Charles Ensley, the veteran leader of the 20,000-member local representing the city’s welfare workers, held an exuberant kickoff rally last week for his campaign to unseat incumbent Lillian Roberts as executive director of District Council 37, the city’s largest—and once most powerful—municipal workers’ union.
“We are embarking on a mission today to return this union to its former glory,” said Ensley, 62. Thirty of the council’s 56 local presidents—representing 70,000 of the council’s 120,000 members—were present to support his candidacy, Ensley said, and he had them raise their hands as the crowd of 100 cheered and shook blue signs proclaiming a “Unity Slate.”
The rally was held on a plaza at the rear entrance of the council’s huge headquarters at 125 Barclay Street on the far west side of Lower Manhattan, offices purchased back in those glory years when anything the council’s then influential leaders said had impact at City Hall and in Albany. Those days are long gone, however. Now the plaza is notable as the site where investigators for the Manhattan district attorney’s office hauled away truckloads of records in 1999, in a probe that resulted in criminal charges against some 20 officials of D.C. 37 and a seismic shake-up in what had always been perceived as a sedate and corruption-free labor organization. The investigation opened a Pandora’s box of long-hidden secrets, ranging from the blatant rigging of contract votes and local elections to the theft of union treasuries and even hushed-up mob associations. The plaza was also the place, union veterans knew, where the leader of a key local was savagely beaten by goons dispatched by a mobster dissatisfied with the size of his tribute.
The D.A.’s probe felled several of the heads of the so-called Big Five locals, the largest of the 56 within the council. Some, like Charles Hughes, of the low-wage school aides, and Al Diop, chief of the clerical workers, went to prison for grand larceny and other crimes. Others, like James Butler, of the city hospital workers, were forced out of office amid exposés prompted by the winds of change. Stanley Hill, the once proud militant leader-turned-Rudy Giuliani ally, was booted from his post as executive director of the council, banished by his own international leadership for having failed to intervene in the tidal wave of corruption, both large and petty, that surrounded him in the union’s headquarters.
Almost alone of the top leadership, Ensley emerged unscathed. No charges were pressed against him or his top officers. No misdeeds were revealed by the expensive and painstaking forensic audits of the entire council compiled by two top private investigative firms. If anything, the close-up examinations revealed a local that excels in its own internal democracy. From its offices more than 30 blocks away from the council’s Barclay Street headquarters, the local publishes its own newspaper, The Unionist. Unlike the other big locals of D.C. 37, where the top executives awarded themselves immense salaries and perks (Hughes took in $240,000 while representing some of the council’s lowest-paid members), Local 371 caps its own officers’ salaries at the highest wages of its own members. Ensley receives a total of $87,0000, a combination of the $57,000 he is entitled to as a Supervisor Three title in the city’s workforce, and $30,000 for other union hats he wears, including as a vice president of the parent body, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
Once deemed an outsider with a penchant for making trouble, Ensley earned credibility after loudly claiming that he believed the union’s infamous 1996 contract vote was rigged. This was the vote in which members mysteriously ratified a contract that included two years of no pay increases. When Ensley demanded an accounting, he was met with icy silence. Later, investigators determined that ballots had been handwritten by union aides close to Hill and phony figures had been provided by crooked local leaders.
“Charles is supremely democratic; his election could change the whole course of this union,” said Mark Rosenthal, a onetime insurgent who helped spur the investigation and ensuing cleanup. Rosenthal, president of Local 983, which represents parks workers and motor vehicle operators, won election as treasurer of the district council last year on a ticket headed by Roberts, a former union leader brought back as a peacemaker for warring factions inside the council.
Roberts, 75, Ensley’s opponent, was a feisty teenage organizer in Chicago when she caught the eye of former labor strongman Victor Gotbaum, who brought her to New York to organize hospital workers. She was Gotbaum’s heir apparent to head the council, until he became unenthused about her leadership qualities and urged her to accept a post as state labor commissioner.
After being forced out as labor commissioner by Governor Mario Cuomo in 1986, Roberts became a vice president of Total Health Systems, a health maintenance organization that was accused of running afoul of city rules by paying city union officials to sign up members. No charges were ever pressed, but Roberts later quit the business and retired. She said that reading the newspaper stories about the squalid scandals unearthed in the council had made her sick at heart, so she became a consultant to international trustee Lee Saunders, who had his hands full dealing with both persistent law enforcement inquiries and the ever fractionalized council.
Roberts said she was approached by most of the council’s key officials to take a leadership role and help end the three-year-long trusteeship imposed by the parent international. “They could never agree among themselves,” she said in an interview. “I was delighted to do it.”
“The union was fragmented. We needed a mother figure,” said Rosenthal. Yet Roberts’s honeymoon ended quickly. The reform faction lost faith in her because of her insistence on keeping her nephew’s law firm on the council payroll long after the union’s outside ethics monitor advised her to drop it. She also seemed adrift amid the ongoing municipal labor negotiations, unable to prevent layoffs of city workers or effectively rebut City Hall.
To those who observed her, Roberts appeared to show more vigor in the internal battles than she did in dealing with the city. She left important positions within the council unfilled, including that of its political director, a crucial role for a union that relies on government for key assistance. City Council leaders watched in puzzlement as Roberts continued to bring legislative proposals before the Civil Service and Labor Committee headed by Queens councilmember Alan Jennings, long after Jennings became a pariah with Council Speaker Gifford Miller for his opposition to the budget. At the recent Municipal Labor Coalition confab on Long Island, officials of other city workers’ unions described Roberts as distant and unfocused.
Roberts insists that’s not the case. “We’ve had our most active legislative year ever,” she said. “We got more than 18 bills passed.” She credited her research work on city contracting for prompting the city to make major changes.
The decision by Ensley and his allies to mount a campaign against her re-election, in a delegate vote to be held in late January, amounts to a distraction from her job of winning a new contract, she said. “I think their ambition got ahead of their concern for the rank and file,” she said. As for her role in the union, she said, “I am the ‘former glory’ that they keep talking about.”
Richard Steier, editor of The Chief, the weekly paper read religiously by civil servants and municipal union officials, said that despite Ensley’s large bloc of votes, the contest is far from over. “Don’t count out the sentimental factor or the power of incumbency,” he said. Adds Deidre McFadyen, the Chief reporter who has broken many of the stories about misdeeds within the council, “This union is much too fluid for anything to be wrapped up yet.”
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.