It was no shock when Gus Bevona, the profusely paid and notoriously autocratic boss of the building services union, appealed a sweeping court decision on his local’s election. The surprise came when Brian McLaughlin, head of the mainstream New York City Central Labor Council, rushed in with support.
On December 15, Federal Judge Richard Owen found that Bevona–who pays himself $494,000 a year to run Local 32B-32J–“suppressed dissent” and trampled on members’ rights in an early 1997 election. Union critics documented many abuses during the vote: leadership recommendations printed on ballots, unmonitored ballot boxes, and polling hours that excluded many of the union’s 55,000 mostly minority workers.
In addition to electing union reps, the members were voting on proposed bylaw changes that would have reduced officers’ swollen salaries and guaranteed that members would have the right to approve contracts. In his ruling, Owen wrote that the union’s members will suffer “an enormous risk of abuse of power by the incumbent leadership” unless future votes are conducted by outsiders.
McLaughlin, a Democratic Queens assemblyman and former electrical union official, instructed attorneys at his 500-union umbrella Central Labor Council to join in the appeal against the decision, arguing that the court dangerously exceeded its authority. “[Owen’s] orders threaten to fundamentally interfere with internal union voting policies and the right of unions to self-govern,” CLC chief counsel Douglas Menagh wrote to labor attorneys in a bid for support.
The decision to join the appeal was not a popular one, even among lawyers affiliated with the council. Only 12 of the 69 members of the council’s own lawyers’ advisory committee agreed to the appeal.
For their part, the anti-Bevona dissenters, who garnered 45 percent of the vote last time, were stunned by the council’s decision. “We proved at trial that members of our union were openly coerced,” says Carlos Guzman, leader of 32B-32J’s dissident Members for a Better Union. “Brian McLaughlin, who wants to be mayor, should align himself with the rank and file he is supposed to be speaking for.”