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The Association for Union Democracy’s conference on combating corruption in labor unions was proven especially timely with the arrest of a major labor figure last week. Even as reformers, lawyers and scholars gathered at the CUNY Graduate Center on Oct. 14 to speak to the rank and file about strategies the labor movement and law enforcement can use to break the cycle of graft in unions, the government was preparing to indict Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Queens), president of the million-member New York City Central Labor Council. McLaughlin was arrested Oct. 17 on 43 racketeering charges.

Honest labor leaders have been working with the federal government for decades to break the hold organized crime has on unions. Experts on organized crime’s exploitation of the labor movement came together for the “Confronting Corruption” conference organized by the AUD. The experts, including labor leaders, a former member of Mario Cuomo’s Organized Crime Task Force (OCTF), and the government trustee who took over Anthony Provenzano’s notorious Teamsters local, clashed on some issues surrounding criminal elements’ relationship to labor. But they all agreed that organized crime still has some unions in certain industries such as construction and trucking, from locals on up, firmly in its grasp. They also agreed that such corruption is just one branch in a matrix of dishonesty in labor unions that need to be addressed.

James Jacobs, director of the NYU School of Law’s Center for Research in Crime and Justice, noted that unions have a history of corruption independent of outside groups. Even if government and the labor movement could eliminate the mob’s influence on unions, “independent despots with their own cliques could emerge,” said Jacobs, who once served on Cuomo’s OCTF and authored the book “Mobsters, Unions, and Feds.” It was a prescient reference given that McLaughlin, a journeyman electrician turned labor leader turned seven-term assemblyman, would be charged just days later for taking more than $2 million from unions, taxpayers and others. He pleaded not guilty.

“Unions are very vulnerable to corruption,” Jacobs told City Limits after the indictment was delivered. “That’s why they are attractive to organized crime in the first place, because it’s so easy for the mafia to exploit the labor movement, but I think the McLaughlin case is a good example of the magnitude of damage a corrupt individual can do to a union. He came from within, got control, and he looted it.”

Unions and their members are naturally and rightly suspicious of government intervention in their autonomous democracies, AUD founder Herman Benson said at the opening of the conference. Benson said he is not aware of any case, however, where unions suffered as a result of interference from the government, and went on to cite two cases in which federal intervention was essential to ending corruption within. The first was when the feds removed W.A. “Tony” Boyle, the United Mine Workers President who was indicted for misusing union money, rigging the election that put him in power, and later convicted of murdering a rival within the union in the 1970s. And the second was when they removed “Tony Pro” Provenzano, then the head of the Genovese crime family and vice president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) under Jimmy Hoffa, from the Union City, N.J. Teamsters Local 560.

Ed Stier, another speaker, ran Local 560 as a court-appointed trustee for 12 years. After that, he stayed on with IBT as its anti-corruption chief until he resigned in protest after his investigation into organized crime corruption in Chicago was stymied by top Teamster leadership in 2004. Stier said the government has made the same mistakes in trying to stimulate cultural reform in the labor movement as it has in Iraq: unions have their own distinct culture, and law enforcement sometimes fails to factor cultural differences into how it confronts union corruption. For example, Stier said rank-and-file members have concerns other than ousting corrupt leadership.

“A guy on a freight job has one priority – keeping his boss off his back,” Stier said. “So when it comes time to elect union leadership, he’s going to vote for the guy he thinks can help him with that. It doesn’t matter to him if that guy is corrupt.”

Barbara Harvey, a prominent Detroit labor lawyer and AUD board member, took a more optimistic view of the worker’s role in forming more honest, democratic unions.

“There is no substitute for the power of the rank-and-file to win elections and root out corruption,” said Harvey. “A peaceful revolution marked by idealism within the Teamsters is underway. IBT goons no longer go out and shoot their political adversaries, or break their legs. That’s progress.” [10/23/06]

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