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How Union Bribery Indictments Hurt us All

The alleged wrongdoings of a select few bring unnecessary attacks on wages and PLA's

Kris LaGrange's picture
Oct 15, 2020

A story broke a few weeks ago of how a top-ranking building trades official along with other low ranking union reps got indicted on charges of bribery. Bad news like this hurts us all especially the good union leaders who go out their way to do right by their members. We are recycling this news to show you an example of how actions like this can create a world of problems for the rest of us who are honest and hardworking. Below that indictment story is an opinion editorial from a company union called the United Service Workers Union (USWU). This local, which is known for raiding legitimate AFL-CIO shops, took this indictment as an opportunity to further attack prevailing wages and project labor agreements. You will see below that all this is shameful but it is important for you to realize that it is very real and we must police ourselves so that we don't allow stories like this to ever break again.

Newsday: Feds, Sini: 11 union officials indicted on racketeering, bribery and fraud

Eleven top union officials in the construction industry on Long Island have been indicted by federal authorities on allegations of accepting bribes totaling over $100,000 following a two-year wiretap investigation that began in Suffolk County, officials announced Thursday.

Authorities allege the defendants — current and former members of Local 638, a union with jurisdiction over pipe fitting on Long Island and in New York City — agreed to accept dozens of bribes, beginning in October 2018, "to corruptly influence the construction industry at the expense of labor unions and their own members who they’re supposed to be representing," according to Manhattan federal prosecutors and the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office.

Prosecutors alleged the bribes were in exchange for "acquiescing in the bidding and performing of construction work with non-union labor for plumbing and pipe fitting projects that would otherwise have potentially been awarded to companies whose employees were represented by Local 638 or Local 200."

Plumbers Local Union #200 of the United Association, based in Ronkonkoma, has jurisdiction for all plumbing work in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to its website.

Several of the defendants, according to the indictment, met unidentified business owners at restaurants across the metropolitan area, including Long Beach, Melville, Rockville Centre and Commack, to collect the bribes.

Among those indicted were James Cahill, 71, of upstate Pearl River, president of the New York State Building and Construction Trade Council, which represents over 200,000 unionized construction workers across the state. Prosecutors allege Cahill was the leader of the so-called "enterprise," which they said "conspired to accept cash bribes, as well as bribes in the form of 'loans' that were never repaid, free meals and drinks, free labor on personal property, and purchases of home appliances."

Cahill, also a member of the executive council for the New York State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations or the NYS AFL-CIO, is charged with racketeering conspiracy, honest services fraud conspiracy and conspiracy to violate the Taft-Hartley Act.

Sam Talkin, an attorney for Cahill, said: "We're pleading not guilty and we deny the allegations."

Attorneys for the other defendants could not immediately be reached Thursday afternoon. No one answered the phone at Local 200. A woman who answered the phone at the Long Island City-based Steamfitters Local 638 said: "We have no comment at this time."

Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy D. Sini, whose office brought the case to the U.S. attorney's office, said in a statement: "These union officials — who purported to be the ones looking out for workers and their rights — were in fact engaged in an enterprise of corruption at the expense of the hardworking men and women they claimed to represent. This was a complete betrayal of these unions and their membership. Our two-year wiretap investigation uncovered a shocking level of greed and corruption, and the investigation is very much ongoing."

According to the indictment, Cahill "influenced Local 638’s elections and installed loyal associates into official positions" within the union and "initiated several Local 638 officials into the 'Enterprise' so they could accept bribes and expand their influence."

During one meeting, according to the indictment, Cahill told an unnamed employer not to sign with a union, but instead to "tell everyone to go [expletive] themselves" because "if you become union, you’ll have 12 [expletive] guys on your back."

In addition to Cahill, other union officials indicted were Christopher Kraft, 43, of Commack, a Local 638 official representing Manhattan; Patrick Hill, 45, of Rockville Centre, who represented Nassau County; Matthew Norton, 56, of Syosset, who represented Queens; William Brian Wangerman, 60, of Atlantic Beach, who represented Staten Island; Kevin McCarron, 52, of Lindenhurst, who represented western Suffolk County; Jeremy Sheeran, 50, of Astoria, who represented parts of Manhattan; Andrew McKeon, 62, of Astoria, who represented Queens; Robert Egan, 60, of Kings Park, the financial secretary-treasurer; Scott Roche, 52, of Woodbridge, New Jersey, an at-large representative; and Arthur Gipson, 59, of Kings Park, a Local 200 official who represented all of Long Island, according to federal authorities.

NY Post: How New York’s ‘project labor agreements’ feed union corruption

The recent indictment of James Cahill, president of the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council, and 11 others on corruption and bribery charges was a sad moment for organized labor. Honest, hardworking union members deserve better.

Cahill and his associates deny the charges, and they deserve their day in court. Still, the allegations, if true, shed a cold light on Empire State collective-bargaining structures that make it all too easy for a few union bosses to enrich themselves at the expense of workers, taxpayers and the common good.

Federal prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York accuse Cahill of using his influence to interfere with labor-management relations in the construction industry in exchange for some $100,000 in bribes. Cahill allegedly advised a non-union employer not to sign up with a union and not to pursue bids that would have resulted in work for union members.

The American labor movement was founded to facilitate collective bargaining to improve workers’ economic status and working conditions. But the sheer power wielded by some union bigs too often frustrates that noble aim.

One of the ways that traditional building-trades-union bosses grab so much authority is through state- and city-granted Project Labor Agreements. A PLA, you might recall, was a major cause of soaring costs in the $2.7 billion-per-mile Second Avenue Subway.

When a PLA is in place, it grants a union leader the power to call all the shots and determine which locals get total and complete control of multibillion-dollar public and private construction projects. Those in charge decide what it’s going to cost in labor to get the job done. They become the ultimate power brokers, controlling numerous jobs and commanding the loyalty of countless beneficiaries down the line.

Cut out of these schemes are smaller construction unions and their members, who want to play by the rules and have their work priced honestly based on the output of our labor. Unions like mine have long been forced to compete on an uneven playing field, and if these allegations are true, now we know how and why.

This summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new exclusive municipal-construction labor agreement with the New York Buildings Construction Trade Council. It grants certain executives and unions complete monopolistic control over any projects that might receive tax abatements, public financing or other subsidies equaling 30 percent or more of the cost of construction.

Cahill has won similar concessions from the state of New York, where exclusive PLAs are the norm, used for the $4 billion rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge (now the Mario Cuomo Bridge), the $1 billion Tesla Giga Factory and the Buffalo Billion project to revive the upstate economy.

Yet even while under the dark cloud of a federal indictment, the Building Trades still hold sway over this way of doing business in New York.

This power is not granted to this group through the normal legislative process nor debated on the floor of the Senate or Assembly or in our public square.

Instead, in a convoluted section of the $177 billion state budget, there is a requirement that on certain projects, there either be a prevailing wage or a PLA — to the exclusion of many other unions and others not in the Building Trades. It’s a sweet deal for the monopoly.

We have long been taught that monopolies are harmful and drive up the cost of business while potentially sidelining the best and brightest workers. It’s time we acknowledge that such excessive powers granted by the government are abhorrent, leading directly to corruption.

In a democracy, is it really government’s role to pick winners and losers among the labor force, as if by royal decree? President Theodore Roosevelt, the New York-bred trustbuster, would be turning over in his grave, if he witnessed these machinations. PLAs aren’t in the best interest of taxpayers — and it’s time to pull the plug on them.

Kevin Barry is director of the construction division of the United Service Workers Union based in Briarwood, Queens.

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