always, it is a bad sign for organized labor when the mob is overheard
discussing unions on government tapes. Grand juries, indictments
But here was a veteran gangster praising one of New
York’s largest labor organizations—the building service workers Local
32B-J—as an able representative of its members, which to the wiseguy’s
way of thinking is a decidedly bad thing.
"It’s a very good union for the men," Salvatore Aparo,
73, an alleged Genovese crime family captain known as "Sammy Meatballs,"
was grumbling. "Y’know what I mean? And, uh, usually whoever belongs to
it don’t want to give that up. The men get treated good, and they get
good salaries." Aparo’s son Vincent, also a reputed Genovese member,
chimed in with his own tribute to the union’s prowess. "They got a good
contract," said Vincent. "Anything that they give that up for, they
gonna get less than what they already have."
Therein lay the crux of the problem confronting a
trio of mobsters in the spring of 2000 as they drove to interview a
potential client, a Brooklyn landlord named Abe Weider, who wanted their
ideas about how to get Local 32B-J off his back. The union represented
some 42 of Weider’s workers at a sprawling and deteriorated 55-building
apartment complex in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, called Vanderveer Estates.
To Weider, the $17 an hour plus benefits he was obligated to pay his
workers was way too high, particularly by the standard in Brooklyn,
where maintenance workers can be had for as little as $8 an hour,
providing the union doesn’t spoil things.
"Thirty-two B-J is the biggest headache you can
have," moaned Weider to the men in a back room at his Borough Park
office. Making things worse, the landlord said, the union had become
even more unreasonable since it was taken over by a team of dedicated,
gung ho organizers dispatched by the parent union, Service Employees
International. "I understand the new boss is not, uh, too much talkable,"
The search for a resolution to Weider’s problem ended
in federal court this summer when he was convicted at trial of labor
bribery. The Aparos also were indicted for their role, and both men
wound up pleading guilty to related charges. The convictions stemmed
from the one foul-up none of the men had anticipated, which was that the
third man in the car driving to Brooklyn that April day, a Genovese
gangster on the associate level named Michael "Cookie" Durso, was
recording everything they said on a tiny bug hidden in a costly Rolex
watch. Durso, who became angry with his gangland pals after they tried
to kill him over a loan dispute, has proved one of the government’s most
effective cooperators, helping to send a score of underworld figures to
The prized informant also performed another
significant public service: capturing—on tape—a virtual how-to guide for
getting rid of legitimate unions, along with detailed descriptions of
the high profitability of such exercises. These kinds of things are
rarely spoken of openly and, by necessity, are never written down. But
the Durso tapes, entered into evidence by the prosecution, provide a
rare glimpse into the shady maneuvers that have plagued scores of New
York union shops in recent years, as well as a snapshot of the crafty
players who practice them. The tapes also reveal an enterprise in which
the mob itself, the once fearsome Cosa Nostra, has been reduced to a
decidedly secondary and supporting role to unscrupulous employers,
lawyers, and well-paid consultants.
LESSON ONE in labor finessing was delivered by
Weider himself as he sat with the wiseguys in his office. The landlord’s
contract with Local 32B-J had expired and he had no intention of signing
a new one, he told the men. He had already made one attempt to recruit a
replacement labor organization to take over his shop, one that would be
more reasonable in its demands, or, as Weider candidly described it,
"You know, a sweetheart union." The sweetheart in question had been an
independent Bensonhurst-based operation calling itself Local 187 of the
Factory and Building Employees Union to which Weider had paid a whopping
$350,000 to make his labor problems go away. It wasn’t much of a union,
Weider acknowledged, and that was just how he had wanted it. "It’s a
father and the son" outfit, he said, run "like from their pocket."
Unfortunately that is exactly where Weider’s $350,000
had gone as well. Instead of trying to replace Local 32B-J at Vanderveer,
Joseph D’Onofrio Sr., president, Local 187, had taken the money and
gambled it away in Atlantic City, according to the federal Office of
Labor Racketeering, which was probing D’Onofrio’s local at the time
along with New Jersey state police.
Weider told his visitors that he had lost his entire
investment in that scheme with nothing to show for it. But he wasn’t
worried. "You can’t aggravate yourself," he philosophized. "I never
chase lost money." That notion puzzled his visitors, but it also
indicated something more profound: There had to be a lot more cash where
that came from. The gangsters listened avidly as Weider continued.
The failure of the D’Onofrio venture had left him in
the position of having to go head-to-head with the union at the
negotiating table, Weider explained. Plan B, he said, was to force the
union into a long strike.
"So my only solution is now the legal solution, to
negotiate in good faith and come to an impasse and then they’ll strike.
And really, legally there is nothing they can do about that. If you get
to an impasse, you get to an impasse," he said.
There is of course little "good faith" being
displayed by an employer who has already decided he wants to force his
employees into the street. But the sincerity of such "good faith"
bargaining efforts is always a key issue when complaints are lodged with
the National Labor Relations Board. And unions have long complained that
employers all too often make a pretense of honest bargaining, thus
shielding themselves from penalties and prolonging labor disputes
Strikes can be messy affairs, however, and Weider
wasn’t happy about the prospect of picket lines and other attendant
strike-related problems outside his buildings. That’s where the
knowledge and experience of the men visiting his office might come in
handy, he suggested. Since an impasse at the bargaining table was
inevitable, Weider said, maybe there was someone they could to talk to
at Local 32B-J. "We would save legal fees, would save headaches, would
save vandalism," Weider said. "All we need is someone to explain them
that, listen, it is gonna happen anyway. Come to sit peacefully by the
table and make a full settlement."
Did Sammy Meatballs and his friends maybe know
someone reasonable like that?
As a matter of fact they did, or at least they knew
someone who knew someone else. In any event, they assured Weider, they
were pretty certain they’d be able to accommodate him. "We’re not gonna
play no games with you," said Sammy Meatballs, offering the kind of
pledge that often means the exact opposite in gangland. "We’re gonna
tell you exactly the way it stands." The wiseguys departed, cackling
amongst themselves about the potential bundle—as much as $600,000, they
figured—to be earned from the deal. Back in the car, Sammy Aparo said,
"We’ll whack up the six." "Yeah, we’ll go three each," said Vincent
LESSON TWO in the art of labor union
manipulation was offered two weeks later at a diner on the Upper East
Side where Durso and the two Aparos gathered to discuss the Vanderveer
matter with a wealthy and successful labor consultant from Westchester
County named Glenn McCarthy.
The McCarthy family is widely known in labor circles.
Jack McCarthy, Glenn’s dad, was considered the key union fixer for the
Genovese mob dating back to the 1950s. Convicted four separate times on
racketeering charges, the senior McCarthy was a star hostile witness in
the mid 1960s before the U.S. Senate’s McClellan organized-crime
hearings, where his ties to a score of corrupt unions were detailed.
Jack McCarthy died in 1990, but Glenn, along with his
three brothers, followed him into the labor business.
At the diner, the three wiseguys ordered
cheeseburgers, fries, and Diet Coke s. McCarthy settled on the onion
soup and a club soda with a wedge of lemon. He then summed up the
situation in basic terms. "You got a Hasidic guy under the arm," said
McCarthy, referring to Weider. "The Hasidic guy is getting his balls
broke by 32B ."
McCarthy had several thoughts on the matter,
beginning with a rant about how the new leadership of Local 32B-J was
not to be trusted, at least not by those interested in making money off
its members. The old head of the union, Gus Bevona, who was ousted in
1999 by the international for letting his membership slide by thousands
while living like a pasha at their expense, had been someone with whom
"you can go and have conversations," said McCarthy. "Now you go and talk
to them, you could just figure they are going to be wired , OK?
"Let me explain it to you," he continued, warming to
his argument. "You cannot talk to 32B; take them off the table, you
can’t talk to them because they’re rats, okay? So nobody in America is
going to go talk to them," he said.
There was, however, another way to approach the
situation, and it so happened that McCarthy was expert at this method
and knew just the businessman to carry it out. That man was Michael
Francis, he said, owner of a major maintenance firm in New Jersey called
Planned Building Services, Inc. "He was the finance chairman for
Christine Whitman," said McCarthy, referring to the former New Jersey
governor and current head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency .
Francis, who was appointed head of the state’s Sports and Exposition
Authority by Whitman, lost that post after he was hit in 1997 with state
charges of using mob connections to extort building managers to use his
company. Whitman dropped Francis like a stone, but the contractor was
acquitted of the charges in February 2000, just a few months before
McCarthy’s sitdown .
"He runs a fairly large maintenance, cleaning
company," McCarthy told his companions. "He does very well with the
Hasidics. One of my guys has the union on his whole place. Usually what
he does is when they want to throw 32B out, the people who own the
buildings farm out the maintenance to him. He brings in his group which
already has a union contract and 32B is now on the outside looking in.
That’s normally the way it is accomplished."
Moreover, there was a great deal of money to be made
by all concerned, McCarthy said. "[The] building owner will get to save
a lot of money on his payroll. . . . He’ll do a cost analysis. Normally
what [Francis] saves them is between $500,000 to $750,000 a year," he
said. McCarthy said that his standard fee for arranging such deals was
10 percent of the contractor’s fee. If everything went according to
plan, the Aparos and Durso stood to collect 25 percent of Weider’s
savings. "We are doing it with buildings in Manhattan," said McCarthy.
"Best way to go."
Francis would also take care of any picketing by the
union by filing charges with the NLRB , McCarthy said. "Don’t worry
about the vandalism," said the consultant. "Once [Francis] comes in
he’ll throw everybody the fuck out. Whatever picketing would be very
short term because Michael will get that done with the labor board," he
said. McCarthy then turned to Durso and said with obvious pride, "This
is an industry, Mike."
Indeed it is. According to the new leaders of Local
32B-J, the playbook described by McCarthy has been used against them in
more than a dozen situations in the past couple years, including at 10
buildings where Francis’s company was hired in place of a 32B-J
contractor. The union has waged public and clamorous battles in front of
several large downtown office buildings, where whistle-blowing,
can-shaking crowds of picketers have protested the lower wages offered
by new contractors.
"We’ve been fighting him since before I got here,"
said Mike Fishman, one of the troublesome organizers described by
McCarthy who were sent by the international to clean up the local.
"Owners save so much money bringing in these non-union contractors that
they are willing to fight," said Fishman, who was elected president of
the local last year. Actually, the new contractors bring their own
friendly unions with them, Fishman said, just as McCarthy had described.
"You can always tell when it is one of those sweetheart deals, because
the workers don’t even know they’re in a union," said Fishman.
On June 27, 2000, Vincent Aparo and Durso accompanied
Michael Francis to a meeting at Weider’s Brooklyn office. Weider also
invited his financial backer, Michael Konig, a former nursing-home
operator who was banned by state health regulators in Massachusetts and
Connecticut, to hear Francis's business pitch.
"You’re gonna negotiate in good faith with the union
to an impasse. . . . You’re looking for givebacks," Francis told the
group. Any picketing could be legally limited to a single isolated
building, he said. "We’re prepared to go into federal court and get a
restraining order to avoid picketing," said the contractor. "We’ve done
it at other places."
At one point, Francis borrowed a pencil to do some
calculations. "You’re gonna save more than 20 percent a year. The exact
same number of people and they are quality personnel. . . . There’s no
magic to it."
The feds say they closed in before any deal could be
cut between the Vanderveer owners and a new, cheaper maintenance
contractor. McCarthy later pled guilty to labor conspiracy. Neither
Francis nor Konig were ever charged. The building complex went into
bankruptcy soon after the indictments and a professional real estate
manager was appointed by the court to run the complex.
Francis said he recalled little about the meeting in
question when asked about the matter last week. "I remember a meeting in
Brooklyn, I don’t remember who was there," he said. "I submitted a
proposal and I never heard any more about it." He declined further
comment. Konig also said he had no idea he was sitting down with
gangsters but was skeptical of the proposal "from the get-g o."
Before they were hauled away in handcuffs, however,
the Genovese gangsters eventually did find their way to a pair of
corrupt Local 32B-J officials, both of them holdovers from the Bevona
era. One of them, former 32B-J business agent Ismet Kukic, later pleaded
guilty to labor conspiracy. But even Kukic warned the Genoveses that
things had changed at his union.
"Let me explain to you what’s gonna happen," said
Kukic. "These are the new people over there, they’re very into hi-tech
shit," he said, with a vast war chest to wage pro-union campaigns. "We
investigate the owner, we find out who his mother was and father was,
who he donates to. . . . We go to where he lives, Scarsdale, screaming
all over the neighborhood. . . . These guys have big plans."