October 28, 1997, Tuesday
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
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
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
"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
"The continued success of the labor
movement will not be affected by this distraction," said
Michael Goodwin, president of the Office and Professional Employees
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
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.