The Buffalo News
BYLINE: DAN HERBECK; News Staff Reporter
October 16, 20000
During his 25 years as an FBI agent, John J. "Jack" McDonnell considered Laborers Local 210 the most corrupt union in Western New York, a place dominated by mobsters with cushy, no-show jobs.
McDonnell belonged to a small army of agents who investigated organized crime influences in the union. He was a supervisor of a loansharking and racketeering probe that sent a Local 210 official to prison in 1994.
The last place McDonnell expected to wind up working after his FBI retirement was Local 210.
But that is where he can be found several days each week, overseeing the local's operations as the liaison officer for a federal judge.
Eight months after U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara appointed him as overseer of the local, McDonnell is convinced the laborers union is well on its way to respectability.
"I didn't know what to expect when I came in here," said McDonnell, during a recent interview in Local 210's new offices in Cheektowaga. "I found that the people involved with organized crime and corruption were not the general membership of the union. Most of the members are just decent people, trying to make a living. They were victims of the corruption that was going on here.
"The team of people who are running Local 210 today are great people. They have a total open door policy for the members, and they're willing to meet with contractors to iron out any problem. They definitely have the local on the right track."
McDonnell is quick to point out that he does not run the union. He said he observes and reports to Arcara on the progress of cleanup efforts in the local.
But there is no disputing that his job as federal court liaison officer puts McDonnell in a position of power in the local.
And not all of the local's 850 active members are happy about it.
"Having an FBI agent in there is like having Big Brother watching over us," said Frank Guadagno, a 24-year laborer, during a recent lunch break at the work site for the new Erie County court building.
"What this union really needs is free elections, letting the members pick their own officers and run their own union."
"From what I hear, Jack McDonnell is more than an observer," said Marc Panepinto, a Buffalo labor lawyer who also is a member of Local 210. "I think he is closely involved in the day-to-day operations."
There have been many bumps in the road for Local 210 since 1995, when all operations of the notorious Buffalo union were taken over by the Laborers International Union of North America. The takeover, intended to push mobsters out of leadership positions in the local, has been closely monitored and supported by the U.S. Justice Department.
The international has had a supervisor or trustee in Buffalo, running Local 210, since April 1996. At first, some Local 210 members who opposed the takeover barred the supervisor, Gabe Rosetti Jr., from entering the laborers' offices on Franklin Street.
Over the next two years, Rosetti battled repeatedly with the old guard of the union, and also with many rank-and-file members. Members say Rosetti sometimes carried a handgun while running Local 210, and he once got into a fist fight at the union hall.
Steve Hammond, who helped the international push the mob out of one of New York City's labor unions, was appointed to replace Rosetti as trustee in April 1998.
Last year, the Justice Department asked for closer monitoring of Local 210. As a result, Arcara appointed McDonnell to act for the court as an overseer in Local 210 for a five-year period.
The current leadership includes Hammond as trustee, McDonnell as court liaison officer, and veteran union members William Hoffman, Harley Locking, Dominic Calandra and Daniel Hurley as deputy trustee, hiring hall administrator, business agent and training director, respectively.
Local 210 sold its longtime union hall on Franklin Street which had been watched and bugged by FBI agents for decades - and moved into a smaller, no-frills facility on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga.
"We know we have a challenge ahead. We're trying to get rid of a stigma that has hung over this union for many years," Hoffman said. "Our whole membership got a bad rap because of the actions of a few people."
For decades, there were allegations that Local 210 made sure that some of the easiest and highest-paying jobs on area construction projects went to people with the strongest mob connections. In some cases, the owners of construction companies were bullied into giving lucrative "no-show" jobs to mobsters.
There aren't any no-shows in today's Local 210, officials of the local insist. They also insist that Mafia connections no longer play any role in job assignments.
The names of union members who are awaiting job assignments are posted on a list in the union hall, and the assignments are based on a worker's skills, his or her availability, and how long the worker has been waiting for work.
"No-show jobs and payoffs -- those days are gone in Local 210," said Andrew Gorlick, an attorney for the local. "We provide honest work at an honest salary."
Two area contractors who have dealt with Local 210 for decades said they have been impressed with efforts to clean up the union.
"They have cleaned up Local 210. I firmly believe it," said Bob Hill, president of Union Concrete & Construction in West Seneca. "When I call the union hall for workers, I get good hard-working people. I don't get people who can't do the job."
"The union is very responsive to the needs of contractors," said Kenneth Rawe, a partner in Oakgrove Construction in Elma. "We're meeting and talking with the union leadership a lot more than we did in the past."
Hoffman, Locking, Calandra and Hurley have no kind words for the former trustee, Rosetti, whom they accuse of being a pugnacious and dictatorial leader who discouraged members from voicing their opinions and who set the takeover back by several years.
"Gabe's personality was the main reason why the takeover got off to such a rocky start," Hoffman said. "I heard him say, right to my face, 'This is my union!' Like he was the king."
Rosetti did not return repeated calls seeking his comment. McDonnell defended him, saying Rosetti faced "an extremely difficult" job as the international's first point man in the takeover.
"There has been some criticism of Gabe, but in fairness to him, he took on a job that nobody else wanted," McDonnell said. "It had to be very hard on him
. . . Everybody involved could have handled things better."
Critics of the government-supported takeover of Local 210 say it is taking much too long for the international to allow union members to elect their own leaders. Hoffman and the rest of his team were appointed by the international.
Officials of the international said they have not yet allowed the election of officers in Local 210 because they fear that people with mob ties will intimidate members into putting them into power.
"I don't think the local is ready for elections yet, but that time will come," McDonnell said. "Soon, hopefully."