Chasing the Rat


Some of the highest-paid union officials in America work not in marble palaces in Washington, D.C., but for a little-known labor organization based in a bland office building on Queens Boulevard.

Steven Elliott, president of the United Service Workers of America, made $425,000 last year. Union vice president Peter DeVito, including his pay from an affiliated local, made the same, less the cost of a six-pack: $424,993. Secretary-treasurer Edward Byrne pulled down $332,000.

All told, 16 officers and employees of the 30,000-member union earned more than $100,000 in 1999, including Elliott’s daughter, son-in-law, and brother-in-law.

Although no agency officially keeps count, experts say the size of the Service Workers’ leaders’ salaries puts them in the pantheon of high union earners, right behind ousted former janitors’ union chief Gus Bevona ($450,000). Elliott’s salary alone is more than double that of AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney, who makes $192,500.

All told, 16 officers and employees of the United Service Workers of America earned more than $100,000 in 1999, including the president’s daughter, son-in-law, and brother-in-law.

Elliott, 49, declined to be interviewed, but other Service Workers officials said there’s nothing wrong with such pay levels.

“We can afford them because we out-organize every other union,” said Mark Reader, the union’s $175,000-a-year director of organizing. “They believe in paying well for talent and performance.”

At the same time, however, the union’s aggressive organizing has sparked a rare and bitter interunion dispute in which the high salaries have become a prime exhibit.

The clash between the USWA and the city’s building-trade unions has been marked by the kind of angry demonstrations usually reserved for strikebreaking employers.

Building-trades officials have accused Elliott of signing contracts with employers that provide lower wages and benefits than those paid in other union agreements.

Moreover, they claim that Elliott’s organizers have trailed the giant inflatable rats that have been adopted as union protest mascots in the past few years, reaching out to sign contracts with the targeted employers.

“There is a pattern of [Elliott’s] showing up in midstream organizing drives,” said Mike Prohaska, eastern regional director of organizing for the Laborers union. “We will have spent time and resources, then one day the contractor says, ‘Don’t bother me anymore, I’m union now.’ ”

The building trades are used to such poaching from a handful of independent unions that often pop up in the midst of labor altercations. But the Service Workers represents a more potent threat, officials say, because it is under the umbrella of the Transportation Communications International Union (TCU), which, in turn, is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Last month the argument moved from union boardrooms to the streets when some 50 union members representing a half-dozen building trades brought a 12-foot-tall plastic rat to the Service Workers’ offices at 138-50 Queens Boulevard. There, they passed out flyers accusing Elliott of “lowering the high standards that are paid to skilled construction workers” and signing “deceptive sweetheart contracts.”

Cops responded in force to the protest, deflating and briefly seizing the rat. A police official explained that someone at the USWA had complained about the rally.

The battle has also produced a rare official resolution from the New York State AFL-CIO condemning the USWA. The resolution, passed in May, said that Local 339 of the USWA “has intensified its efforts to blatantly undermine organizing activities.” It called on AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to expel the local and to sanction its parent, the TCU.

Meeting in Chicago last week, the national building-trades department of the AFL-CIO upped the ante by passing its own resolution calling for Sweeney to suspend the TCU unless Elliott retreats.

Sweeney has weighed in on the matter once already, sending a letter in late March to the TCU stating that his office had received “serious and repeated complaints . . . [indicating] that the USWA’s conduct here goes beyond the limits of legitimate, aggressive competition.”

On the home front, the powerful New York City Central Labor Council has convened a committee to examine the charges. Officials there say a hearing on the matter is expected soon after Labor Day.

So far, however, USWA officials have shown no signs of backing off.

Union officials deny signing sweetheart deals or undermining anyone else’s organizing. What they’re doing, Service Workers officials insist, is old-fashioned organizing among workers badly in need of union protections.

“There is an opportunity to organize,” said Reader. “Jurisdictions don’t matter among the unorganized. This is a threat to the old system, to their hiring hall.”

Most of the complaints against the union, he said, have come from the New York District Council of Carpenters and Local 78 of the Laborers union, which represents asbestos-removal workers. Both unions have mounted stepped-up organizing campaigns in recent years following separate, court-ordered cleanups of mob influence.

“They are two of the most despicable unions in New York in terms of past history,” said Reader. “They have riled up the rest of the trades.”

The Service Workers, however, has its own troubled past.

“Given their long, sordid history, it is the pot calling the kettle black,” said Jeffrey Schaffler, a former federal labor-racketeering investigator. “To say [the USWA] is filling a gap where racketeering locals have failed is a sad overstatement.”

The union began as a small, independent operation called Amalgamated Local 355 that represented workers in the fuel-oil delivery business, as well as some manufacturers. A special commission on organized crime appointed by then president Reagan reported in 1986 that the local had “a long history of association with organized crime” and that founder Bernard Tolkow was a longtime associate of legendary labor racketeer John “Johnny Dio” DioGuardi.

Federal labor investigators say Tolkow’s true expertise lay in his ability to use low-cost medical-insurance plans to attract union members who received little else in the way of representation.

According to Elliott’s official biography, posted on the union’s web site, he went to work in the local in 1979 as its organizing director. That was the same year that Tolkow pled guilty to lying to federal officials about his interest in union-funded real estate ventures.

Under Elliott, a former auto-shop worker, the union added scores of auto dealerships and repair shops to its roster and, in 1987, formed the USWA with Elliott as president.

With 15,000 members, the independent union became an attractive merger target for other unions, and in 1993 it affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, then headed by Sweeney. That partnership ended in 1996. Elliott’s representatives say the parting was amicable; others say the SEIU became disenchanted with its partner.

Last year the USWA affiliated with the TCU, a small international made up largely of railroad locals with declining memberships. The marriage was widely viewed among labor officials as one of convenience: The Service Workers brought 30,000 dues-paying members to the 70,000-member TCU; the TCU gave the Service Workers its vital official AFL-CIO status.

The union was also given wide latitude to expand. In a letter to members announcing the affilation, TCU president Robert Scardelletti stated that the “USWA will be able to organize without interference from the international union.”

So far, the international has backed up its controversial affiliate, but that support could wane if Sweeney threatens sanctions.

In the meantime, the Service Workers is gaining strong supporters on the other side of the bargaining table. A new employers’ association formed two months ago, the Association of Building Trades Contractors, has cited the Service Workers as “a strong and viable” alternative to the Laborers union.

Association cofounder Maureen Howard, an asbestos abatement contractor, said she signed an agreement with Local 339 of the USWA at her employees’ request, but said she welcomed the union because of what she termed “harassment” from the Laborers.

“I definitely prefer 339,” said Howard, who acknowledged that the union’s contracts cost her less than those offered by the Laborers union. “What I don’t need is that rat outside when I’m working in a high-profile building.”