From Nicky Pockets to Blago
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 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
The late Nicky (aka U.S. Representative Nicholas Mavroules) hailed from the north
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
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
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
SEIU’s model child care campaign was soon mimicked elsewhere, by other unions (including my own alma mater, CWA, in
On Nov, 4 in
What “organizing play” was SEIU pursuing in
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-Vila himself was badly defeated.
Steve Early, a former organizer for the Communications Workers of America, has been active in the