New York Times

Series of New Corruption Cases Hampers Labor's Efforts to Improve Its Tainted Image

October 28, 1997, Tuesday


The wave of corruption charges involving the teamsters and other unions has badly embarrassed the labor movement just as John J. Sweeney, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s president, was boasting that efforts to improve labor's image were finally paying off with some major organizing victories.

Though labor leaders insist there is far less union corruption than in decades past, some leaders acknowledge that the recent corruption cases could make the public more cynical about unions at a time when the labor federation is spending millions of dollars on an advertising campaign to persuade Americans to warm up to unions.

"Any corruption hurts the labor movement," said Douglas Fraser, former president of the United Auto Workers, who teaches labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. "It's very, very unfortunate. If you get into an organizing drive, you can be sure that anti-union consultants will use this corruption stuff against you."

Still, the recent revelations are an undeniable step backward for labor's public relations after a decades-long effort to erase its ''On the Waterfront'' image of beefy union bosses wedded to the mob.

"It's bad publicity," said Jay Mazur, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. "We'd rather not have it, although I don't think it will really affect the way we're functioning."

And Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said: ''They are a distraction from what we're trying to achieve. They certainly do harm; there's no question about it for the public and even the union members looking at it, especially if the allegations are proven. But it's important to point out these are aberrations, and the overwhelming majority of the movement is made up of honest hard-working unions and unionists.''

Many labor experts say the current episodes of corruption are paltry compared with those in decades past, when mobsters stole hundreds of millions of dollars from union pension funds and outsiders learned of union wrongdoing only when bodies were found dumped along the docks.

Union leaders assert that the recent cases are isolated instances and that corruption is no more prevalent in labor than in business. From Mr. Sweeney on down, labor leaders are loath to address the accusations, partly because they dislike discussing problems in other unions and partly because they seem to hope that by ignoring it, the problem will go away.

"Obviously, they're trying to change their image, and they don't want to focus on union corruption," said Carl Biers, executive director of the Association of Union Democracy, a group based in New York that has long spoken out against union corruption. "But in the long run, it works against their organizing goals to ignore the problem, rather than admit there's a problem and say they're dealing with it."

The biggest recent corruption case involves the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Three advisers to Ron Carey, the union president, have pleaded guilty to funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the union's treasury into Mr. Carey's re-election campaign.

Although the money involved is small compared with the hundreds of millions embezzled in past teamster scandals, some labor leaders find the new episode especially disconcerting because Mr. Carey was elected on an anti corruption platform in what had been the nation's most mob-dominated union.

In another case, Federal officials said last week that Arthur A. Coia, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, would be charged by an in-house prosecutor with associating with organized crime figures and with acquiescing in letting mobsters run parts of the union.

Labor leaders fear that the corruption problems could soon multiply if Federal investigators conclude that Mr. Carey participated in the illegal fund-raising and he is indicted. Federal prosecutors are also investigating accusations, made by the Carey aides who pleaded guilty, that the A.F.L. C.I.O.'s secretary-treasurer, Richard Trumka, helped channel teamster money through some intermediaries into the Carey campaign. Mr. Carey and Mr. Trumka have denied any wrongdoing.

Eager to throw their labor opponents on the defense, some Republicans in Congress have seized on these cases to declare that unions are still pervaded by corruption. But many labor experts contend that unions are far less corrupt than they used to be largely because the Federal Government has cracked down on the four unions that the President's Commission on Organized Crime identified in a 1986 report as the most mob dominated.

They were the teamsters, the laborers, the hotel and restaurant employees and the International Longshoremen's Association.

"When you think about violence, about the connections with organized crime and the financial manipulations for personal gain, that kind of corruption, as best I can tell, is dramatically lower than 25 years ago,'' said Richard Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University. "Twenty five years ago, we used to hear about these things most often when someone was murdered. Now, it's different. It's coming to the surface now for the right reasons -- there are very serious efforts by government and some unions to clean up and expose corruption.''

Thanks to efforts by the Federal prosecutors, by a court appointed investigative board and by Mr. Carey, more than 390 teamster officials and members have been punished or removed from the union over the past decade, often on grounds of associating with organized crime figures. In the laborers, more than 100 members and officials have been punished or ousted through an in-house investigation that Mr. Coia encouraged, although investigators are now focusing on him. Mr. Coia has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

At the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s convention last month in Pittsburgh, many union leaders, insisting on anonymity, said the scandals were unfortunate because they were diverting attention from the message labor is trying to get out: that the labor movement is back and is an important voice for American workers. When union leaders speak publicly, rather than privately, they insist that the scandals will neither do long-term damage to labor nor derail its revival.

"The continued success of the labor movement will not be affected by this distraction," said Michael Goodwin, president of the Office and Professional Employees Union.

Richard Bensinger, the labor federation's organizing director, said, ''People out there in the poultry plant are struggling to make a living and fear they will be maimed tomorrow, and the last thing these people care about is this or that scandal or what happens in the upper reaches of the union Beltway bureaucracy.''

Mr. Sweeney has been largely silent on corruption, with aides saying he has felt little reason to speak out on the issue since, until the recent flourish of corruption charges, labor's ethical house, at least at the national union level, seemed largely in order.

When asked last year whether the A.F.L.-C.I.O. was doing enough about corruption, Mr. Sweeney said, "There is no more corruption in unions than there is in business or in Congress."

Labor leaders contend that unions are victims of a double standard, that the press and Government play up episodes of union corruption more than similar corporate corruption.

But Mr. Fraser, the former U.A.W. president, said: ''That business that it also happens in other sectors of society, that's not an adequate answer. Like Caesar's wife, labor has to be above suspicion.

"Business is about making money,'' he said, '' but labor leaders are supposed to be about helping workers."

The charges involving the teamsters and laborers are by no means the only recent charges against labor officialdom. Last May, a Federal grand jury in Syracuse indicted Joseph C. Talarico, the secretary-treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and his brother on charges of embezzling $165,000 in union money to remodel their homes. Mr. Talarico and his brother say they are not guilty.

Last October, Frederick W. Devine, head of the carpenters' union in the New York City area, was indicted on charges of stealing $240,000 to finance a spending spree that included $10,955 to rent jet planes for two visits to a female friend as well as a $2,000-a-night splurge for a 17-day stay in Florida. Mr. Devine says he has been framed.

Also in New York City, three labor lawyers and a former president of the Transit Patrolmen's Benevolent Association are on trial, based on allegations of a kickback scheme in which the union official is accused of receiving $300,000 from the lawyers in exchange for awarding them $2 million in business.

Foes of union corruption also question the many Cadillac driving presidents of union locals whose salaries top $200,000 or who draw multiple salaries from union locals, regional councils, international boards and welfare funds. Before he was indicted and removed from office, Mr. Devine had an annual salary of $410,000.

Union graft remains all too common, labor experts say, because many officials who rise in the union hierarchy find it hard to resist temptation when they are put in charge of multimillion-dollar treasuries. And organized-crime figures have often viewed unions as easily accessible cookie jars.

One surprising development is that the leaders of the teamsters and the laborers, the two unions that have been most aggressive about rooting out corruption, now find themselves under a microscope.

Another possible surprise is that if Mr. Carey and Mr. Coia are ousted, they may well be replaced by the sons of former union presidents who were repeatedly linked to organized crime. James P. Hoffa, son of Jimmy Hoffa, is widely considered the front-runner against Mr. Carey in the teamsters' election scheduled for February. And Peter Fosco, son of Angelo Fosco, the late laborers' president who prosecutors say was controlled by the Chicago Mafia, is a laborers' official and is considered one of the favorites to succeed Mr. Coia.

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