Western New York State has been the focal point of some of the most virulent union intimidation in the country. Laborers International Union of North America Local 91 (Niagara Falls) and Local 210 (Buffalo) were notorious in their respective heydays, committing numerous crimes against persons and property before being taken down by federal prosecutors. In the case of LIUNA Local 210, authorities tied more than 15 murders to union officials, members and associates. Now another union in the region can be added to this list: Local 17 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. And its days, too, appear numbered.
During predawn hours of Tuesday, April 8, federal and state law enforcement agents arrested a dozen leaders and members of the Buffalo-based construction union on racketeering and extortion charges cited in an eight-count indictment connected to a longstanding pattern of violence, threats, and property destruction. The arrests were the culmination of a five-year probe by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Labor and New York State police uncovering criminal activity that began in 1997 and continued until the arrests. If contractors or employees didn’t play ball the union way, “accidents” could happen. The union-imposed climate of fear had negative consequences for the whole region. “It has caused losses in the millions economically,” said Buffalo FBI Agent-in-Charge Laurie Bennett. IUOE Local 17, at least, stood to gain. Even now, four union members, including President Mark Kirsch, are free on bail.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh Scott handed the defendants a list of about two dozen individuals and 20 businesses from whom to stay away. But this is one union that apparently doesn’t see law as an impediment. The arrestees insist they are completely innocent. And their lawyers are using sentiment to sway local opinion. At the bail hearing in Buffalo federal court, dozens of family members took up more than three rows of seats in support of Kirsch, union member Michael Caggiano, and union organizers Carl Larson and James Minter III. “I’ve never seen such tremendous family support,” said defense attorney Rodney Personius. “He (Kirsch) feels that all the activities that he engaged in were proper union activities.” Union attorney Richard D. Furlong offered his own rationalization. “It’s pretty telling that in this country, the employer can slash pay by 50 percent, cut pensions unilaterally or send thousands of jobs over to China and that’s all legal,” Furlong remarked with populist brio. “But if there’s a union picket line and somebody gets a flat tire or is cursed out, all of a sudden, it’s a federal crime punishable by decades in jail. That tells you who makes the laws in this country.”
Actually, it was the bosses of Local 17 who, informally, made the laws – at least as they pertained to construction sites in six western counties in New York State. And they enforced them with what appeared to be an unyielding menace. Federal authorities allege the union employed threats or acts of violence on projects of all sizes, from small house demolitions to Ralph Wilson Stadium and Roswell Park Cancer Institute. On one occasion, defendant James Minter III in July 2005 told a worker entering a work site, “Tell Tara you’re going to be a little late tonight,” a reference to the employee’s wife. On another occasion, in 2006 a Local 17 picketer allegedly yelled to a Uniland Development Company representative that he was going to sexually assault his wife, naming the street the man lived on.
The union did more than threaten. Back in December 2002, the president of a local business reluctant to sign a collective bargaining agreement with Local 17 was stabbed in the neck and had his tires slashed. A little over a month later, defendant Carl Larson tried to “persuade” the businessman to sign. The conversation, as recorded in court documents, indicated the victim as saying: “What are the positives? You guys slash my tires, stab me in the neck, try to beat me up in a bar. What are the positives to signing? There are only negatives.” Larson responded this way: “The positives are that the negatives you are complaining about would go away.” The 2002 knifing is one of the acts mentioned in the 62-page indictment (Michael Caggiano pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in that case, receiving a scant four-month jail sentence). The union wasn’t averse to vandalism either. Local members allegedly caused more than $1 million in damages to more than 40 pieces of heavy machinery, using such methods as pouring sand and grinding compound into oil systems, breaking windows, destroying tires and cutting fuel lines. Could these be examples of what President Mark Kirsch would call “proper union activities?”
One of the reasons why the union’s intimidation was so successful and long-running was that it had official access to personal information. Local 17 officials would run potential victims’ license plates through the New York Department of Motor Vehicles database to obtain names and addresses of workers and spouses. They gained this confidential access by opening an account with DMV ostensibly to ensure their own motor vehicles were being properly registered and inspected. U.S. Attorney Terrance Flynn said the union regularly abused that privilege until investigators in 2006 requested a DMV audit.
Attorneys for the defendants are pulling out the stops to cast this case as an “us vs. them” morality play, a battle between decent hardscrabble hometown folks who went a little crooked (and, after all, who doesn’t at some point?) versus insensate federal agents and judges who provide cover for the rich and the powerful. “If these defendants truly get a jury of their peers – including working people, including those who have lost a job or who have no health insurance – they will all be acquitted,” lawyer Richard Furlong said. “In fact, the jury will pin medals on them.” Such a statement would seem to underestimate the common sense of potential jurors. Like it or not, there are facts to consider. And U.S. Attorney Flynn is prepared to introduce them in court. “We follow the evidence. We present the evidence to a grand jury, and the grand jury issues an indictment,” he said. “We support the grand jury’s findings, and we’re ready to go forward with this case.” It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who to root for. (KOB.com, 4/8/08; Associated Press, 4/11/08; Buffalo News, 4/11/08).