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For union leadership jobs, it pays well to have family ties

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Labor unions are dedicated to ensuring every worker an equal voice, but it helps to have the right last name.

For the Laborers Local 1015 in Canton, Ohio, that name is Mayle. Fourteen staffers and officers oversee $1.7 million in assets for 685 members, but five of them, including the treasurer, auditor and business manager, belong to the Mayle clan.

At Kentucky's Laborers 1445, five of 17 officials are named Oney. They are business manager Johnny W., who makes $80,000; Johnny N., who makes $61,000; auditor Roger, treasurer Mitchell, and secretary Rhonda.

"Johnny N. is the field rep, he's my son. When it comes to hiring him, I make my recommendations and the executive board does what they want to do," the business manager said. His brother Roger is auditor, and Mitchell Oney, until two years ago, sat on the executive board as treasurer. Rhonda Oney, who "sleeps with my brother," Mr. Oney joked, answers phones.

Teamsters 710 of Mokena, Ill., pays its treasurer, Patrick W. Flynn, $435,000 a year, but that wasn't enough. Both his son and daughter have taken jobs at the union. President Michael Sweeney brought on his sister Maureen at a $60,000 salary, while trustee James Dawes, who received a $215,000 bonus, brought on his daughter for $45,000, tax records show.

These cozy relationships are even worse among labor's elites in the marble palaces of Washington's national headquarters.

"It's becoming impossible to find anyone at the Laborers' International Union who has ever actually worked the trade beyond a summer or two while they attended the Harvard Labor College," said a longtime national official within the Laborers' International Union of North America who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation.

"How can you represent working men and women when you've never had to really work a day in your life as a construction laborer? These sons and grandsons of laborers have never suffered through a long layoff, or seared in the heat of the day, or frozen in the cold of a winter outside on a job site."

Armand E. Sabitoni is treasurer of the Laborers national union, making $425,000 a year, with at least two relatives on staff. Five members of the Sabitoni family are officers at Laborers locals.

Complex network

A complex network of pension and other funds spans the family's tentacles through every branch of the union and provides ample opportunity to boost salaries far beyond what is evident in the payrolls of the union's main offices.

Michael A. Sabitoni Jr., for example, is president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, and is also chairman of the Rhode Island Laborers' Pension Fund, the Rhode Island Laborers' Health and Welfare Fund and the Rhode Island Laborers' Annuity Fund.

He is also trustee of the New England Laborers' Training Trust Fund, the New England Laborers' Labor-Management Cooperation Trust and the New England Laborers' Health and Safety Fund.

"There's a whole host of trusts," said Nathan Mehrens, a top Department of Labor attorney under President George W. Bush. "Interconnected entities that are technically distinct from the union itself, but provide ample compensation."

At the 57,000-member International Brotherhood of Boilermakers national headquarters, four members of the Creeden family received a combined $836,000 a year, with Secretary-Treasurer William Creeden making $300,000 and directors Kyle Creeden and Ryan Creeden making more than $143,000 each.

At the 250-member United Industrial & Service Employees Union, four of the seven officials in 2011, including the president, vice president and trustee, were named Romero. At the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 1970, the president, treasurer and secretary were all named Lipscomb.

About 1 in 5 unions had multiple officials with the same last name in the most recent year, according to a Washington Times analysis of federal union disclosures. Unions had a median roster of eight officials, making it easy for one family to have significant control.

Low turnover

When officers aren't already related, they often become a sort of family, re-elected time after time, or shuffling top positions among themselves each election. Three-quarters of unions that had elections in 2010 re-elected most of their officers, The Times' analysis showed. Ten percent of unions re-elected 9 of 10 officers.

"When an outgoing boss leaves, they make an interim appointment of their own successors. After that, they have a re-election rate that would make an incumbent congressman blush. Nobody is ever stupid enough to run against them," the Laborers official said.

A recent American Postal Workers Union national president, for example, was elected seven times to three-year terms.

Across the country, 27 percent of union officers in 2003 were still in office in 2011. In 1 in 5 unions, at least half of the elected officers remained the same over the course of those eight years.

But imperial tenure is far more common, and has a greater impact, at the national headquarters that control the bulk of union finances.

Two-thirds of national headquarters retained at least half of their officers in the most recent election, The Times analysis shows. For example, the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers returned 11 of 12 officers in 2008, and the American Federation of Teachers re-elected 35 of its 45 officers in 2010.

At the Laborers' International Union of North America national headquarters, 11 of 16 current officers have been running the union since at least 2003. At the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union, it's 6 of 8, with only two district vice presidents departing. At the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union, only six board members and one vice president among the union's 24 officials left over the eight years.

Staying power

Union posts increasingly have become long-term gigs over the years, with the average union re-electing 56 percent of its officers in elections held in 2010, up from 49 percent in elections in 2001. And the longer they stay on the job, the more they make.

John T. Niccollai, president of the 17,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 464A in Little Falls, N.J., since 1982, was paid $527,973, while Ramon Rando, who has been secretary-treasurer since 1987, was paid $464,493.

At the Laborers 83, a $2.9 million union with 634 members in Portsmouth, Ohio, Gary Coleman made $163,000 as secretary-treasurer with his brother Joe as auditor. The elected officers hired Gary's daughter Lindy to oversee the apprenticeship program.

"If I don't represent my people, they can vote me out. The family stuff, they may not see that as a factor, if everyone's doing their job," Gary Coleman said.

As for his daughter's position, board members "put it in the paper, take resumes, and we wind up hiring who we think is best," he said, noting that his daughter no longer works there.

But accountability depends on two things that don't always happen: Union members being aware of the activities of their top officials, and the members acting on it.

Arthur Coia, for example, was president of the Laborers national — following in the footsteps of his father, who was treasurer — and was convicted of failing to pay taxes on a $1 million Ferrari. But even after the evidence became apparent, the union named him general president emeritus, with pay of more than a quarter-million dollars a year for life.

"They're involved in everything from real estate to banking, and even if you had someone fall out of grace, there's always a place for him," Mr. Mehrens said.

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