On the 11th floor of the federal court building last winter, high above Foley Square, a middle-aged attorney was methodically yanking at the underpinnings of one of New York’s oldest-style labor machines. With a mat of tousled hair and a tufty mustache making him look like a Wheaten Terrier in a drip-dry suit, Arthur Z. Schwartz was making labor history. The 45-year-old labor lawyer was representing Carlos Guzman, an Ecuadorian porter employed at the World Trade Center. Guzman, with Schwartz’s help and guidance, has spent much of the 1990s trying to unseat the city’s most notorious labor chieftain, Gus Bevona, boss of the 52,000-member Service Employees International Union Local 32B-32J.
It isn’t just the $500,000 in multiple salaries feeding the portly Bevona’s all-you-can-eat lifestyle that miffs Guzman and the other reformers. Nor is it the huge penthouse office or even the spectacle of Bevona’s sumptuous 5,541-square-foot Babylon, Long Island home, recently appraised at $860,000 and sporting three full baths, a boat house, a pool and two power boats moored to his private pier.
The thing that galvanizes his opponents is how bad the union’s rank-and-file does by comparison–and how little Bevona has done to improve their lot. Residential doormen and janitors, regardless of time on the job, earn less than $30,245 annually, and that is only if they stay with the same employer for 30 months. New hires earn 20 percent less.
The insurgents–members who challenge the entrenched structure of the union–say Bevona stood idle as commercial building managers severely undermined the union’s strength by hiring non-union cleaning firms. In response, union firms have had to lower their wages and standards to compete. In the last seven years, 500 employers have pulled out of the union’s master contract with building owners. As a result, the union has lost 13,500 members since
1991, and has been forced to jack up dues to pay for the loss and Bevona’s lush lifestyle. Still, the union boss has been able to maintain a powerful local network of 1,000 allied shop stewards, who have helped him beat back reformers in low-turnout union elections. During the last three years, Bevona has also turned back two bylaws challenges that would have curbed his power and his salary.
But now, Schwartz, hardly a household name outside of labor circles, may accomplish what prosecutors, insurgents, and even Andrew Stern, president of the international union, have never been able to do: get Bevona out.
New York City may be home to a lot of union legal muscle, but little of it gets flexed for dissidents. Schwartz is one of the few litigators in the city specializing in “union democracy,” the movement to make internal union elections and procedures more responsive to members.
In Guzman’s case, pressing for democracy is also a way of attacking Bevona, who he believes has been unresponsive to the demands of 32B-32J’s growing immigrant rank-and-file.
Schwartz, more than any other lawyer, has taken on the mantle of defending rebels like Guzman. Clarence Darrow’s portrait hangs in his University Place office, and it is no exaggeration to say that Schwartz–despite his six-figure income–hungers to be his generation’s “attorney for the damned.”
He grew up “just the north side of Pelham Parkway,” and in 1972 faced expulsion from Columbia University after leading demonstrations against the Vietnam war. Facing a university trial, Schwartz was able to convince iconoclastic civil liberties lawyer William Kunstler to represent him. When they heard that Kunstler, master of the trial as spectacle, was involved, Columbia dropped the charges. Schwartz eventually decided to go to Hofstra Law School and Kunstler gained another acolyte.
“I thought he was the coolest guy in the world and I wanted to be just like him,” Schwartz says.
But he is not. Schwartz is no “radical” lawyer like Kunstler’s longtime associate Ron Kuby, whose high profile race cases, including the initial defense of Long Island Railroad gunman Colin Ferguson, are splashy if not always effective. And Schwartz has embraced mainstream politics in a way that few revolutionary lawyers ever have. While Kunstler and Kuby eschewed party politics, Schwartz is a Democratic district leader in the West Village and an enthusiastic supporter of moderate Brooklynite Charles Schumer’s Senate run.
“Over the years, I’ve come to believe that having a revolution and turning American society on its head is not just impossible but undesirable,” he says. “My experience with those who would lead this ‘revolution’ is that they might want to impose a model that is even less democratic than the one we have now. But that part about supporting dissidents is a theme that continues to run through me.”
If Schwartz resembles anyone, it would be his late partner, labor lawyer Burton Hall, who often represented troublemakers in corrupt or mobbed-up painters’, laborers’ and carpenters’ locals. It was during his apprenticeship with Hall that Schwartz adopted his penchant for taking on lost-cause cases. It was there too that he cultivated the goal of creating legal precedent to make it easier for his union clients to make their cases in the future.
In the early 1980s, after representing a laborers’ union official whose testimony helped bring down Reagan labor secretary Ray Donovan, Schwartz struck out on his own.
From there he set up his own firm with then-partners Dan Clifden and Louis Nikolaides, taking on big money clients like UNITE’s Local 169 and the Transport Workers Union Local 101, which represents Brooklyn Union Gas employees.
At the same time he began representing, pro bono, union insurgents who were being cheated out of the chance to challenge their leaders.
Over the years his client roster has grown to include nearly every union insurgent in New York. In addition to the 32B-32J dissidents, he represents the New Caucus, an insurgent group in the 6,000-member City University’s Professional Staff Congress. Another client is New Directions, the activists running to take over the 33,000-member Transport Workers Local 100. Last winter, he represented 36 rent strikers at 10 Sheridan Square, supporting a three-month job action by the building’s doormen and maintenance staff, who were fighting a 60 percent pay cut and other take-backs.
As it turns out, these pro bono clients have become almost as lucrative as his butter-and-egg work. When he wins cases, defendants are often forced to pay his expenses, and Schwartz bills at $300 an hour. “That’s Wall Street rates,” says Leon Friedman, his former Hofstra law professor and a well-known employment discrimination attorney.
Schwartz often crosses that thin line between doing good and doing well, and it makes his opponents howl. Take transit union president Willie James, who lost to Schwartz in a 1995 case that overturned the local’s expulsion of James’s New Directions opponents. “[Schwartz and his clients] are not real unionists,” James says. “Real unionists don’t sue their own union. The only one who benefited was their lawyer.”
And benefit Schwartz did–to the tune of $100,000 in court fees, even though his clients only received $1 in punitive damages from James.
His pro bono crusade against Bevona is shaping up to be his most important case yet. Last December, Schwartz and Guzman dealt the union leader a serious blow. Schwartz and Guzman convinced federal judge Richard Owen to take the administration of a union vote out of Bevona’s hands. Guzman, in addition to running against Bevona, has long pressed for basic member rights like electing union representatives and ratifying contracts.
In their argument before the judge, dissidents cited intimidation and vote-tampering at the February 1997 bylaws balloting held at a Midtown hotel and handily won by Bevona. Verondo Wilkerson, a Park Avenue doorman, said he saw “people voting four and five ballots at a time.” Boxes were left unattended as union suits sauntered over, casually dropping in paper ballots. Members had to vote in full view of business agents wearing “Vote No” stickers.
Many members left without voting because the polling place selected was inside one of the hotel’s smallest conference rooms, causing long waits for workers who had to take time off to cast their ballots.
In addition, the local used English-only ballots for the predominantly foreign-born and Spanish-speaking membership. The leadership’s “Vote No” recommendations were prominently displayed on the ballots themselves.
The judge cited “an enormous risk of abuse of power by the incumbent leadership,” following an array of irregularities at an earlier vote.
When Guzman managed to force a second bylaws race, Bevona won that one, too. Then the judge weighed in heavily: He ordered virtually all of Schwartz’s clean-elections suggestions. From now on, 32B-32J’s elections will be held all day at multiple sites, with new restrictions placed on electioneering at the polls and by staff at work sites. Most importantly, Owen ruled that the union would have to pay for court-appointed, union-paid election officers to run the new voting.
This federal intervention in internal union business was so profound it drew the ire of the politically powerful Central Labor Council and its leader, Queens Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin. McLaughlin, along with the executive council of the union umbrella group, went so far as to support an amicus brief challenging Guzman’s victory. (See City Limits, February 1998.)
“You may be one hundred percent correct that your rights were abridged,” CLC’s attorney Douglas Menagh told Guzman. “But the broad judicial issue is whether the federal judiciary should interfere in the internal affairs of a local union.”
But if Schwartz bloodied Bevona’s nose in the Owen ruling, he is aiming for Bevona’s throat in another legal case.
In 1990, Bevona proposed hiking dues–and his own salary–by 25 percent. After Guzman vocally opposed him, Bevona paid a gumshoe to find dirt on Guzman. When Guzman found out about it, he sued and was awarded $100,000. Had the case ended there, the wounded Bevona could have counted himself lucky.
But in 1996, Guzman and Schwartz discovered that the 32B-32J boss had used union money to pay the judgment, along with $400,000 in fees to Guzman’s attorney and more than $1 million for his own defense.
On October 19, Schwartz will argue in federal court that Bevona, because he and his other officers engaged in “misfeasance,” must repay the union some $2.4 million.
Bevona looks cornered. Federal judge Robert Patterson has already ruled that the union’s attorneys cannot represent Bevona, and few think the labor boss’ pockets are deep enough to survive the financial hit, should he lose.
The case would be a real vindication of Schwartz’ activist principles. “There are people who say, ‘Don’t sue for union democracy or get the government involved in determining what our rights are. We should fight for our rights. We the workers can do it alone. Otherwise the workers will never learn to do it by themselves,’” says Schwartz. “Well, it’s not true.”