Union Gap


On the same hot summer day last month that the AFL-CIO was splintering apart in Chicago, a pair of men trying to organize a non-union demolition firm received a vicious beating in a Queens equipment yard. These days, organizers are more likely to get fired for their efforts than beaten, but the incident is a dramatic reminder of what unions are up against, even in labor-friendly places like New York.

Ironically, the beating of Otto Montenegro and Luis Guanoquiza, members of Laborers Local 79, stemmed from a renovation job at a formerly city-owned building that was once a proud citadel of unionism, the Board of Education’s old headquarters at 110 Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn. Two years ago, Mayor Bloomberg approved the building’s sale to a developer named David Walentas, despite Walentas’s years-long record as a non-union builder.

According to union officials, the attack came after the two men had spent more than a week working undercover as union “salts” for the firm doing the interior demolition there. One of the dirtiest and most dangerous occupations, demolition has long been dominated by corner-cutting firms. To concentrate resources and clout, the Laborers union merged several smaller locals a few years ago and began signing up many contractors, while bird-dogging those that remained non-union. Montenegro and Guanoquiza, both originally from Ecuador, agreed to shoulder the risky task of going inside non-union jobs to contact workers and spot violations (“No Hard Hats Worn Here,” April 19).

On Livingston Street, workers were being paid $9 an hour cash, they reported. Also, asbestos was “flying out the windows”—a health hazard cited by city inspectors. Someone, however, spotted the organizers’ hidden tape recorder. When the two men went to the firm’s Queens plant on Friday evening, July 22, to collect their pay, a gang, allegedly led by supervisor Steven Russell, was waiting for them. Russell allegedly ripped the tape wires off of Montenegro, shoved him and said, “We’re going to kill you. We’re going to put your body in a dumpster and you’ll never be found.” Others in Russell’s gang allegedly poked the men in the face with pins. “If this was a knife, you’d be dead. We know where you live, we know where your family is,” Russell yelled.

Both men were badly roughed up; Montenegro was later treated for cuts at the hospital. Russell, 52, was arrested, charged with assault and harassment. He spent the night in jail and was released the following day. Russell later told the Daily News‘ Hugh Son he was acting in self-defense.

That’s the same motive driving the debate raging within organized labor these days. In self-defense, labor must grow—or die. Currently, some 15.5 million workers belong to unions. But factory shutdowns and other shrinkage cause unions to shed members at a faster rate than new ones have been organized.

In 2003, points out Jeff Grabelsky, director of Union Building Strategies at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, unions had their best recent year in terms of organizing, bringing in 500,000 new members. But overall numbers still declined. Unions would have to organize at least 10 million new members, Grabelsky told union officials in Chicago last week, just to get back to the same 22 percent level of density that labor enjoyed in 1981 when Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers.

Andrew Stern, president of the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union, set off the current storm by saying that he’d concluded that the AFL-CIO, under the leadership of his former ally John Sweeney, isn’t up to that job. Along with Teamsters president Jim Hoffa, Stern announced last week that the two giant unions are leaving the federation. The Food and Commercial Workers followed a few days later. It may be only a matter of time before they’re joined by other members of their “Change to Win Coalition,” including the garment and hotel-restaurant unions, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, and the Farm Workers. The carpenters’ union, which bolted the AFL-CIO in 2000, is also part of the coalition.

The departures infuriated many of the officials Stern and Hoffa left behind, not least because of the publicity spin that Stern, subject of a laudatory New York Times Magazine profile, has managed to put on it. Change to Win, headed by one of Stern’s oldest allies, SEIU’s Anna Burger, has sought to place itself on the same historical track as Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis, whose dramatic exit from the old AFL in 1935—he literally slugged one old-guard official as he walked out—sparked the mass organizing campaign that soon became the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The comparison has evoked skepticism. “This isn’t the 1930s,” said Bob Master, political director of the Communication Workers of America in New York. “There are some differences on organizing strategies, but it doesn’t add up to a need for a split. This is not a positive step.”

Others say the would-be rebels have a credibility problem. “I don’t think it is going to lead anywhere,” said Herman Benson, founder of the Association for Union Democracy, which aids union dissidents. Benson questioned one of Stern’s most controversial demands, that unions should be boiled down to a few, non-overlapping organizations that in turn focus their energies solely on their “core” industries. “It will never take place,” said Benson. “The Teamsters are a general union. They’re not about to give up any members.”

Also, while the SEIU has had major organizing successes, its new partners boast far fewer accomplishments. In 2002, Hoffa was forced to pull the plug on a three-year campaign to win union representation for 8,000 employees at Overnite, a non-union trucking company. In New York, the carpenters’ union has tried to target non-union firms but has been steadily hobbled by corruption charges. The union recently added to that reputation by taking in a rogue plasterers’ union, Local 530, that law enforcement officials have long described as a low-wage, sweetheart union controlled by the Genovese crime family. The move came after the plasterers’ local was put out of business by a federal court injunction that found it was stealing work from a legitimate tapers’ union local.

But there’s probably enough dirty laundry on both sides of the union dispute to cancel out such charges and countercharges. The more immediate issue is whether the new split helps—or hurts.

Michael Fishman, president of SEIU’s Local 32B-J representing building service workers in the metro area, said the break was inevitable. “If you don’t make a change you are going to end up with no labor movement,” he said.

Still, he cautioned that it may be five years or more before the breakaway faction can measure its successes. “I’m hoping we can look forward to a campaign to unionize Wal-Mart and its 1.5 million workers,” he said. Notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart is a tough nut to crack, however, and the new coalition may have to settle for lesser achievements. “Even if the result is just that Wal-Mart starts paying a little more, that would be a real accomplishment,” said Ken Margolies of Cornell’s labor institute. “If you can close the gap between Wal-Mart and the unionized stores, that helps even the playing field.”

There are still other measures of success, said Larry Hanley, a labor activist from Staten Island, who is a vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. “There’s no question but that there’s been a malaise in the ranks of labor that needs to be shaken up and to the extent [the new coalition members] are doing that, it’s to the good,” he said. “Regular union members are suddenly reading about the labor movement in the press, something they usually only read about with strikes or corruption cases. It is awakening an interest in labor and making people aware of our imminent demise, if we don’t do something different.”