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Why Pay-to-Play is Bad for Labor

Reading about the involvement of SEIU International vice-president Tom Balanoff in wire-tapped conversations leading to the arrest of Rod Blagojevich on Dec. 9, I was struck by a related headline in last Friday’s N.Y. Times: “Union Is Caught Up in Illinois Bribe Case.”

Not the kind of ink that labor needs at the moment, nor is it particularly fair to Chicago-based Balanoff. He hasn’t been charged with anything and, based on the evidence released so far, was merely on the receiving end of a job-seeking pitch from “Blago.” Nevertheless, the uncomfortable proximity of the two reminded me of the ethical, political, and public relations dilemmas once faced by Massachusetts unions, including my own at the time, due to the illicit activities of  “Nicky Pockets.”

The late Nicky (aka U.S. Representative Nicholas Mavroules) hailed from the north shore of Boston. He was an ethnic Democrat, a great “man of the people,” and, most important of all, a “true friend of labor” just like “Blago.” He never showed up at the scene of a United Electrical Workers (UE) factory occupation, as the Illinois governor did 24 hours before the FBI cuffed him last Tuesday. But, as a member of the House Armed Services Committee in the 1980s, Nicky was a reliable meal-ticket, a man who could deliver Pentagon contracts for the 7,000-strong General Electric workforce in Lynn, Mass. Playing to the peace crowd too, he even sponsored “economic conversion” legislation. Therefore, in the minds of many trade union officials on the left and right, he was the kind of guy we should all stick with, even if he got caught in a little Chicago-style side game of “pay-to-play.”

Always wary of wiretaps, Nicky used a very sophisticated code to signal to favor-seekers that they needed to “pay.”  He didn’t have any U.S. Senate seats to peddle so would-be players from cities like Lynn were told to bring “four bottles of wine” (translation: four thousand dollars). After much hard work, the feds finally cracked this code. They went after “our friend” for shaking down some of his own constituents, signaling to many local Dems that it was time to bid Nicky adieu. But, raised up on the swelling chords of “Solidarity Forever,” Nicky’s ever-loyal union cadre would not abandon their man.

Voters in an upcoming Democratic primary had a choice between a convicted bribe-taker and a liberal, female challenger, who had served honestly and well in the state legislature. Some of Nicky’s disillusioned union pals hung their heads and held their noses when they voted for him. Others—the true believers–were still waving their “Vote Mavroules” signs with genuine enthusiasm on primary day.

Either way, labor’s campaign landed Nicky back on the general election ballot, where his legal problems took everyone down in November. The 6th Congressional district elected a very lame Republican, while Nicky copped a plea and shuffled off to Club Fed.The winner was Peter Torkildsen, known in the tabs as “Torky,” and the voters paid a price for his sorry representation.  Mercifully, this GOP interregnum lasted just two terms before the 6th once again became a safe Democratic seat, ending our Bay State embarrassment over sending even a single Republican to Washington.

What’s the moral of this story–from the days when organized labor was predominantly blue-collar, supposedly not as savvy, and certainly more “last century” than it is today? The lesson for labor, now and then, is: don’t get into bed with crooked politicians, because they may end up making you look as bad as them.  Few unions, including SEIU, can afford the additional baggage of bad press generated by fiduciary lapses by anyone other than themselves (or fellow unions). The latter kind of scandal, like the recent embezzlement of $1 million by the head of SEIU’s second largest local, creates problems enough, particularly when any union misbehavior at the moment becomes Exhibit A in management’s ferocious campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act.

Unfortunately, the ethical (if not always practical) advice offered above falls in the “easier-said-than-done” category.  America’s self-proclaimed “21st Century Union” prides itself on being a “big player,’ which requires much larger cash investments in pols like “Blago” than the COPE money laid on “Nicky Pockets” twenty years ago. Between 2001 and this year, Andy Stern’s union spent a staggering $1,800, 000 on a man described by one Chicago newspaper as “SEIU’s best local political friend”.

What SEIU got, in return for its perfectly legal generosity, was a major organizing opportunity among non-union low-income workers previously classified as “independent contractors.” As AP reported two years ago, the union “won the right to represent 49,000 in-home providers serving children whose fees are covered by state and federal funds.” In December, 2005, after Blagojevich “ordered the state to negotiate, SEIU obtained a $250 million, 39-month contract that will raise providers’ daily rates an average of 35 percent and eventually bring them health coverage.” SEIU also gained a new Illinois chief lobbyist out of the transaction—Doug Scofield, a former Blago campaign aide who briefly served as deputy governor during his first term.

SEIU’s model child care campaign was soon mimicked elsewhere, by other unions (including my own alma mater, CWA, in New Jersey.) But, meanwhile, back in Illinois, the citizenry seems to be paying a much higher price for labor’s embrace of  Blago than the modest cost of SEIU’s first contract settlement for exploited home-based care providers.

In Puerto Rico this Fall, angry voters just turfed out another disgraced friend of SEIU, who could end up as a cellmate of Blago’s. The “pay to play” schemes of Anibal Acevedo-Vila from the Popular Democratic Party led to a 19 count federal indictment. So now this defeated governor faces trial in February for tax fraud, concealing illegal donations, and engaging in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 20 years in jail. Despite Acevedo-Vila’s considerable baggage at the time, SEIU leaders Andy Stern and Dennis Rivera, head of the union’s health care division, enthusiastically embraced him in front of 3,000 delegates and guests at SEIU’s San Juan convention in June. There, the governor gave a welcoming speech and provided the heavy security necessary to control anti-SEIU protests by left-wing Puerto Rican teachers.

What was SEIU’s “organizing play” in Puerto Rico—the return on its similar investment in Acevedo-Vila? Juan Gonzalez was the first to blow the whistle on that in The Daily News and Democracy Now. He reported that, after a ten-day strike among 40,000 teachers last winter, Acevedo-Vila gave his “close friend” Rivera “the green light to oust the teachers federation and replace it with a newly-formed group” more amenable to his Department of Education.  Calling this “a shameful betrayal of solidarity,” Gonzalez pointed out that “Puerto Rican principals and supervisors” had, with help from SEIU, “created a new union for their own subordinates.”

This whole multi-million dollar scheme backfired in stages. First, the governor was indicted in March, then teachers’ pickets  marred SEIU’s convention in June, then the teachers rejected SEIU as their union in October (a resounding “No” vote by 18,000 of them, which showed strong support for their old union, barred from the ballot for striking), and, finally on Nov. 4, Acevedo-Vila himself was badly defeated.

In Puerto Rico, as in Illinois and other states on the mainland, union rank-and-filers–no less than the general public–tend to have little patience with politicians who soil the office they hold and betray the electorate. Union officials, on the other hand, remain wedded to the “politics of deal,” regardless of any negative consequences for constituencies broader than their own. Before labor suffers even worse fallout from its “old politics” entanglements, maybe it should develop political action and organizing strategies less dependent on “friends” who demand “pay” to “play?”

STEVE EARLY, a retired organizer for the Communications Workers of America, has been active in the Massachusetts union movement since 1980. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War At Home (Monthly Review Press, 2009) He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com