Gus Bevona died on Tuesday, and if most people don’t recognize the name maybe that’s just as well. Before a reform push from the national headquarters of the Service Employees union forced him out the door back in 1999, Bevona was one of labor’s biggest local embarrassments.
Built like Jabba the Hut, for more than two decades he was the one-man ruler of one of the city’s largest unions, Local 32B-J of the building maintenance workers with some 30,000 members. He set his own salary at $450,000 a year which was even more then than it is today.
Yes, he won good wages and benefits for many of his members. But he also let employers remove thousands of others from union coverage in deals he cut in back rooms. The rank and file was always the last to hear about it.
When he pulled handymen and janitors at commercial buildings out on strike in the winter of 1996, members wandered around the snow piles outside their buildings asking reporters if they had any idea what their union leader was up to.
They didn’t know. Bevona never spoke to the press, or anyone else other than a select few insiders and union employers. He had mob ties going back to his father, a reputed made member of the Mafia, but no law enforcement agency ever managed to lay a glove on him. He was one of those who walked between the raindrops without getting wet, an accomplishment that left many people scratching their heads at his steady success.
He was still riding high when a feisty doorman named Carlos Guzman had the audacity to challenge him in the early 1990s. Bevona hired private detectives to follow him and dig up dirt.
With help from the Association for Union Democracy, the ensuing lawsuit and stories in the press eventually led to scandal and exposure. Bevona cut a sweet deal for his own exit, collecting $1.5 million in severance on his way out the door.
After he left, union officials gave the press a peek at the palatial penthouse he had created for himself atop the enormous union headquarters on Sixth Avenue, just north of Canal, he had built.
The view from the 23rd floor was pretty stunning. There were:
“Cherry-paneled walls, marble floors, terraces with scenic vistas, state-of-the-art kitchen and electronic gadgets that move tables, TVs and cameras with a soft electric whir.
“Bevona’s 30-by-30-foot office includes a black marble table that he could raise and lower with a hidden switch and a big-screen TV with sophisticated video attachments. …
“He sat in a plush black leather swivel chair behind a cherry-wood desk that was topped with a huge computer consol.
“Another large room built as a bedroom …with a gas-fired fireplace and leather sofas. It’s flanked by matching “his and her” marble bathrooms, with double sinks, steam showers and wall phones mounted near the toilets. Foyers include cedar-lined closets with motorized doors.
“The kitchen includes a six-burner stove, double oven and a 6-foot-tall wine refrigerator that chilled its contents at a steady 54 degrees.
“In the kitchen yesterday, a visitor pushed one of the hundreds of electric buttons throughout the complex. A white TV box quietly emerged from the ceiling above, the cables dangling, the TV nowhere to be seen.”