Almost always, it is a bad sign for organized labor when the mob is overheard discussing unions on government tapes. Grand juries, indictments usually follow.
But here was a veteran gangster praising one of New York’s largest labor organizations—the building service workers Local 32B-J—as an able representative of its members, which to the wiseguy’s way of thinking is a decidedly bad thing.
“It’s a very good union for the men,” Salvatore Aparo, 73, an alleged Genovese crime family captain known as “Sammy Meatballs,” was grumbling. “Y’know what I mean? And, uh, usually whoever belongs to it don’t want to give that up. The men get treated good, and they get good salaries.” Aparo’s son Vincent, also a reputed Genovese member, chimed in with his own tribute to the union’s prowess. “They got a good contract,” said Vincent. “Anything that they give that up for, they gonna get less than what they already have.”
Therein lay the crux of the problem confronting a trio of mobsters in the spring of 2000 as they drove to interview a potential client, a Brooklyn landlord named Abe Weider, who wanted their ideas about how to get Local 32B-J off his back. The union represented some 42 of Weider’s workers at a sprawling and deteriorated 55-building apartment complex in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, called Vanderveer Estates. To Weider, the $17 an hour plus benefits he was obligated to pay his workers was way too high, particularly by the standard in Brooklyn, where maintenance workers can be had for as little as $8 an hour, providing the union doesn’t spoil things.
“Thirty-two B-J is the biggest headache you can have,” moaned Weider to the men in a back room at his Borough Park office. Making things worse, the landlord said, the union had become even more unreasonable since it was taken over by a team of dedicated, gung ho organizers dispatched by the parent union, Service Employees International. “I understand the new boss is not, uh, too much talkable,” said Weider.
The search for a resolution to Weider’s problem ended in federal court this summer when he was convicted at trial of labor bribery. The Aparos also were indicted for their role, and both men wound up pleading guilty to related charges. The convictions stemmed from the one foul-up none of the men had anticipated, which was that the third man in the car driving to Brooklyn that April day, a Genovese gangster on the associate level named Michael “Cookie” Durso, was recording everything they said on a tiny bug hidden in a costly Rolex watch. Durso, who became angry with his gangland pals after they tried to kill him over a loan dispute, has proved one of the government’s most effective cooperators, helping to send a score of underworld figures to prison.
The prized informant also performed another significant public service: capturing—on tape—a virtual how-to guide for getting rid of legitimate unions, along with detailed descriptions of the high profitability of such exercises. These kinds of things are rarely spoken of openly and, by necessity, are never written down. But the Durso tapes, entered into evidence by the prosecution, provide a rare glimpse into the shady maneuvers that have plagued scores of New York union shops in recent years, as well as a snapshot of the crafty players who practice them. The tapes also reveal an enterprise in which the mob itself, the once fearsome Cosa Nostra, has been reduced to a decidedly secondary and supporting role to unscrupulous employers, lawyers, and well-paid consultants.
LESSON ONE in labor finessing was delivered by Weider himself as he sat with the wiseguys in his office. The landlord’s contract with Local 32B-J had expired and he had no intention of signing a new one, he told the men. He had already made one attempt to recruit a replacement labor organization to take over his shop, one that would be more reasonable in its demands, or, as Weider candidly described it, “You know, a sweetheart union.” The sweetheart in question had been an independent Bensonhurst-based operation calling itself Local 187 of the Factory and Building Employees Union to which Weider had paid a whopping $350,000 to make his labor problems go away. It wasn’t much of a union, Weider acknowledged, and that was just how he had wanted it. “It’s a father and the son” outfit, he said, run “like from their pocket.”
photo: Lauren Fleishman
Unfortunately that is exactly where Weider’s $350,000 had gone as well. Instead of trying to replace Local 32B-J at Vanderveer, Joseph D’Onofrio Sr., president, Local 187, had taken the money and gambled it away in Atlantic City, according to the federal Office of Labor Racketeering, which was probing D’Onofrio’s local at the time along with New Jersey state police.
Weider told his visitors that he had lost his entire investment in that scheme with nothing to show for it. But he wasn’t worried. “You can’t aggravate yourself,” he philosophized. “I never chase lost money.” That notion puzzled his visitors, but it also indicated something more profound: There had to be a lot more cash where that came from. The gangsters listened avidly as Weider continued.
The failure of the D’Onofrio venture had left him in the position of having to go head-to-head with the union at the negotiating table, Weider explained. Plan B, he said, was to force the union into a long strike.
“So my only solution is now the legal solution, to negotiate in good faith and come to an impasse and then they’ll strike. And really, legally there is nothing they can do about that. If you get to an impasse, you get to an impasse,” he said.
There is of course little “good faith” being displayed by an employer who has already decided he wants to force his employees into the street. But the sincerity of such “good faith” bargaining efforts is always a key issue when complaints are lodged with the National Labor Relations Board. And unions have long complained that employers all too often make a pretense of honest bargaining, thus shielding themselves from penalties and prolonging labor disputes indefinitely.
Strikes can be messy affairs, however, and Weider wasn’t happy about the prospect of picket lines and other attendant strike-related problems outside his buildings. That’s where the knowledge and experience of the men visiting his office might come in handy, he suggested. Since an impasse at the bargaining table was inevitable, Weider said, maybe there was someone they could to talk to at Local 32B-J. “We would save legal fees, would save headaches, would save vandalism,” Weider said. “All we need is someone to explain them that, listen, it is gonna happen anyway. Come to sit peacefully by the table and make a full settlement.”
Did Sammy Meatballs and his friends maybe know someone reasonable like that?
As a matter of fact they did, or at least they knew someone who knew someone else. In any event, they assured Weider, they were pretty certain they’d be able to accommodate him. “We’re not gonna play no games with you,” said Sammy Meatballs, offering the kind of pledge that often means the exact opposite in gangland. “We’re gonna tell you exactly the way it stands.” The wiseguys departed, cackling amongst themselves about the potential bundle—as much as $600,000, they figured—to be earned from the deal. Back in the car, Sammy Aparo said, “We’ll whack up the six.” “Yeah, we’ll go three each,” said Vincent Aparo.
LESSON TWO in the art of labor union manipulation was offered two weeks later at a diner on the Upper East Side where Durso and the two Aparos gathered to discuss the Vanderveer matter with a wealthy and successful labor consultant from Westchester County named Glenn McCarthy.
The McCarthy family is widely known in labor circles. Jack McCarthy, Glenn’s dad, was considered the key union fixer for the Genovese mob dating back to the 1950s. Convicted four separate times on racketeering charges, the senior McCarthy was a star hostile witness in the mid 1960s before the U.S. Senate’s McClellan organized-crime hearings, where his ties to a score of corrupt unions were detailed.
Jack McCarthy died in 1990, but Glenn, along with his three brothers, followed him into the labor business.
At the diner, the three wiseguys ordered cheeseburgers, fries, and Diet Coke s. McCarthy settled on the onion soup and a club soda with a wedge of lemon. He then summed up the situation in basic terms. “You got a Hasidic guy under the arm,” said McCarthy, referring to Weider. “The Hasidic guy is getting his balls broke by 32B .”
McCarthy had several thoughts on the matter, beginning with a rant about how the new leadership of Local 32B-J was not to be trusted, at least not by those interested in making money off its members. The old head of the union, Gus Bevona, who was ousted in 1999 by the international for letting his membership slide by thousands while living like a pasha at their expense, had been someone with whom “you can go and have conversations,” said McCarthy. “Now you go and talk to them, you could just figure they are going to be wired , OK?
“Let me explain it to you,” he continued, warming to his argument. “You cannot talk to 32B; take them off the table, you can’t talk to them because they’re rats, okay? So nobody in America is going to go talk to them,” he said.
There was, however, another way to approach the situation, and it so happened that McCarthy was expert at this method and knew just the businessman to carry it out. That man was Michael Francis, he said, owner of a major maintenance firm in New Jersey called Planned Building Services, Inc. “He was the finance chairman for Christine Whitman,” said McCarthy, referring to the former New Jersey governor and current head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency . Francis, who was appointed head of the state’s Sports and Exposition Authority by Whitman, lost that post after he was hit in 1997 with state charges of using mob connections to extort building managers to use his company. Whitman dropped Francis like a stone, but the contractor was acquitted of the charges in February 2000, just a few months before McCarthy’s sitdown .
“He runs a fairly large maintenance, cleaning company,” McCarthy told his companions. “He does very well with the Hasidics. One of my guys has the union on his whole place. Usually what he does is when they want to throw 32B out, the people who own the buildings farm out the maintenance to him. He brings in his group which already has a union contract and 32B is now on the outside looking in. That’s normally the way it is accomplished.”
Moreover, there was a great deal of money to be made by all concerned, McCarthy said. “[The] building owner will get to save a lot of money on his payroll. . . . He’ll do a cost analysis. Normally what [Francis] saves them is between $500,000 to $750,000 a year,” he said. McCarthy said that his standard fee for arranging such deals was 10 percent of the contractor’s fee. If everything went according to plan, the Aparos and Durso stood to collect 25 percent of Weider’s savings. “We are doing it with buildings in Manhattan,” said McCarthy. “Best way to go.”
Francis would also take care of any picketing by the union by filing charges with the NLRB , McCarthy said. “Don’t worry about the vandalism,” said the consultant. “Once [Francis] comes in he’ll throw everybody the fuck out. Whatever picketing would be very short term because Michael will get that done with the labor board,” he said. McCarthy then turned to Durso and said with obvious pride, “This is an industry, Mike.”
Indeed it is. According to the new leaders of Local 32B-J, the playbook described by McCarthy has been used against them in more than a dozen situations in the past couple years, including at 10 buildings where Francis’s company was hired in place of a 32B-J contractor. The union has waged public and clamorous battles in front of several large downtown office buildings, where whistle-blowing, can-shaking crowds of picketers have protested the lower wages offered by new contractors.
“We’ve been fighting him since before I got here,” said Mike Fishman, one of the troublesome organizers described by McCarthy who were sent by the international to clean up the local. “Owners save so much money bringing in these non-union contractors that they are willing to fight,” said Fishman, who was elected president of the local last year. Actually, the new contractors bring their own friendly unions with them, Fishman said, just as McCarthy had described. “You can always tell when it is one of those sweetheart deals, because the workers don’t even know they’re in a union,” said Fishman.
On June 27, 2000, Vincent Aparo and Durso accompanied Michael Francis to a meeting at Weider’s Brooklyn office. Weider also invited his financial backer, Michael Konig, a former nursing-home operator who was banned by state health regulators in Massachusetts and Connecticut, to hear Francis’s business pitch.
“You’re gonna negotiate in good faith with the union to an impasse. . . . You’re looking for givebacks,” Francis told the group. Any picketing could be legally limited to a single isolated building, he said. “We’re prepared to go into federal court and get a restraining order to avoid picketing,” said the contractor. “We’ve done it at other places.”
At one point, Francis borrowed a pencil to do some calculations. “You’re gonna save more than 20 percent a year. The exact same number of people and they are quality personnel. . . . There’s no magic to it.”
The feds say they closed in before any deal could be cut between the Vanderveer owners and a new, cheaper maintenance contractor. McCarthy later pled guilty to labor conspiracy. Neither Francis nor Konig were ever charged. The building complex went into bankruptcy soon after the indictments and a professional real estate manager was appointed by the court to run the complex.
Francis said he recalled little about the meeting in question when asked about the matter last week. “I remember a meeting in Brooklyn, I don’t remember who was there,” he said. “I submitted a proposal and I never heard any more about it.” He declined further comment. Konig also said he had no idea he was sitting down with gangsters but was skeptical of the proposal “from the get-g o.”
Before they were hauled away in handcuffs, however, the Genovese gangsters eventually did find their way to a pair of corrupt Local 32B-J officials, both of them holdovers from the Bevona era. One of them, former 32B-J business agent Ismet Kukic, later pleaded guilty to labor conspiracy. But even Kukic warned the Genoveses that things had changed at his union.
“Let me explain to you what’s gonna happen,” said Kukic. “These are the new people over there, they’re very into hi-tech shit,” he said, with a vast war chest to wage pro-union campaigns. “We investigate the owner, we find out who his mother was and father was, who he donates to. . . . We go to where he lives, Scarsdale, screaming all over the neighborhood. . . . These guys have big plans.”