an election scandal broke out following the long-serving president's attempt to win a sixth term this winter. Around 5 a.m. on November 25, 1997, Local 375 election committee members finished their unofficial count in that election, and the results showed Roy Commer beating Albano about 1000 votes to 900. Albano's executive board slate, on the other hand, appeared to have won, but a third of the ballots for those remained to be counted. The committee, meeting in the Security Room of DC 37, decided to get some sleep and then come back and count the remaining votes.

    In the end, they didn't return for two weeks, by which time the ballots had disappeared from the locked room. "I really believed that it was the opposition that had taken the ballots," recalls Dawes. "I argued we should take the offensive. Identify the election fixers." So firm was Dawes's belief in the integrity of the Albano team that he urged the posting of a $10,000 reward for information leading to the identification of the ballot thieves.

    But, says Dawes, "as I began to interview the members of Lou's team, I began to have doubts." Steve Beck was the union's public relations chair. Dawes says he spoke with Beck on December 24. "I laid out my suspicions that this theft was an inside operation," says Dawes. "I looked Steve square in the eye and asked him if he agreed. He looked straight back at me and said: 'I agree.'" Beck denies the conversation ever took place.  

    Dawes says he also spoke with Local 375 first vice president Brad Smith. "Yesterday," Dawes wrote in a memo to Albano, "I outlined the 'inside job' scenario to Brad Smith. He reacted very calmly... But the important thing is that the Local's second in command did not explicitly reject that the theft was an 'inside job.' "Smith did not return Voice calls.

    Dawes advised Albano to call in his team. "Give them the third degree. Have an attorney present with a tape recorder. You can crack this case in a day." But Albano did not respond by calling for a meeting of his "team." Instead, he called for Dawes's removal from the building. Smith demanded that Dawes get a psychiatric evaluation before returning to his job.

    Eventually, the election was rerun in March. And this time, Commer widened his margin over Albano, and his new coalition of Haitians and South Indians gained a majority of the executive board. Commer wonders why neither AFSCME nor DC 37 has investigated the ballot theft.

    On his purported need for psychiatric care, Dawes offers this proposal: "I'll go. But only if it's group therapy--and only if Stanley Hill agrees to participate." Actually, Dawes eventually did go to an Upper West Side shrink who wrote that he could find "no evidence of psychosis." Dawes was pronounced "socially appropriate. Competent to do his job."

    The Melting of a Militant

    Over the last decade, as DC 37's executive director has added weight and white hair, his image as a labor leader has been tarnished by bad contracts, tacit acquiescence of the WEP program, high-priced junkets, endorsements for conservative Republicans, and a salary more than 50 percent higher than the mayor's. Today few could picture him as he was 30 years ago--a leader of the most principled, militant public sector insurgency in the city's modern history.

    Stanley Hill was a primary leader of SSEU--the Social Service Employees' Union. In 1961, writes historian Mark Maier, "fed up with union leaders too well connected to City Hall, yet unable to challenge them within the structure of Local 371 [the union of Welfare Department workers, a component of DC 37], a group of activists decided... to create an entirely new union." The independent SSEU launched the most important public sector strike of the 1960s and won new rights for the entire public sector workforce.

    Indeed, after a bitter January 1965 strike, SSEU won the best contract in the city. Hill and others forced the city to negotiate over work rules and health benefits for the first time. But the whole point of SSEU's insurgency, says CUNY professor Stanley Aronowitz in his new book on American labor, From the Ashes of the Old, was to build a social movement of workers and clients. And the SSEU took huge and ultimately fatal risks to try to build "One Militant Union" that would represent social workers, clericals, and supervisors--uniting the interests of all those who worked at the Welfare Department with their African American and Latino clients.

    In 1967, however, SSEU was stymied when city labor leaders gagged at the union's effort to include clients' rights at the bargaining table. Victor Gotbaum was then executive director of DC 37. The last thing established labor leaders like Gotbaum wanted was to share power with a social movement. Public sector labor leaders' power comes from a push-me-pull-me-do-it-but-don't-say-I-told-you-to relationship with the mayor's office. Their exclusive bargaining relationship with the mayor would be heavily diluted by community participation.

    Gotbaum fought back against the dissident unionists. When SSEU struck, demanding clothes for welfare clients and protesting against "midnight raids," Gotbaum gave no support to the strikers. "DC 37's Public Employee Press viciously attacked the caseworker strike and Local 371 dutifully distributed a reprint of this union-busting crap," wrote Hill's faction in a 1968 leaflet, "possibly with a view to picking up a few scab recruits." The failure of the strike encouraged many within SSEU to seek reaffiliation with DC 37. Gotbaum did not return Voice calls.

    Stanley Hill led those who refused to go back to DC 37. His "Pro Independence Now" faction identified DC 37 leadership as the main obstacle to genuine public sector unionism in the city. "Their principal role has been to thwart militant trade unionism among City employees, and this is precisely the reason that the city has been so generous in giving DC 37 the rights to 'represent' one group of workers after another, even resorting to gimmicks like gerrymandering where necessary to further this strategy."  

    For the One Militant Unionists, SSEU and DC 37 represented two totally opposed forms of organization. "SSEU's militancy is kept alive by a vigorous internal life, involving the membership directly in decision-making, promoting a feeling of real solidarity and a will-to-win," argued the Hill forces. "But in DC 37 meetings are rare and dull and their leaders keep things stagnant because they know an active membership 'causes trouble.'"

    DC 37's role hasn't changed. Stanley Hill has merely adapted to it. After advocates of One Militant Union lost the battle to stay independent, Hill became president of Local 371. But he was soon defeated. Then, after losing that 1971 election, recalls Aronowitz, "Stanley became Gotbaum's major guy in clerical Local 1549. It was his job to be a troubleshooter for Victor. As Victor gave him more and more responsibility he got worse and worse. He tried to mirror Gotbaum."Stanley Hill did not return Voice calls.

    Stanley Hill's last luau?

    Can Stanley Hill survive till the end of his term, which expires in the year 2000? Only the D.A.'s office knows what its 10-month investigation has turned up. Arthur Z. Schwartz, a board member of the Association for Union Democracy, who is serving as Mark Rosenthal's pro bono attorney, says what many others believe: "I think Stanley Hill is personally honest."

    So, however, was mayor Ed Koch. But Koch presided over what may have been the most corrupt administration in New York history. Because he relied on their vote-producing ability to stay in power, he looked the other way while Democratic Party machine leaders like Donald Manes, Stanley Friedman, and Meade Esposito plundered city agencies.

    One thing seems clear: the Hill machine is not simply going to fall apart. It's wired together by loyalty to the boss. And for all of Hill's supposed "weakness," he's delivered powerfully for his loyal retainers. And not just trips to Waikiki beach. In the year since the "double-zero" contract--the pact with Giuliani that froze wages for DC 37 workers for two years--the number of six-figure union staffers rose from a dozen to 16. Hill makes $245,000. Hill's "executive assistant," Brenda White, makes $124,000. Mayor Giuliani makes $165,000. Governor Christie Whitman of New Jersey makes $85,000.

    Still, change could come from above, as unscathed machine leaders decide to throw in with CRC reformers before things get out of hand. Or perhaps change will come from below, as the results of the multiple investigations build a tsunami of member disgust and more Local leaders go down in elections. But reform is coming to 125 Barclay Street. After all, no luau lasts forever.

    This is the second of a two-part series.

    Read part one: Union for Sale.
    Read part two: The Storm at DC 37.

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