A ‘Stewards Army’ Uprising Brings Regime Change to CWA Local 1101

Steve Early

Al Russo (far left) and Kevin Condy (third from left) decided in 2008 to rally “the ranks of the apathetic” and overthrow the “old guard” in Local 1101.

Rebuild’ slate takes over in NYC, after years of cor­rupt mismanagement

My first con­tact with union reform­ers in New York City was near­ly 35 years ago. Like many rank-and-file dis­si­dents, before and since, these crit­ics of cor­rupt labor offi­cials were prophets with­out hon­or in their own local.

IBT Local 282 was, at the time, one of the most mobbed-up affil­i­ates of a nation­al union noto­ri­ous for its orga­nized crime ties. My friends in 282, who drove trucks full of cement to build­ing sites around the city, dis­played enor­mous, almost reck­less, courage. They were, after all, tan­gling with some of the best friends a wise guy” ever had inside a big city con­struc­tion local — and in real life, not on The Sopranos.

Under­stand­ably, most ready mix” dri­vers were too afraid to go any­where near foes of the Team­ster lead­er­ship, much less join their oppo­si­tion group. In fact, well-con­nect­ed 282 mem­bers actu­al­ly looked down on those who chal­lenged IBT asso­ciates of the Gam­bi­no Fam­i­ly. To them, would-be reform­ers were just a bunch of Boy Scouts” or ene­mies of the union” work­ing for the feds.”

The cul­ture of Big Apple union­ism has become slight­ly more dis­si­dent-friend­ly in recent years. (For more on elec­tion vic­to­ries by reform-mind­ed NYC team­sters, tran­sit work­ers and reg­is­tered nurs­es, see here and here.)

But insti­tu­tion­al loy­al­ty, where it still exists, tends to run deep. When grifters, gang­sters and auto­crats hold union office in the five bor­oughs, they’re usu­al­ly smart enough to deflect any mem­ber­ship crit­i­cism of them­selves by re-cast­ing it as an attack” on the union itself. Plus, there’s a deep well of local cyn­i­cism, for incum­bents to tap, about the inevitabil­i­ty of cor­rup­tion in pol­i­tics, busi­ness, and labor.

After all, this is the city where Bri­an McLaugh­lin, a big play­er at the inter­sec­tion of all three fields, man­aged to steal more than $3 mil­lion while serv­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly as a N.Y. State Assem­bly­man and leader of the nation’s largest Cen­tral Labor Coun­cil (CLC). The vic­tims of his shake­downs or thiev­ery includ­ed the state of New York, the CLC, var­i­ous IBEW con­trac­tors, his own re-elec­tion com­mit­tee and a union-spon­sored Lit­tle League team in Queens!

In a reveal­ing dis­play of out­er-bor­ough sol­i­dar­i­ty (of the wrong kind), Bronx-born John Sweeney, then nation­al pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO, urged the fed­er­al judge sen­tenc­ing McLaughlin’s to be lenient. He cit­ed his friend Brian’s long record of ser­vice to the work­ing men and women of New York City.” The judge demurred, send­ing the defen­dant away for 10 years because his brazen” mis­con­duct and abuse of trust” lent cre­dence to the harsh­est crit­ics of orga­nize labor who accuse the lead­er­ship of corruption.”

The rebel rank and file’ ris­es again

On the job in low­er Man­hat­tan, Ver­i­zon tech­ni­cians like Kevin Condy and Al Rus­so often encoun­tered mem­bers of IBEW Local 3, whose Lit­tle League team lost $95,000, thanks to McLaugh­lin. While Broth­er Bri­an await­ed sen­tenc­ing three years ago, Condy and Rus­so were more con­cerned about offi­cial mis­be­hav­ior in the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA), their own union.

The 7,000-member Local 1101 is the largest tele­com local in the north­east. In its youth as a CWA affil­i­ate, 1101 exem­pli­fied labor insur­gency in the 1970s. As Aaron Bren­ner reports in Rebel Rank and File: Labor Mil­i­tan­cy and Revolt from Below (Ver­so Books, 2010) tele­phone work­ers in New York bat­tled man­age­ment and, at times, their own nation­al union dur­ing a sev­en month work stoppage:

The 1971 – 2 strike expe­ri­ence uni­fied one of the most impor­tant CWA locals in the coun­try, mak­ing it much more effec­tive in pro­tect­ing work­ers’ rights and improv­ing their wages and ben­e­fits. A few rank-and-file activists main­tained their orga­ni­za­tion and con­tin­ued to push the union toward more mil­i­tan­cy, but over time they either inte­grat­ed into the union appa­ra­tus or joined the ranks of the apathetic.”

Four decades lat­er, the entrenched polit­i­cal clique run­ning 1101 had been around so long that 11 out of 13 exec­u­tive board mem­bers were now retired from Ver­i­zon. This meant they were col­lect­ing their pen­sions from the com­pa­ny, plus six-fig­ure union salaries. In some cas­es, they were also enjoy­ing addi­tion­al forms of per­son­al enrich­ment, at com­pa­ny and/​or union expense — a mat­ter now under active inves­ti­ga­tion by the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor.

In 2008, Condy and Rus­so decid­ed to ral­ly the ranks of the apa­thet­ic” and over­throw the old guard” in 1101. Both were chief stew­ards and Condy was a mem­ber orga­niz­er.” In fact, they con­sid­ered them­selves to be char­ter mem­bers of the CWA stew­ards army” that new nation­al union pres­i­dent Lar­ry Cohen tried to sum­mon into being after tak­ing office in 2005. In con­trast, most Local 1101 offi­cials only paid lip-ser­vice to the idea of mem­ber mobi­liza­tion,” pre­fer­ring instead to run the union in cal­ci­fied, top-down fashion.

Condy and Rus­so start­ed out with a full slate in 2008 — but end­ed up run­ning just by them­selves. Every­one else, among the fel­low stew­ards that Kevin and Al orig­i­nal­ly recruit­ed to run with them, decid­ed to drop out. The threats of retal­i­a­tion and/​or patron­age promis­es made by incum­bent offi­cials were sim­ply too persuasive.

Both oppo­si­tion can­di­dates lost by about 400 votes out of 1,800 cast. They were up against a well-financed polit­i­cal machine, which con­trolled the local union elec­tion process, from start to fin­ish. As addi­tion­al job pro­tec­tion, the incum­bents had man­aged to implant two Local 1101 alum­ni in the top CWA nation­al union posi­tions in New York City. These Dis­trict 1 offi­cials had friends or rel­a­tives in the 1101 hierarchy.

All of these friends of 1101” could be count­ed on to do very lit­tle when rank-and-fil­ers com­plained about unfair elec­tion prac­tices, inad­e­quate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of new­ly orga­nized AT&T wire­less work­ers, or, more recent­ly, the abuse of mem­ber­ship dues money.

Build­ing a broad­er caucus

After their elec­tion defeat three years ago, Condy and Rus­so didn’t just lay low and lick their wounds. They left their cam­paign web­site up, stayed in touch with out­side helpers like Labor Notes and the Asso­ci­a­tion for Union Democ­ra­cy, and steadi­ly expand­ed their net­work of rank-and-file contacts.

None of this was easy to jug­gle with a full-time phone com­pa­ny job, fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty respon­si­bil­i­ties, labor edu­ca­tion class­es at night, and a spot high on the shit-list” of Ver­i­zon man­agers and 1101 busi­ness agents. But, over time, Condy and Rus­so were able to involve more stew­ards and chief stew­ards in a broad­er reform group­ing called Rebuild 1101.”

By late 2010, the rebuilders had enough polit­i­cal juice to turn out more than 800 fel­low work­ers, two days before Thanks­giv­ing, to chal­lenge the 1101 lead­er­ship about by-laws reform. Three months after that rare mem­ber­ship meet­ing quo­rum, some dis­senters in the local lead­er­ship blew the whis­tle on their sticky-fin­gered (and now estranged) colleagues.

They asked CWA Pres­i­dent Cohen to put the local under trustee­ship, a request that trig­gered an inves­ti­ga­tion, con­duct­ed by an upstate NY CWA offi­cial and an audi­tor from CWA head­quar­ters. In March, it was dis­closed that 1101 lead­ers had grant­ed them­selves unap­proved perks like un-receipt­ed week­ly expense allowances that were cost­ing the trea­sury $156,000 a year.

These and oth­er finan­cial abus­es led some in 1101 to call for a nation­al union take-over of the local. But the trustee­ship record of CWA Dis­trict 1 was not con­fi­dence inspir­ing. Just three years ago, Dis­trict 1 removed the leader of a CWA-affil­i­at­ed news­pa­per union who embez­zled $375,000 in dues mon­ey; the staffer appoint­ed by D‑1 to run the local, under trustee­ship, pro­ceed­ed to steal anoth­er $60,000, lead­ing to two embar­rass­ing scan­dals (and jail sen­tences) instead of one.

Some rebuilders also real­ized that a trustee­ship would just post­pone the 1101 elec­tion, sched­uled for this month — instead of giv­ing mem­bers the chance to clean up the local them­selves. Cohen and the CWA exec­u­tive board decid­ed to install a mon­i­tor” in the local, a retired nation­al union staffer, not con­nect­ed with Dis­trict 1. His man­date was finan­cial over­sight and insur­ing the fair vote that Condy and Rus­so didn’t get last time.

In the mon­i­tor-super­vised mail bal­lot that end­ed Novem­ber 21, turnout was very high — more 3,000 mem­bers par­tic­i­pat­ed. After an expen­sive and exhaust­ing cam­paign, the entire 12-mem­ber Rebuild 1101 slate, head­ed by Kei­th Purce, was elect­ed, most by a two-to-one mar­gin. Condy is the local’s new sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er and Rus­so will serve as one of 1101’s three vice-presidents.

Rebuilder sup­port­er Pam Galpern told Labor Notes that the vote vin­di­cat­ed the prin­ci­ple that an edu­cat­ed mobi­lized mem­ber­ship is the back­bone of a strong union.”

Anoth­er mem­ber of the local, a hard-bit­ten vet­er­an of CWA’s sev­en-month strike against N.Y. Tel 40 years ago, saw the results this way: It was a reaf­fir­ma­tion for all of us that, if you rob the mem­bers and try to stock the lead­er­ship with rel­a­tives and friends, the mem­bers will turn against you.”

But as Kevin Condy, Al Rus­so, and Rebuild 1101 learned, a rank-and-file revolt against deeply entrenched, self-serv­ing offi­cials doesn’t occur spon­ta­neous­ly, no mat­ter how egre­gious their abuse of pow­er. Mobi­liz­ing mem­bers to restore union democ­ra­cy and lost work­place pow­er requires one-on-one orga­niz­ing by peo­ple who real­ly believe in CWA’s steward’s army.”

Steve Ear­ly was a CWA nation­al staff mem­ber for 27 years. He has been a strong sup­port­er of the Local 1101 Rebuilders and oth­er CWA reform cam­paigns. He is the author, most recent­ly, of The Civ­il Wars in U.S. Labor (Hay­mar­ket Books, 2011).

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH