Why Pay-to-Play Is Bad for Labor

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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 New York Times: “Union Is Caught Up in Illinois Bribe Case.”

Not the kind of ink that labor needs right 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 help 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 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 soon-to-be-jailed 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 voters soon suffered from 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.  (See for example the lurid full-page anti-EFCA ads in the Washington Post and New York Times in the last few days playing up the ties between SEIU President Andy Stern, Balanoff, and Blago.)

Unfortunately, the ethical (if not always practical) advice offered above falls in the “easier-said-than-done” category.  SEIU is America’s self-proclaimed “21st Century Union.”  It prides itself on being labor’s biggest “player” in politics and organizing, a role apparently requiring much larger cash investments in elected officials like “Blago” than the piddling sums donated to “Nicky Pockets” by private sector unions twenty years ago.  Between 2001 and this year, SEIU spent a staggering $1,800,000 on a man described by one Chicago newspaper as “SEIU’s best local political friend.”  (John Nichols of The Nation now calls him a “governor gone wild,” who has been busted for “breathtaking charges of corruption.”)

What SEIU got from Blago, 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.  Plus, the Obama transition team has been saddled with a major political distraction, symbolized by the media stake-out of chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s home by reporters seeking further details on his talks with Blago about filling Obama’s seat.

On Nov, 4 in Puerto Rico, angry voters just had the opportunity to replace another tainted gubernatorial friend of SEIU, who could end up as a cellmate of Blago’s.  The “pay to play” schemes of Aníbal Acevedo Vilá from the Popular Democratic Party led to a multi-count federal indictment last March.  Although some charges were dropped earlier this month, he still faces trial for campaign finance law violations this winter.  Despite the governor’s indictment, 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, Acevedo Vilá gave a welcoming speech and provided the heavy security necessary to control anti-SEIU picketing by left-wing Puerto Rican teachers.

What “organizing play” was SEIU pursuing in Puerto Rico via its own heavy campaign spending on the now-defeated governor there?  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 Vilá 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 teacher protests 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 Vilá himself was badly defeated.

In Puerto Rico and 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>.