When the stakes are high, the real crime story usually lurks beneath the respectable surface. That seems to be the case, at any rate, for the new labor federation, Change to Win (CTW). The group, which comprises seven unions with a combined roughly 5.5 million members, held its gala inauguration in St. Louis on September 27. Organizing millions of new workers is priority number one, announced CTW President Anna Burger, who also serves as political director for the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union. Her boss, SEIU President Andrew Stern, made the same point, as did Teamster President James P. Hoffa. Somehow the issue of corruption never came up.
There’s a good reason for that. The federation’s newly-minted secretary-treasurer, Edgar Romney, back in the 90s was a suspected bagman for the Lucchese crime family, looking the other way as the New York City garment industry, especially in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, reverted to sweatshop conditions of a century ago – and under union contract. Although neither he nor other officials of his union, UNITE (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), were indicted, their good fortune appears to be the result of federal investigators having other fish to fry.
Edgar Romney, 62, is UNITE’s number-two man behind President Bruce Raynor. He’s also the current international executive vice-president of Local 10, in the lower part of midtown Manhattan. Last year UNITE merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees to form UNITE-HERE, with a combined 450,000 members. But Romney a decade ago also was secretary-treasurer of Local 23-25 in New York City, long the flagship of one of UNITE’s predecessor unions, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. (Local 23-25 and Local 10, by no small coincidence, share the same Seventh Avenue address, floor and phone number). He comes off more as a professor than a union boss, notes union critic Robert Fitch, author of the forthcoming book, Solidarity for Sale. “It’s hard to imagine a more implausible Mafia associate than Edgar Romney,” Fitch writes. “The bespectacled, highly literate veteran labor leader is an African-American who is a member of Social Democrats USA and gives one of the best speeches in the New York City labor movement.” But that’s misleading, he notes, pointing to the fact that the Labor and the Justice Departments were onto him for some time.
In April 1997, a dozen FBI agents raided Local 23-25’s offices, carting away computers, software and boxes of records. Federal officials, following a three-year investigation, charged that Lucchese family mobsters controlled New York’s garment industry through extortion, murder, torture and arson. The Labor Department had prepared a 24-page affidavit which read in part: “Romney directs Local 23-25 business agents and organizers to put pressure on companies with the threat of unionization or strike and thereafter withdrawing the threat when an agreement with an organized crime family is made, thereby facilitating organized crime control of Garment Center companies.”
The department made clear that the Lucchese crime family called the shots, with assists from the Gambinos and the Genoveses. One Lucchese associate, Sidney Lieberman, didn’t just shake down apparel companies, he owned a few of them, too. He would give his lawyer, Irwin Schlacter, names and addresses of non-union companies, who in turn would forward the information to Edgar Romney. Romney then would send a union business agent down to the company owner to work out a “labor peace” agreement. In a wiretapped conversation dated May 3, 1996, Schlacter told Local 23-25 business agent Freddie Menau that he (Schlacter) “needed to sit down with ‘Edgar’ to discuss a couple of firms connected to the Mafia.” The UNITE agent would explain to the business owner that if he didn’t sign the contract, truckers wouldn’t make deliveries. And without deliveries, the company couldn’t stay in business. Any business owner who continued to operate without signing, and any trucker who delivered to such an owner, would answer to the mob, particularly Lucchese underboss Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, who eventually confessed to being involved in three dozen murders; Casso for a while was a government informant, and now is doing life in prison. But if and when the manufacturer paid off the union agent, he could operate with a free hand – and pretend the union contract didn’t exist.
UNITE at the time was leading a morally-charged crusade against Kathie Lee Gifford, who’d lent her celebrity name to a line of clothing while allegedly aware they were manufactured in Central American sweatshops. Yet its Local 23-25, whose ILGWU predecessor had taken to the streets to fight sweatshop conditions early in the 20th century, now was winking at those very conditions, despite the contracts it “negotiated.” An unpublished survey conducted by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (and leaked to the Wall Street Journal) revealed that about three-fourths of New York City’s UNITE-organized shops were in violation of overtime, minimum wage or safety regulations. Disgracefully, many manufacturers, with apparent full awareness by union officials, relied heavily on child labor, typically illegal Chinese immigrants. Edgar Romney came out of all this a lucky man. The feds never intercepted his conversations with Schlacter, and subsequently crossed his name off the list of suspects. Indictments did come in 1998, but against Schlacter and several Mafia wise guys; Romney and other UNITE officials were home-free.
So was Romney running interference for the Lucchese mob, arranging extortion payoffs in return for substandard contracts? Someone out there knows a lot more than they’re letting on. At the very least, the evidence should raise a red flag among Romney’s growth-obsessed fellow chieftains at Change to Win – before it blows up in their faces. (Robert Fitch, Solidarity for Sale, forthcoming, 2006; other sources).