When Brian McLaughlin took over the city’s 1.5 million-member Central Labor Council in 1995, the plan was to fire up the local labor movement and galvanize what many considered a sleeping giant.
Some of that did happen. Under McLaughlin, the labor council mobilized tens of thousands of workers to giant demonstrations and made its political clout felt in City Hall. But few believed the body ever lived up to its real potential. And now that McLaughlin has disgraced his union brothers and sisters and is facing decades in prison for allegedly stealing $2.2 million, it’s become an open question in
labor circles whether the council should exist at all.
“The Central Labor Council served no useful purpose,” said a leader of one of the city’s biggest unions, who sat through years of meetings with McLaughlin. “It shouldn’t be there just to sponsor the Labor Day parade. The best thing to do would be to shut it down and start all over again, this time with a clear mandate.”
Part of the logic of those who want to pull the plug is that New York, unlike many cities, already boasts a half-dozen major unions—including those of health workers, teachers, transit workers, and the building trades—that already have analysts, organizers, and publicists to carry out their agendas. Many of those unions have long been somewhat dubious about the labor council, since it represents a separate—and potentially competing—power center. Trying to figure out the council’s shifting alliances takes a Kremlinologist.
Right now, those who want to revive the council are engaged in a salvage operation. State AFL-CIO leader Denis Hughes, who came out of
the same electrical-workers union as McLaughlin, has hired a team of forensic accountants to comb through the council’s financial records (it had a $1.9
million budget last year) and survey the damage wreaked by McLaughlin’s spending spree.
And the council’s 36-member executive board has agreed to let Ed Ott, a feisty veteran organizer who gets impeccable integrity ratings from most unionists, serve as interim executive director. Long-term, says Hughes, the council would be better served by having a stronger board with a top director like Ott who could be more easily held accountable. During McLaughlin’s reign, council board members were too polite, says Ott, adding, “People never asked the hard questions. That’s got to change if we are to survive.”