THE DINING ROOM of the elegant Sheraton Carlton
in Washington, D.C., comes alive early. By 7:30 most mornings,
business executives and their Washington contacts are hurriedly
arranging their schedules while black vested waiters dart among
the crowded tables. The early sun glints gently off the marble
floor. Outside, taxis sprint into the already-congested traffic
of 16th Street.
Amid this frenetic activity, at a linen-covered
table in a secluded corner, Angelo Fosco and his associates usually
begin their day. As other tables empty and are reclaimed, Fosco
and his guests calmly huddle. The men nod gravely as Fosco jots
figures on a napkin, occasionally gesturing with his pen. Dressed
in a tailored suit that covers his thick frame, Fosco can hardly
be distinguished from the conservatively attired business people
who surround him.
Few in the room, though, are as powerful
as this squat man with hooded eyes and dark, slicked-back hair.
As president of the Laborers International Union of North America,
Angelo Fosco heads the ninth-largest union in the AFL-CIO. He
is the fifth-highest-paid union president in the
nation. As he sips his $1.50 cup of coffee, many of the 475,000
members of his union are already at work-sweeping the streets
of Chicago, collectlng garbage in Birmingham, Alabama, teaching
school in Oklahoma City, pulling mail sacks off conveyor belts
in Jersey City and preparing for the first bettors at the pari-mutuel
windows of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Racetrack. But, mostly,
they are doing the dirty work of America's construction industry:
digging the holes, carrying the bricks and pouring the cement
that goes into apartment complexes, office buildings, hotels
and ' factories.
Despite its size, the Laborers Union is the
least-known union in the United States. Its strikes are usually
small and directed at one single contractor; they rarely intrude
on the public's routine. The back-breaking work which Laborers
do is rarely coveted. Local offices are often passed from father
to son and are seldom contested. Many members have difficulty
speaking English. Articulate dissent is almost unheard of. It
is a union content to remain in the background of the labor movement.
Ironically, it has the potential to be one
of the strongest. Straddling the construction industry, its men
carry the steel for ironworkers, the lumber for carpenters and
the bricks for masons. They dig the holes for pipefitters and
plumbers and unload the wire for electricians. Without the Laborers'
brawn no union construction site in the nation
Few people question the influence of the
Laborers Union. But, according to a secret U.S. Justice Department
memorandum prepared for the White House in 1978, Fosco himself
may not have much actual power. In fact, this memo-which no reporter
had seen until a copy came into the hands of Mother Jones-bluntly
states that Fosco "is a tool of the crime syndicate. Major
decisions regarding Laborers Union contracts are made by organized
crime leaders, not Fosco." The memo states that Fosco "follows
the orders of Al Pilotto and Vincent Solano, two local union presidents and LCN [La Cosa
Nostra] lieutenants; and Joey Aiuppa," reputedly the current
boss of the Chicago Syndicate according to other
That assessment of the long-ignored union
comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed the Laborers'
From its beginnings in the brutal padrone
("boss") system, which forced indentured immigrants
to work off their passages to America in virtual slavery to labor
contractors, to the sophisticated swindles that currently drain
millions of dollars from its members, this union has been torn
by violence and systemic corruption.
Even if the current grand jury investigation
of Fosco and three other top Laborers results in indictments on
racketeering charges, it is likely that little will change for
members such as Wakil Abdunafi of New Jersey Local 394 or Chris
White of Alaska Local 942 and other dissidents who have sought
to reform the Laborers. They have learned a bitter lesson: their
union is not their own. It has been stolen from them-lock, stock
and pension fund.
What follows is the first comprehensive examination
in print of how this has been done. Mafia control of the Laborers
International Union is so tight and comprehensive that an examination
reveals almost a textbook set of techniques that can be used to
take over a labor union.
At 8:12 a.m. on October 23, 1979, John Riggi,
business manager of Laborers Local 394 in Elizabeth, New Jersey,
cradled a phone to his ear, nodded twice and scanned the collection
of ragged-shirted men hovering against the dirt-stained, lime-green
walls of his hiring hall. With one arm resting on the sign-in
sheet, he searched the men's faces. For the third time in two
hours and 12 minutes, they grew silent and stiffened expectantly.
Without looking at the list, Riggi turned
and spoke quietly to the union secretary, who then leaned across
the counter which separated them from the hall and called five
men. The five rose went silently through the locked door of the
main office and followed Riggi into his private, wood-paneled
inner office. Through a one-way mirror, Riggi could see the men
outside return to their conversations. A few minutes later the
five, clutching white referral slips, walked past the knots of
other men, down the stairs and out the security door. Today, they
Along the walls the remaining men muttered
to each other, "The same old faces, again."
Each morning from 6 to 9:30, Riggi exercises
absolute control over the livelihoods of almost a thousand construction
workers who must go into his office in order to work. That control
has given Riggi, and the officials of other locals, what one judge
recently called "the power to starve." Riggi has never
been squeamish about using it. It was that power that helped him
maintain control despite an indictment for extorting thousands
of dollars from a union employer (he was acquitted)), despite
the indictment and conviction of the local's pension fund manager,
Meyer Kleinberg, for embezzlement-and despite allegations that
Riggi himself is the boss of New Jersey's Mafia, overseeing such
activities as loansharking, selling of pornography, gambling and
A short, stocky, balding man who was three-time
president of his high school class, Riggi does not look the part
of a Mafia don.
He arrives early each morning, usually an
hour after the hall opens, dressed immaculately in pressed slacks
and a conservative sports jacket. Though he is short, his wide
shoulders make him appear taller. As he silently walks past the
waiting knots of men, some rise from the hardwood benches to greet
him. His words, though, are not wasted on greetings. His entrance
into the referral office marks the beginning of the work day.
From behind a desk, a waiting man approaches Riggi and kisses
him on both cheeks. The ritual is a sign of respect.
Those familiar with Riggi's activities say
he is one of the most powerful men in New Jersey's industrial
heartland. Perhaps the key element in his exercise of that influence
is his iron-fisted control of the Laborers' hiring hall. No one
has ever held a job as a laborer on a union project site in Central
New Jersey without Riggi's approval. Each time a referral slip
is issued, the worker is personally indebted to Riggi. Each time
he passes a worker over for a job, Riggi- in effect-issues a warning
of what can happen to the man who provokes his anger.
For the Laborers of Central New Jersey, the
message is clear-don't cross John Riggi and expect to work.
Just how the union was to be run was explained
to Riggi on June 10, 1964, the day he was told he was the new
boss of the union. According to FBI wiretaps, Simone ("Sam
the Plumber") De Cavalcante called Riggi into the office
of his Kenilworth plumbing and heating company that day and promoted
him. De Cavalcante, who at the time had no official connection
with the union but was reputedly New Jersey's reigning don, was
upset because the men of New York Mafia boss Carlo Gambino were
not getting work fast enough.
Unknown to the workers, Riggi was given the
union and an order: Keep the amico nostro ("friends
of ours") working-at all costs.
"This is your future, John, but you
have to take care of these men," Riggi was told.
"The least of your worries will be our
people," he replied to De Cavalcante, his don.
By all indications, Riggi has spent the past
16 years keeping that promise. In 1969, a grand jury issued findings
"condemning" union leaders "who permit themselves
to be dominated by alleged mobsters or who willingly cooperate
with reputed criminals in victimizing their members," a veiled
reference to Local 394's willingness to help the mob sell peaceful
labor relations and to allow nonunion construction projects in
return for kickbacks.
In 1969, a U.S. attorney charged that 21
members of the local were Mafia soldiers. The same number was
cited two years later in an FBI report. FBI intelligence reports
over the years have repeatedly accused the local of being headquarters
for gambling operations. Typically, one 1977 report states that
"by taking action [i.e., bets] a worker can insure that he
will be one of the last workers laid off since the mob will take
care of him since he is making money for them [sic]."
Every working day for the past six years,
a heavy-set, six-foot black man has sat and watched Riggi's arrival
at the hiring hall. During those years a number of men, many of
whom are nonmembers, pensioners or friends of Riggi's, have walked
by Wakil Abdunafi on their way to work. Abdunafi, who has been
a Laborer for some-17 years, is not called.
From November 1974, shortly before he filed
a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking
a fairer referral system, until June 1978, Abdunafi, despite "shaping-up"
at the hall each day, has worked exactly 26 hours.
Abdunafi says he is aware of the reputations
of the local's leaders. "I'm not afraid of the Mafia,"
he says. "I just want to get out of this hellhole. I want
my kids out of the ghetto." As he speaks in a deep, intense
voice, a two-inch cockroach darts across the wall of his living
room. Before he filed charges against the local he lived undisturbed
in an apartment he was about to buy.
In March 1975, however, a city inspector
showed up at his door and told Abdunafi he did not have enough
"air space" and that he was to be evicted. Abdunafi
was forced into a rubble-strewn housing project on the Elizabeth
waterfront. Riggi posted an article about the eviction on the
local's bulletin board, where it hung for two years.
After ten years of fighting for a more equitable
system of distributing the union's work, Abdunafi says he has
learned one lesson. "The only thing that keeps the union
officials in power is the control of the hiring hall. As long
as the men can be arbitrarily denied work, they never will have
any voice in the affairs of the union."
That lesson, he says, has been jack hammered
into his head every nonworking day of the past ten years. When
he tried to file internal union charges, he found that each of
the men on the trial board depended upon Riggi for his job and
that the board members worked twice as often as other union members.
Each time that his charges were heard and
dismissed, while charges against him were upheld, he relearned
the lesson: he once was suspended from union meetings for one
year for swearing. When a friend, who testified on his behalf,
stopped getting referred to jobs, he was retaught the lesson.
And it was hammered home again when co-workers stumbled over their
own lies as they testified about jobs which they claimed Abdunafi
had turned down.
What is unique about Abdunafi is the tenacious,
often lonely, ten-year battle he has waged to regain his union
rights. Most others have not had the courage to battle the union.
In 1969, a man we will call Thomas Smith
was pulled off a construction site to make room for men Riggi
wanted to work. Though it was not the first time, Smith vowed
that it would be the last. He drove from the job to the federal
building in Newark and filed a complaint with the FBI. According
to a federal anti-racketeering intelligence report, Smith was
given one of the most desirable jobs in the local the day after
the complaint was filed. In return, he dropped the complaint.
The federal report said that this incident was a "typical
Another Laborer we will call Leon Jones got
into the local with the help of his brother-in-law during the
construction boom of the early 1970s. Despite promises of quick
work, he shaped-up for several weeks without a referral. Finally,
one Wednesday, he was sent to a construction site in Bayonne,
New Jersey, to dig a trench. That Friday he was handed a $100
paycheck for three days' work. When he returned to the union hall,
thankful for the work, he was told that thanks were not enough.
He was ordered to put $30 in an envelope under the seat of a nearby
truck. He complied but later protested. After the protest, he
says, he could not get another job and was forced to leave the
local. He is now an exterminator. For him and others, the price
of protest was too steep-a fact that every hiring hall boss relies
When Abdunafi began his effort to reform
the hiring hall, Riggi appeared little concerned. according to
NLRB testimony. "Don't argue with these guys, Pop,"
he told his father (who had headed the same local until he was
convicted of extortion) at a particularly heated union meeting.
"I'll hit them in the pocketbook, where it hurts."
Eight years after Riggi uttered those words,
an NLRB judge ruled that job applicants in the local were referred
"on the basis of solely subjective, irrelevant, unfair and
invidious standards" and that the local had refused Abdunafi
and the co-worker who had testified for him solely because they
had opposed the hiring hall system.
In his 90-page decision, issued March 16,
1979 (currently under appeal), Administrative Law Judge William
Jacobs ordered the local to reform the hiring hall in "a
nondiscriminatory manner based on objective criteria"; to
initiate "comprehensive record-keeping," available to
all members, that would disclose the bases for each referral;
and to repay Abdunafi and his friend for lost wages.
In anticipation of such a ruling, Local 394
instituted a sign-in sheet in September 1977, from which each
worker is to be called when jobs come in. It is the same sign-in
sheet which Riggi ignored that day he sent five men to work.
As the memory of Al Capone fades, the clippings
on file in the Chicago Tribune library grow kinder to the
Fosco family. Headlines like "Parole Inquiry Hits 2 Union
Leaders" give way to "Peter Fosco, Union Leader, to
In just 25 years, Peter Fosco, patriarch
of the Laborers' first family and father of the union's current
president, went from being called a gangland associate of Capone
crony Paul ("The Waiter") Ricca in exposes, to having
Richard Nixon applaud him as an "outstanding citizen."
But the rise of the Foscos is not just a
story of the Laborers Union. It is also a story of Chicago, and
the oligarchy of corrupt politicians, businessmen, union leaders
and mobsters which has run that city for more than 50 years. The
Foscos' accommodation of the mob-or Syndicate, in local parlance-has
its roots in the Roaring '20s, when Peter Fosco, a 21-year-old
Italian immigrant, first made his deals with the men who replaced
Within two years after his arrival in Chicago
during April of 1913, he had become a business agent of Laborers
Local 2, whose members were then digging the city's sewer system.
His political initiation soon followed. His first run for elective
office, as a Republican candidate for state legislature, failed
and led to a city hall riot in 1920. Fosco survived that melee,
as he would each succeeding wave of violence that would sweep
across the city in the '20s. His associates were not so lucky.
Both Anthony D'Andrea, his union mentor as president of Local
2; and Joseph ("Diamond Joe") Esposito, his political
mentor, were among 13 mob murder victims in 1921.
Like his power in the Laborers, Fosco's clout
in local politics grew over the years. By the 1930s, he had become
part of Chicago's political apparatus, having been elected a Democratic
committeeman (the Capone clique was bipartisan) in the First Ward.
Fosco's preeminence in the union, as manager of the huge Chicago
area district, came in 1936. Two years later, he solidified his
position at city hall by being elected a Cook County Commissioner.
His only public embarrassment came in 1948
when a congressional committee called him to testify about the
early release of his gangster friend Paul Ricca from federal prison.
Ricca had forced the issue when he called Fosco his "close
friend." Fosco never denied the friendship, and congressional
probes revealed a Fosco aide had served as an emissary for a key
exchange of money needed to free Ricca.
But by 1950, Peter Fosco's less savory past
had been forgotten, or at least ignored. He became secretary-treasurer
of the Laborers International, the No.2 position in the union,
and in 1968, he went to Washington as national president, ostensibly
because of his organizing work in Chicago.
As he moved up, so did his family. Angelo,
his son, succeeded him as Chicago regional manager. When Peter
Fosco died in 1975, Angelo succeeded him again, this time as president
of the union. Today, Angelo's son, named Peter after his grandfather,
continues the family line as the Laborers' regional manager in
But the Justice Department says the actual
boss of the union is the underboss of the Chicago Syndicate. "Until
his death in 1974, Syndicate underboss Paul ("The Waiter")
Ricca appointed most officials of Chicago's major unions,"
the report states, noting that the Laborers in particular fell
under Ricca's domination. More important, the report indicates
that control is passed along to each succeeding underboss as something
of an institutional privilege.
The privilege is lucrative, the report adds,
with a share of the proceeds from shakedowns and other illegal
activities run through the union going to the underboss. In return,
the underboss insures that union leaders rule unchallenged. "Problems
in union discipline or with recalcitrant employers are solved
Buttressing the argument that the Foscos
have led the union in name only is a list of those who have succeeded
to union posts under their rule. Most notable is Local 1 President
Vincent Anthony Solano Sr., described as a "ruling member
of the Chicago La Cosa Nostra. Solano has charge of gambling,
prostitution [and labor] shakedowns on Chicago's North Side....
No one without hood connections can aspire to leadership in this
local," the Justice Department report states.
Also mentioned is Alfred Pilotto, the president
of Local 5, who is given credit for control of illegal
activities on Chicago's SouthSide and involvement with mob interests
as far away as Las Vegas.
Although the Foscos are no longer officially
part of Chicago's political apparatus, the family's political
legacy lives on in the form of Local 1001, the 5,000-member municipal
workers union that Peter Fosco formed while serving as First Ward
Committeeman. In the mid-'60s, Frank ("Frankie the X")
Esposito ran the local and provided "no-show" city jobs
for Chicago hoodlums.
Esposito had angered Sam Giancana, his patron
and Syndicate chief at the time, and as punishment, Giancana ordered
him hit. The demise was to be particularly grisly. A team of hitmen
went to Florida, where Esposito was vacationing. There, they were
to lure him to a boat, kill him, cut up his body and feed his
remains to the sharks.
The FBI, overhearing talk of the plan on
a wiretap, sent word to Esposito, who cooled his problems with
Giancana and was permitted to live out his life as local president.
Local 1001 is now run by Joseph Spingola,
who the Justice Department claims was appointed by Ricca. Spingola
is also the president of Chicago's 40,000-member Laborers District
Council. With a combined salary of $125,000 a year, he is the
highest-paid public employee union official in the country.
In spite of the Laborers' reputation, Spingola's
two positions have given him considerable political clout and
made him a source of generous campaign contributions, both to
former mayor, Michael Bilandic, and to current mayor, Jane Byrne.
Both Spingola and his son, Michael, hold appointive positions
on Chicago municipal boards.
Apparently, maintaining friendly relations
with the mob is equally important. In 1977, the Organized Crime
Strike Force in Chicago sent FBI agents into the offices of Consultants
and Administrators Inc., a small company with Syndicate connections
which supplies dental and eye services to members of locals in
Chicago and Florida. According to a report of that raid, a total
of more than $12,000 in five separate envelopes was seized. A
corresponding list indicated that the money was earmarked for
Angelo Fosco, Al Pilotto and three other figures with alleged
"We're still working on it [the probe
of the alleged payoffs]" the prosecutor on the case says.
"But the envelopes and the list of names and amounts were
found separately, and unless we get someone who will testify on
who got what and why, we can't bring a case."
In New York, the Laborers' long-cultivated
image as a union that quietly goes about its business was shattered
on June 11, 1968. On that day a special state investigative commission
introduced New Yorkers to the union's darker side.
The hearings focused on the ten locals that
make up the Mason Tenders' District Council; they revealed an
almost complete dominance of the union by racketeers and "members
of the national crime syndicate."
The commission report detailed the control
of union officials by members of the Genovese, Gambino and Lucchese
crime families who arranged or got part of: payoffs by contractors
to avoid union pension and welfare fund payments; payoffs to allow
jobs to go nonunion; payoffs for sweetheart contracts which forced
union employees to work below union scale; the theft of more than
25 percent of the welfare fund annually; loansharking and gambling
on construction sites; and, incredibly, the sale of jobs to the
local's own members.
In Queens County Local 13, for example, two
men, including the secretary-treasurer, were murdered during three
years of bloodshed, the commission reported, as two brothers,
backed by competing members of the Genovese crime family, battled
for its control. One bomb destroyed a union car; a second was
found rigged to the local's door, set to explode when it opened.
Union officers funneled an estimated $20,000 a month to racketeers.
Attempts on members' lives became almost commonplace.
Today, the surviving brother is still with
the local. The grim picture of Mob influence on the Laborers Union
in New York was reaffirmed in the Justice Department's secret
1978 memorandum to the White House on Laborer racketeering. The
authors of that report listed 13 New York City Laborers locals
(as well as 116 other city locals) as being "under the influence
of organized crime." Sad to say, neither the state nor the
federal report claimed to be comprehensive.
One local not mentioned in either report
is Local 29 in Manhattan. When the state issued its report in
1968, the union hall of Local 29 was a busy place, supplying work
for more than a thousand members. Every time a skyscraper, tunnel,
highway or utility line was approved for construction in the city,
a crew of dynamite-handlers, blasters, drillers and miners from
Local 29's East 75th Street hall would be the first to arrive
at the site.
Their job, one of the most dangerous in the
nation, was to blast the gaping pits in New York's bedrock into
which other workers would later lay foundations or reinforced
concrete piping. Without the Laborers from Local 29 preparing
a site, no other union could work.
Things are different today. Membership has
fallen to less than 400, and the hall is a quiet place where a
few unemployed members loiter. Even the number of jobs for chippers-workers
who jackhammer open the sea of cement that covers the city's aging
utility system-has waned.
Instead of seven or eight laborers with jackhammers,
contractors now use the hoe-ram, a hydraulic sledgehammer mounted
on a back hoe, to splinter the concrete. When members complained
to Local 29 President Louis Sanzo about the machines stealing
their jobs, he told them it was progress, that there was nothing
that could be done. What Sanzo did not tell them is that if the
union fought the use of the hoe-ram, it might reduce the profits
of his wife's firm, Jo Lo Leasing.
According to Internal Revenue Service records
and company invoices, Bertha Sanzo, along with two of the union's
principal contractors, began the hoe-ram leasing business on July
21, 1977. Unemployment in the union was already severe then. Since
that time, it has gotten worse. When asked to comment on this
and on matters regarding his alleged involvement with organized
crime, Louis Sanzo angrily denied all accusations and hung up
When Edith Wright's commnon-law husband (a
Laborer) was murdered in his New York apartment, his brothers
brought over papers which clearly showed that Wright's two children
were the baneficiaries of the man's union insurance. For four
years union benefit fund administrator Sam Cavaleri, Jr., smiled
each time he saw the neatly dressed widow walk into the hall;
each time he refused to issue the check. "You need more paperwork,"
he would say.
"They thought I was dumb because I had
kids out of wedlock," Wright explained. Finally, last year,
she found a lawyer and forced the union to make good on the insurance.
In July 1979 the union issued a check for
the $10,000 coverage plus more than $2,000 in interest. But the
battle still has not ended. While Edith Wright was waiting for
the payment, she told one of the members about her problems getting
her childrens' money. The member listened and showed her the insurance
policy, which carries a double-indemnity clause. "They owe
you $20,000." Five years after her husband was buried she
is still in court. Wright is one of an estimated ten widows in
Local 29 alone who have been unable to collect benefits their
husbands paid for.
For all their toil, and for all the thousands
of dollars in dues that members have to pay each year, a great
many have gotten little or nothing in return. Just who profits
from those funds, held in trust for members, has been an open
question, at least in New York, for almost 20 years.
Ever since Dominick Falletti, a Queens County
butcher, sat in front of a New York Commission of Investigation
microphone in 1969 and explained how he became a member of Laborers
Local 46 "for the benefits," members have been justly
worried that their claims might be denied because their benefit
funds had been looted.
Falletti told the commission that on September
9, 1963, without leaving his meat market on 101st Avenue, he paid
a $70 initiation fee to Local 46 business agent "Blackie"
D'Agostino and became a Laborer. D'Agostino, he said, told him
he should join for the insurance coverage and that he would not
be expected to work. Occasionally, after Falletti joined, D'Agostino
would return to the store and ask him to endorse and cash a check.
Afraid of losing a good customer, Falletti obliged and never questioned
why he was asked to cash some $10,000 worth of union paychecks.
Falletti said he was surprised to learn from
investigators that he was listed as an employee of the Clarson
Construction Company and told the commission he had not worked
on a construction site in 25 years. Falleti explained that although
he had signed and cashed the checks, all the money was promptly
turned over to D'Agostino.
Falletti was even more surprised to learn
that a union physician, whom he had never met, had filed claims
with the local's insurance fund stating that he had given Falletti
and his wife X-rays, electrocardiograms and gall bladder tests,
and that he had even made several house calls.
By the time the hearings ended, the commission
had estimated confidently that 25 percent of the welfare fund
that covered ten New York Laborers locals was looted annually
by phony claims.
Like that of Local 46, the welfare fund of
Local 29 is self-insured. Each claim that is paid from the fund
comes out of the hourly contributions of workers and not from
some distant insurance company. There is a limit, therefore, to
the number and amount of claims that can be paid before the fund
is jeopardized. A Manhattan investigation is currently trying
to determine if Wright and others have been denied payments because
the local's welfare fund has been paying an excessive amount of
fraudulent claims. Evidence already uncovered has a familiar ring.
The owner of a toolgrinding store, who never worked in the local,
received $32,000 in benefits.
A prison inmate received paychecks from a
contractor and $1,000 in union benefits. The cousin of a local
official got $10,000 for an accident claim but was refused state
disability payments when workers on the job where he said he was
employed testified they had never seen him before.
No one is certain yet how extensive the fraudulent
claims from the local's funds may be, but one office worker familiar
with the records estimates that of the 395 union books now issued,
as many as 100 may belong to men who have not set foot on a construction
Of all the scams and rackets that operate
through the union, workers agree that the theft of benefit funds
is the cruelest. For most Laborers the benefit funds are the primary
source of protection against death and injury, two companions
never very far from any construction site.
In Local 29, for example, virtually every
member with more than ten years on the job has some form of silicosis
caused by the dust that has been blasted into their lungs. Union
minutes listing insurance claims read like a Saturday night emergency
room log. Almost all members carry at least one scar earned on
the job. Hearing loss and back problems are chronic.
"We work at the most dangerous job in
construction and they've never done anything to make it safer,"
one dissident says. It is a complaint that echoes through the
For the nearly 500,000 men working in occupations
that are among the most dangerous in the nation, the union has
assigned only one man to deal with worker-safety problems. A member
of a half-dozen committees, he has little time and less power
to take any effective action to make work safe for Laborers.
The appropriately named Joe M. Short is the
International's entire safety department-and he spends only part
of his time on that job. He says he realizes silicosis is a serious
problem and that it is the oldest-known yet least safeguarded-against
occupational hazard in the country. He knows that it can take
a worker's life in a matter of weeks, or prolong the agony over
years. He knows that many men quit their jobs because of the debilitating
disease, thinking that the aches and the slowness are signs of
age, and that they die without knowing they might have been entitled
to treatment and disability payments. He knows that it takes little
to prevent the disease: decent venting of tunnels, water attachments
for drills to dampen dust or sufficient time for dust to settle
after a blast. But, unfortunately, he does not know how many Laborers
might have the disease or what is being done to prevent it.
The International keeps no accident figures,
so Short is unable to estimate the extent or magnitude of the
danger construction workers face each day. Short says, however,
that 600 supervisors have only recently been taught how to recognize
hazards on job sites. But that seems to be the extent of the union's
commitment to the workers' health and safety. Tragically, the
effort is better than that of most unions, few of which give workers
the right to strike for safety violations.
A few miles from Local 29's headquarters,
at the 23-acre Jersey City Bulk Mail Center, members of Laborers
Local 325 say that this sort of disregard for the welfare of the
rank and file cost Mike McDermott his life. McDermott, 25, was
crushed when he became entangled in a conveyor belt that workers
had complained for years was unsafe. His death became a national
issue after co-workers walked off their jobs to protest hazardous
conditions in the nation's largest mail facility and prompted
congressional hearings into the plant's safety systems.
In 1973, Joseph Hauser, a bankrupt and beleaguered insurance swindler, decided he could make millions selling dubious policies to the volatile South Florida construction unions.
(Power struggles in the booming locals had
left at least one official murdered.) Despite a troubled past,
he knew he could get by with a little help from his friends.
He could not have brought much with him when
he arrived in Miami save a tattered reputation and the remains
of a bankrupt pre-paid union health plan firm that he had abandoned
in California, leaving $1.5 million in unpaid medical claims.
But it was a start.
He quickly purchased the small Farmers National
Life, a financially troubled insurance firm, for $1.5 million.
He then hired attorney Seymour Gopman, whose $7 million a year
practice monopolized the South Florida construction unions' legal
business. On a retainer of $2,500 a month, Gopman had the job
of introducing Hauser to union officers whose trust funds he could
By the time Hauser's second insurance empire
crumbled, in 1976, he and the friends he had paid to meet, mainly
relatives and associates of Laborers officials, had siphoned off
at least $11.7 million and had left 20 union trust funds in eight
states floundering. No one is certain how much Hauser made, but
at the time of the collapse he owned two mortgage-free homes worth
a total of $900,000 and had placed $1.1 million in a Swiss bank
Hauser's strategy was simple. With the help
of union officials (who seldom went unrewarded) he would sell
standard life and health insurance policies for union members
to the union benefit funds at apparently competitive prices. Once
the insurance was in place, the trustees, usually influenced by
one official Hauser had paid off, would agree to switch the type
of coverage. The new policy would be similar to the original except
for Hauser's commissions, which generally jumped from between
four and ten percent often to more than 130 percent. Investigators
who waded through the rubble of the crumbled insurance empire
that collected $39.2 million in union premiums in two and a half
years recognized how simple the scam was. They called it a Ponzi
The key figure in the success of Hauser's
operation, at least in the early stages, was Bernard G. Rubin.
When Gopman introduced the two men in Miami's posh Jockey Club,
they could hardly have seemed more dissimilar. Hauser had just
fled California, where the state's insurance department had publicly
branded him "untrustworthy." His looted insurance plans
were under investigation, and labor officials whom he had bribed
to secure business were becoming concerned.
Rubin, on the other hand, was at the height
of his power, exercising unquestioned control over the building
trade's unions in Florida's Dade and Broward counties. An officer
of two locals and a trustee of five benefit funds and a special
representative of the International, he drew $180,000 that year
in salaries- twice that of his ostensible superior, AFL-CIO President
Despite their differences, the two men apparently
got along well. Insurance, Rubin had learned, could be lucrative
if things were done right. Several months earlier he had seen
another insurance wheeler-dealer walk away with a life insurance
policy for the Southeast Florida District Council of Laborers
that allowed him to keep 90 percent of the $1.7 million premium
as a commission. This time, Rubin would share in the profits.
Just days after the two met, the first South Florida Health and Welfare Fund began making premium payments on a Hauser-written policy. By the time they were finished, the health and welfare funds of five Laborers' locals and three other construction unions had paid almost $14 million in premiums. Of that sum, about a third-$4.2 million- could not be accounted for two years later by the insurance companies.
The partnership seemed to work well. Rubin
was given an indirect ownership in Farmers National and began
to cruise around Miami in a new Porsche leased by the firm. Rubin's
friend and attorney, Seymour Gopman was put on the firm's board
of directors, another of Rubin's close friends was given the top
executive position, and two of his relatives went on the payroll.
Not even Rubin's 103-count indictment on
July 8, 1975, charging that he embezzled approximately $40O,OOO
in union funds, nor his conviction three months later could diminish
the partnership or Rubin's influence. For two years after a federal
judge imposed a five-year sentence on him, Rubin continued to
hold all but his post with the International. He even continued
to take part regularly in the affairs of Farmers National. And
while he appealed his conviction during those two years, he allegedly
managed to embezzle another $2 million.
If anything, the effect of Rubin's conviction
was to increase his power. As government efforts to remove him
from his union posts failed-the Labor Department refused a Justice
Department request to monitor the locals, and the International
backed down after promising to place them into trusteeship- Rubin's
stature grew considerably.
But Rubin's influence and friendship were
only one part of a larger scheme to defraud the union. As Hauser
expanded his operations to other states he met and shared his
business with other influential Laborers officials and their relatives.
"We were never turned down," a former partner of Hauser's
testified. Indeed, he (like other alleged mobsters, such as Chicago's
Al Pilotto) holds one of 85 lucrative but largely ceremonial positions
as special International representatives, appointed by Angelo
Paul Fosco was no stranger to insider deals
when he met Hauser. The 27 year-old son of Laborers Union President
Angelo Fosco and brother of the Chicago regional manager, he already
was a director of Consultants and Administrators Inc., the medical
service company which figured in Chicago crime investigations
and which also lists Alfred Pilotto as a trustee.
Hauser gave young Fosco about $26.O,OOO to
open the P.F. Insurance Agency. When Fosco failed the state insurance
exam, Hauser saw to it that he was coached until he passed, and
signed an agreement giving Fosco more than half his national profits
in the first year. In return, Fosco delivered the $5.6 million
insurance contract with the Indiana District Council of Laborers.
When a Senate investigating committee asked
Fosco about his role in the sale of life and health insurance
to the Indiana council, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against
self-incrimination 12 times before being excused.
In Rhode Island, Hauser found that Arthur
Coia Jr., the son of the then International vice president and
regional director of the state's district council of Laborers,
was also interested in insurance. They set up the Northeast Insurance
Agency, which shortly afterward helped place the district council's
$700,000 a year insurance contract with a firm Hauser controlled.
The same pattern was used to obtain another
$10.6 million in premiums from Laborers locals in Arizona, Georgia
and Massachusetts before Hauser was sent to jail for bribing union
officers in California.
Every so often one of the seven men scattered
around the living room in the house of an unemployed Laborer in
Fairbanks, Alaska, rises, pulls on a heavy parka and quietly leaves.
For the next ten minutes, the sound of a reving car engine fills
the background as the others continue to talk of union reform.
Moments later, leaving his car's engine warmed against the subzero
cold which would freeze it useless in 30 minutes, the man swings
the door open and rejoins the conversation.
It is a typical meeting of Ruled Out Of Order
(ROOR), a coalition of dissident Alaskan unionists (loosely affiliated
with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union) who are organizing
statewide opposition to their "corrupt and incompetent union
leaders." ROOR is composed of members of several unions,
and the members from the Laborers represent virtually the only
organized dissident movement in the Laborers Union.
Dissidence might never have surfaced in Alaska
were it not for the end of the oil pipeline boom. By 1979, unemployment
among Alaskan Laborers had topped 70 percent and prospects of
future work were dim. Almost 80 percent of the members, according
to the dissidents, have lost or are about to lose their pensions.
Among the men who continued to shape-up for work in the morning,
there grew a sense that the leadership was taking care of itself
and its friends while the majority of members had to scrape just
to pay dues.
"Hell, when things got bad they raised
the dues so they could maintain their $65,000 a year salaries.
They were flying around in airplanes we paid for, to the tune
of some $700,000 and wouldn't even put a coffee machine in our
old hall," said Chris White, a Laborer and secretary-treasurer
of ROOR. "When we'd ask questions about union finances, they
wouldn't even talk to us. That made us curious. What we found
out made us mad."
Armed with little more than curiosity and
the free time of the unemployed, White and Sam Goodman, also a
Laborer, began to haunt courthouses, government offices, libraries
and anywhere else they might uncover financial records. Slowly
a picture began to emerge of a union leadership more concerned
with exercising political and economic muscle than the brawn of
its members. The Alaskan dissidents found that almost half of
their $80 million pension fund had been invested in real-estate
"We couldn't believe it. They even gave
a $405,000 mortgage to Joseph Hay's [the Alaskan House of Representatives
minority leader] company while we had 70 percent of our members
out of work, and he was opposing higher unemployment benefits
and sponsoring a cutback in disability payments," White recalls.
A bear of a man, White has turned all of his immense energy to
tracking down just where his dues money has gone.
For example, he and his dissident colleagues
discovered that a series of allegedly illegal party-in-interest
loans totaling $2.4 million had gone to many of the state's most
prominent and influential businessmen. The dissidents say that
union leaders allowed loans to be made, often at terms not in
the interests of the fund.
But the pension fund is only one of the fronts
in ROOR's all-out assault. The organization is also challenging
what it says are illegal dues increases (Laborers now pay three
percent of their weekly salaries) as well as promoting opposition
candidates and urging by-laws reform to make the unions more democratic.
Already a suit has been won that compelled the Laborers Union
to mail out campaign literature of opposition candidates. A suit
filed to overturn Local 942's last election has yet to be heard:
during this election dissidents were beaten and shot at.
In response, the Alaskan union leadership
has accused the dissidents of an "antiunion campaign"
and has hired the Washington, D.C., law firm of Connerton, Schulman
and Bernstein, which also represents the International, to pressure
Teamster reformers into withdrawing their support of the Laborer
One of the firm's partners, interestingly,
is Jules Bernstein, vice chairman of the Democratic Socialist
Organizing Committee and the head of an early "Draft Kennedy"
campaign in Washington, D.C. Despite his liberal rhetoric, Bernstein
flew to Alaska to defend the Laborers' leadership there against
the dissidents' lawsuit.
Chris White and his Laborers counterparts
throughout the United States have their work cut out for them.
Union leaders are inaccessible, both to the rank and file and
to the press: when called by Mother Jones to be asked about the
various accusations leveled against them, Fosco, Riggi, Pilotto
and Solano were all unavailable for comment. But around the country,
rank and file Laborers watch as mob influence continues to manifest
itself in more and more vivid fashion. In St. Louis, Missouri,
the bombing of a Cadillac rocked Local 53, killing a newly hired
business agent whose only credentials appear to have been a long
criminal record and the friendship of Missouri mobsters. In Los
Angeles, a federal grand jury wants to know why a local there
may have allowed a doctor with a history of Medicaid and MediCal
abuses to charge the union's welfare fund for examinations that
allegedly never occurred. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, three former
officers of Local 1282 are awaiting trial, accused of embezzling
thousands of dollars in union funds. In Newark, a Local 734 officer
has been charged with taking a kickback on a $375,000 pension
In Cleveland, a man convicted of two cop-killings,
who spent much of 1978 and 1979 on the FBl's Ten Most Wanted list,
was re-employed by Local 860 though he is facing new murder conspiracy
charges. In Connecticut, a business agent for Local 445 was videotaped
allegedly splitting kickbacks with mobsters, saying, "I would
never rob you."
In Arizona and in Columbus, Ohio, union officers
have gone to jail for embezzling union funds to support their
lavish lifestyles, and one former Ohio prosecutor, James Palmeri,
has stated that "80 to 90 percent of the officials of the
Laborers Union nationally could be charged with similar crimes
if the Labor Department chose to act."
The dissidents have found that geting any government help to fight racketeers in their unions is extremely difficult. It took Wakil Abdunafi seven years to win a victory that is yet to be implemented. In Alaska, dissidents have waited two years for a response to their charges of pension fund misuse, and have yet to hear a word. Exasperated by the delay, burly Sam Goodman, said to be the largest Laborer in Alaska, used his last $700 for a trip to Organized Crime Strike Force regional headquarters in San Francisco, where he threatened to camp until a lawyer was sent to investigate.
"We were pretty dumb when we started," Chris White said. "It took us a while to learn these guys are protected by politicians who are supposed to represent us. We knew Ed Orbeck [former president of the local, now Alaskan secretary of labor] wouldn't help, but we believed the feds were above it. We were wrong.''
The influential protective arm of the AFL-CIO
has given the Laborers Union immunity from the politically timid
Department of Labor. Peter Vaira, the U.S. attorney who released
the first Abscam indictments, told the Senate Permanent Subcommittee
on Investigations in 1978 about the lack of support he received
from the Labor Department: "There are some compliance officers
[investigators] who have attempted to do a good job," Vaira
testified. "but they have been severely restricted and unrewarded
by their agency."
Inside the AFL-CIO-of which the Laborers
Union is a member in good standing-the story is the same. The
federation, which under its Ethical Practices Code can take steps
to eliminate corruption in an affiliated union, has steadfastly
refused to risk a corruption scandal that might damage its political
power. It is an attitude held not just by George Meany's successor,
Lane Kirkland, and other old guard members, but by the political
radicals such as Machinists President William Winpisinger, who
is sometimes called the conscience of labor. Chris White said
he once approached Winpisinger and asked for help on behalf of
Alaskan Laborers dissidents. "He looked at me and said, 'Why
don't you just quit?'"
Criticism of corruption in the labor movement
is left, by default, to business groups who use it to defuse organizing
campaigns. All too often, American radicals-and not just those
in the labor movement, such as Winpisinger- ignore the fact that
it is people like Chris White and his fellow workers whom union
racketeering hurts most. A union whose leaders have long-owed
allegiance to organized crime's feudal system is one whose first
loyalty is not to the interests of its members. Crooked union
officials have benefited from the Laborers corruption, but, in
the long run, employers who face a weakened union benefit still
more. Where graft rules, political principles are forgotten: a
review of the Laborers' largest pension funds show that in 1977,
four funds, including one whose lead trustee is Angelo Fosco.
owned more than $1 million worth of stocks and bonds in Hallihurton,
the parent company of Brown & Root. the nation's largest nonunion
By 8:30 a.m. activity in the Sheraton Carlton
restaurant has slowed. Angelo Fosco squeezes the check between
his uncalloused fingers and casually lifts it off the silver tray.
He lifts his weight from the table with both hands and, almost
reluctantly, rises. Together, he and his men walk slowly next
door to the union headquarters. In a few moments he will sit behind
his desk and begin listening to the business of the union: the
disorganization, the decreasing membership, the organizing failures,
the victories by the nonunion contractors whose share of the construction
industry has tripled since the Foscos took over the
union, the word of grand jury investigations, the deals made and
Two hundred miles to the north, Wakil Abdunafi
is hunched over a typewriter after another day without work. Already,
two closets in his cramped public housing apartment are filled
with copies of letters to public officials that have gone unheeded.
After six years he is still unable to successfully vent his frustration.
But he cannot stop the flow of words.
Five thousand miles away, in Alaska, Chris
White has returned from another meeting. For the third time in
a week he has listened as workers form their complaints into words
and, later, into anger. For the third time in a week he has slammed
his ham-sized fist on the table and said: "It's our union
and we want it back."
Ed Barnes is a free-lance reporter
who specializes in covering organized crime; he is a contributing
editor of New Jersey Monthly magazine. His work has also appeared
in The Village Voice, The Washington Post and elsewhere.
Bob Windrem is the son and grandson
of members of the Laborers Union. Currently a staff writer for
The American Lawyer, he has won six state and national journalism
This story was prepared with a grant
from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.