"We can only hope that now all the violence and intimidation stops." Ted Van Deusen, one of the first contractors to speak out publicly against labor violence in Niagara County.
"Construction costs in Niagara County are the highest in the state because of the tactics of Local 91." Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein
"Local 91 didn't make the plants and industry leave the area." Clyde J. Johnston Jr., Niagara County Trades Council
By BILL MICHELMORE
News Niagara Bureau
NIAGARA FALLS - When Kenneth Franasiak heard that more than a dozen members of Laborers Local 91 had been indicted on racketeering charges, an international analogy came to mind.
"This is like the Berlin Wall coming down," said Franasiak, president of Calamar Enterprises of Wheatfield, the county's largest development company. "This truly is a new beginning for Niagara County."
Others say the arrests of the men referred to by prosecutors as goons and thugs could mean more to Niagara County than casino gambling.
"Many contractors formerly doing business in Niagara County said they would never come back because of the intimidation of Local 91," said Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein. "These arrests are the most important law enforcement development in terms of reviving economic growth in my 34 years here."
The 14 union members arrested after a four-year federal task force investigation include Michael "Butch" Quarcini, 71, the local's business manager and one of the most powerful labor bosses in Western New York, and Local 91 president Mark Congi, 41.
While the indictments signal only the beginning in the attempt to convict Local 91 members, the arrests of men who federal prosecutor William J. Hochul Jr. called "the goon squad, strong arms ands thugs" brought a collective sigh of relief from developers and community leaders in Niagara County.
The "climate for development" in Niagara Falls and the county has clearly improved, said Robert L. Newman, president and chief executive officer of the Niagara USA Chamber (formerly the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce).
But Newman, who was president of Noco Express Shops before he took charge of the revamped chamber four months ago, said other organizations also are responsible for the development drought in the city.
"Unfortunately, this local has done a lot of damage, but the lack of development is not all Local 91's fault," he said. "NFR (Niagara Falls Redevelopment) for one, has locked up the land and tied up a lot of development. This certainly goes against free enterprise."
Newman also said he believes in the credo, innocent until proven guilty.
The day the indictments were announced, Quarcini's attorney, Paul J. Cambria Jr., said the members of the local worked to "protect their workers and their rights under labor contracts."
But prosecutors have said that violence, vandalism, threats and inflated building costs are well-known trademarks of the 700-strong local.
One of the men arrested, union steward Paul Bellreng, 48, was on the board of directors of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency before being fired after his arrest.
Bellreng is accused of threatening to "take the head off" a nonunion asbestos worker on a job in Niagara Falls in 1997. Later that day, the worker's hearing was permanently impaired when two bombs exploded in his home. Bellreng is also charged with threatening to kill employees of the same company and their families.
Niagara County legislators voted unanimously last week to remove Bellreng from the IDA board.
Developers from the falls to the Southtowns said it was just a matter of time before some Local 91 members paid the price for their alleged actions.
"I've talked to a lot of developers since the arrests, and there is not one who was surprised," said Fred Boeheim, president of Gypsum Systems of Elma, a major drywall contractor that stopped bidding on contracts in Niagara County because of Local 91 tactics. "The only reason this didn't happen years ago is that nobody wanted to step up to the plate before."
But Boeheim said developers won't be in a mad rush to move back into the county.
"Think back to your school days. If you've been beaten up by bullies in the playground, you're not inclined to go back," he said. "Not right away, anyway."
"For decades, companies have boycotted Niagara County," he said. "They will start coming back, but it's not going to happen overnight. There's still a lot of old 91 baggage out there."
Ted Van Deusen, a nonunion carpenter who grew up in Niagara County and lives in Youngstown, hasn't worked in the county since 1987. He said Local 91 enforcers strong-armed him to join the union, but he refused.
Van Deusen was project supervisor with Grande Construction of Niagara Falls, the only nonunion general contractor in Niagara County. The company was building community residences for the Cerebral Palsy Association, and the site was being picketed by members of Laborers Local 91.
Van Deusen recalled his last day on the job. "A black limo pulled up and five guys in black coats got out. They told me to walk off the job and go union. It was like a gangster movie."
Van Deusen didn't "go union," but he did take his trade skills to Erie County, where he has worked ever since.
Grande Construction was finally driven out of the county by the alleged intimidation tactics of Local 91 and moved downstate.
Now Van Deusen wants to come back home.
"I would truly love to finish out my career in Niagara County and never cross the Erie County line again," he said.
Van Deusen was the first contractor to speak out against the alleged violence of some members of Laborers Local 91. That was in November 1999 in an article in The Buffalo News. But an investigation into Local 91 by a federal task force and grand jury was already under way. The probe culminated last week with a 43-page indictment and the 14 arrests.
"I was the first to stand up against Local 91, but hundreds of people spoke to investigators, even though they were under threats," Van Deusen said. "We can only hope that now all the violence and intimidation stops."
Franasiak also applauded "the courage of individuals and law enforcement agencies who went after an issue that nobody had the fortitude to deal with for decades."
Van Deusen, director of the National Association of Merit (nonunion) Tradespeople, said construction jobs that allow nonunion and union contractors to bid on a project are more competitive and bring the costs down. The more shops that bid, the lower the price.
As much as 85 percent of tradespeople and construction workers in Western New York are nonunion, and when a large commercial project is put up for bids in Erie County, it attracts three times as many bidders as a similar project in Niagara County, he said.
"Construction costs in Niagara County are the highest in the state because of the tactics of Local 91," added Sheriff Beilein.
But not every one sees Local 91 as the main deterrent to development in Niagara County.
"Local 91 didn't make the plants and industry leave the area," said Clyde J. Johnston Jr., president of the Niagara County Buildings Trades Council, which represents 5,000 workers in 17 unions in Niagara and Erie counties. "The authorities zero in on 91, and they get blamed for everything. Most of them are honest, hard working people."
Others couched their comments.
"Since the perception has been that Local 91 is an obstacle to attracting development in Niagara County, removing that obstacle can only improve the image of the community as a place to own and operate a business," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
Johnston is also business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 463, whose members currently make $23.45 an hour in wages and receive $14.95 in benefits, for a total package of $38.40. The total package for members of Laborers Local 91 is about $33 an hour according to Johnston. Union construction workers are paid up to $300 a week more than nonunion workers, according to state labor statistics.
Nonunion contractors are looking for cheap labor and often hire workers from outside Niagara County, said Johnston. "You get what you pay for," he added.
But some contractors say hiring union labor carries another price.
Dennis Richards, who owns Richards Machine Tool Co., a nonunion shop in Lancaster that won't do business here, said, "In Niagara County, if the mob-run union didn't get the contract, it's a disaster. These arrests are a great thing for Niagara County. I know everybody is breathing a little easier."