New York City’s AFSCME Unions Rocked by Scandal


For the past six months scandals have been rocking one of the most powerful unions in the country. These events will have a profound affect on the labor movement nationwide and will provide valuable lessons for union militants.

The union is District Council 37 (DC37) of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a collection of 56 AFSCME locals in New York City representing 120,000 city employees.

Since July, DC37 has been hit by charges of graft, theft, embezzlement, vote fraud, kickbacks, thuggery, and payoffs. These charges did not originate in the press or in the government but arose from within DC37’s own constituent unions.

Charges such as these against a union may not surprise some people. But, in this instance, the effect on the labor movement of the charges against this union officialdom are profoundly significant.

Even though it does not have the economic power of unions like the UAW or the Teamsters, AFSCME is one of the largest union federations in the United States, and District Council 37 is the epitome of its organizational style. DC37, in a word, is to AFSCME what the Yankees are to baseball.

AFSCME’s degeneration

That such revelations are occurring in this organization are even more unsettling considering AFSCME’s proud history in the 1970s and ’80s as one of the most progressive unions in the country.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while fighting for the rights of an AFSCME sanitation local in Memphis. Some organizers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined AFSCME as organizers.

The union led major drives to organize the unorganized in the public sector. AFSCME fought for and helped mobilize support for the Equal Rights Amendment. The union helped initiate the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and its secretary-treasurer, Bill Lucy, became one of that latter organization’s guiding lights.

In the South, AFSCME actively sought to recruit the lowest paid public employees, who for years had been ignored by the rest of organized labor.

It was a union that sought to gain strength by bringing other workers’ organizations that did not think of themselves as trade unions into their ranks. In the late 1970s, the Civil Service Employees Association in New York State-whose members, like many other government employees, believed they were professionals, not workers-joined AFSCME to make it one of the largest unions in the country.

Many of AFSCME’s leaders had worked their way up from the ranks. Unlike in many other unions, dissent was for the most part tolerated.

Members who were activists in other areas of social struggle like the civil rights and anti-war movements were encouraged to use their talents to build the union. And, likewise, union members were encouraged to participate in other arenas of social struggle.

What happened?

How could a union with the potential of AFSCME and the involvement of its rank and file, end up in such a deplorable situation? The story is not a new one, AFSCME has been affected by the same pressures and problems that have affected all of organized labor in this country.

Frightened by the crushing of the air traffic controllers (PATCO) strike, the AFL-CIO top officialdom capitulated to employers’ demands for concessions that resulted in two decades of sharply declining living standards, plant closings, uninterrupted concession bargaining, run-away shops, and declining union membership.

Add to this the timidity of the entrenched union bureaucracy and its insane policy of supporting the very politicians that are out to destroy the unions. All of these factors contributed to this union’s stagnation and corruption.

The stealing of the vote on the 1995-2000 collective bargaining contract with the New York City government by DC37 bureaucrats is the key source of the current crisis in this union.

Stanley Hill, then executive director of DC37, negotiated a five-year contract with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that called for no increases in salary for the first two years of the contract (now called the double-zero contract). Because this was the first contract negotiated by one of the city’s most powerful unions of city employees, it set the pattern for similar double-zero contracts imposed on other local unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers.

The wage freeze and other elements of the proposed contract outraged the rank and file of DC37. Defeat of the contract seemed imminent, but some of the more forward-looking leaders in the union weren’t so sure.

Ray Markey, president of the New York Public Library Guild Local 1939 and for 30 years the bureaucrats’ main pain in the neck, smelled a rat. He and others proposed to DC37 that the votes on the contracts be conducted by an outside party.

The DC 37 bureaucracy refused, but Markey and one other union had their own votes counted by outside parties. Where counting was done by outside parties the totals were heavily against the contract.

In the local representing social workers, that union’s president, Charles Ensley, reported that the voting, conducted by the American Arbitration Association, showed 4884 against the contract and only 471 votes for. Other locals that had reported honestly recorded similar lop-sided votes against the contract.

Another indication of fraudulent vote-counting occurred when Local 1549, the largest in DC37, got a delay in its vote counting. Its president, Al Diop, was a proponent of the both the contract and the union’s cozy relationship with the mayor. Before counting the votes in Local 1549, the vote stood at 12,175 opposed to the contract and 9511 in favor. After the votes were counted for Local 1549, the contract was ratified by a vote of 19,513 to 14,438.

Since the ratification of the contract, other incidents occurred that further heightened the awareness of the members. One concerned Mark Rosenthal, a long time city employee and outspoken critic of the leadership in his union local. After having once been thrown off the ballot by his opponents in Motor Vehicle Operators Local 983, he ran again-notwithstanding threats on his life-and won.

Once in office, Rosenthal began uncovering some of the more shady dealings in DC37, which led him to contact the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Association for Union Democracy.

Other scandals broke out in DC37. One was a major embezzlement scandal in Local 384 representing City University employees. And Charles Hughes, the president of Local 372, representing 27,000 board of education employees, was removed by an internal AFSCME judicial panel.

A $5.50 per capita dues increase to the DC37 Executive Council and a $1 per member dues increase to the International added to a growing call from the ranks and some leaders of locals for change.

Committee for Real Change

Some of those local union officers and activists, like Markey and Rosenthal, began to involve the ranks through meetings and petition campaigns to take back their unions. They organized a caucus, the Committee for Real Change (CRC).

The program of the CRC reflects a desire to involve the ranks, build the union, get rid of the misleaders and prepare for the fights to come with city management.

The main points of the “Agenda for Change” are:

1) Free and honest union elections and contract ratification votes supervised by an outside authority.

2) All top officers of DC37 elected by direct vote of the union members in a unionwide election.

3) Open the financial books of DC37 to the members.

4) New organizing drives to reach the unorganized.

5) Fight privatization, organize the workers in privatized programs.

6) A program of internal organizing to involve DC37 members in the work of the union.

7) Fight Workfare.

Since the beginning, the dissidents have asked for a full investigation and disclosure from the DC37 director Stanley Hill. But Hill refused to acknowledge any wrong-doing by his supporters or close associates and kept stonewalling.

The dissidents then asked Hill to resign in the face of the growing disclosures. Hill refused. They asked for the International to impose a trusteeship on the District Council. The International refused.

Events finally came to a head when a former union president admitted that ballot boxes had been stuffed in the 1996 contract vote. On Nov. 23, two of Hill’s aides who assisted in the ballot fraud had resigned. Within the week Hill himself was gone.

Danger of government intervention

The same day that a trustee was appointed, both Markey’s local and Rosenthal’s local filed a suit against the District Council’s leaders and the City of New York demanding (a) damages in federal court under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and (b) that a monitor be appointed by a federal judge to run DC37.

This was seen by the two local presidents as a powerful lever to get the new trustee to take his job seriously. But the move was incorrect.

As the recent example of the Teamsters shows, the government’s promise to bring democracy to the union is really just sugar-coating for its bitter, anti-labor medicine.

Although the demand for a federal monitor has been dropped, and the charges suing the officials are currently not being pursued, the door has been opened for government intervention.

The government will surely attempt to housebreak AFSCME if the union appears to be getting too militant. This is precisely what happened when federal officials framed up and expelled Ron Carey from his office as president of the Teamsters as a result of his leadership of the UPS strike.

Since the appointing of the trustee, four union presidents have been removed and the rug has been pulled out from under the feet of the old guard.

The appointment of the trustee was not the result of the vigilance of the International president but rather by the pressure mounting from the ranks, which had broken into the press and become the talk of the town.

The forces for change in AFSCME are seeking alliances with forces for change in other unions in New York. Discussions with activists in the teachers union and the Transport Workers Union are in the works.

In the latest development, Ray Markey and Roy Commer have both been appointed by the Trustee to the Laws and Rules Committee. This committee will determine how the District Council is organized in the future.

Both Markey and Commer have pledged to use their new positions to fight for a union that is more inclusive and democratic, and better prepared to fight for its members’ interests against the city’s management.

Naturally, they will have to keep a watchful eye on the same International leadership that turned a blind eye to the past corruption in DC37.

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