The Association of Union Democracy (AUD) has more first-hand familiarity with union corruption than any other organization in the country. The founder of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based reform group, Herman Benson, now in his 90s and still going strong, thinks the time is ripe for assessing several decades of efforts to curb labor corruption. Last October 14, the AUD held a one-day conference at City University of New York (CUNY) to solicit the views of lawyers, scholars, and perhaps most importantly, union officials themselves. Jointly sponsored by a CUNY-affiliated think tank, the Center for Urban Research, and a pro-union Internet radio project, “Building Bridges: Your Community and Labor Report” (www.radio4all.net), the conference featured more than a dozen speakers. Around 90 people attended, but now many more can hear what went on, given that three full presentations have become available on audio tape, with the rest to follow over the next month or two.
The available proceedings come from the morning session, “Theory and History.” AUD’s Benson, along with New York University law professor James Jacobs and former International Brotherhood of Teamsters overseer Edwin Stier, used their experiences as a basis for explaining the nature of corruption. Benson, who three years ago came out with a book, Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement, provided a history of efforts by rank-and-file union members to fight extortion, embezzlement, racketeering and other crimes committed by their officials. Jacobs, who a year ago came out with his own book, Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement, evaluated the use of federal RICO statutes to remove organized criminals and their collaborators from unions. Finally, lawyer Edwin Stier gave an account of his years as a court-appointed trustee cleaning up New Jersey’s notorious Teamsters Local 560, and later, during 1999-2004, running Project RISE, an in-house anti-corruption program that had been initiated, under close federal watch, by current Teamsters International President James P. Hoffa.
The main afternoon session, “Reflections on Experience,” featured nine speakers, all with close ties to organized labor. The speakers were: CUNY sociologist William Kornblum, author of the book, Blue-Collar Community; Carl Biers, executive director of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1588; Barbara Harvey, a Detroit-based labor lawyer who has represented Teamsters for a Democratic Union; Robert Fitch, union member, Long Island University professor and author of Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise; Eddie Kay, former treasurer of New York’s Service Employees Local 1199; Susan Jennik, a former AUD executive director who also has served as counsel for various Teamsters locals under trusteeship; Mike Sullivan, former reform leader of Philadelphia’s court-supervised Roofers Local 30; Eileen Sullivan, former trustee of Teamsters Local 295 (the “Goodfellas” local), leading that union in a transition from Lucchese mob control to reform member control; and Ed Sadlowski, a longtime Chicago-area Steelworkers union reform leader. Additionally, Michael J. Goldberg, a law professor at Widener University (in Chester, Pa.), moderated a separate afternoon discussion.
The conference was a meeting of progressives, that is, people whom one would consider politically left of center. But the event was about promoting public integrity, something that ought to cut across ideological lines. Union members have every right to expect that those who represent them at the bargaining table will promote their interests, not their own or those of the mob. While Union Corruption Update remains firmly supportive of the Right to Work, it applauds the conference participants’ efforts to provide a forum for union members with information and ideas on how to fight corruption, whether it occurs in the ranks of their own organizations or in the labor movement as a whole. That principle was enshrined in the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act. Union members and all others wishing to acquire copies of the proceedings should check out the website of the Association of Union Democracy, www.uniondemocracy.org.