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From Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: how insurgents transformed the labor movement, by Herman Benson
Chapter 5: Interlude, the Painters Union, 1962-1972
The sixties were years of hopes aroused, but union democracy dreams deferred. The cumulative impact of the McClellan hearings, the AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Codes, and the enactment of the LMRDA offered the hope of a new era, the promise of a refurbished union democracy sustained by public opinion and protected by law. It was precisely that promise which encouraged me to begin publishing Union Democracy in Action. That same spirit inspired new insurgent movements for union reform, some recorded in UDA; but there were others. Let a hundred flowers bloom! And so they did, but, in those early days, most often only to be cut down.
Within a few years public interest dwindled; it was disillusioning to discover that the new law would not be vigorously enforced, that the AFL-CIO's concern with issues of democracy and corruption was only a momentary blip. Quelled, the early reform upsurge subsided. The potential for reform was impressive, but not powerful enough. The resistance and the obstacles were too formidable. This turn of events was most tragically evident in the Painters' union.
The first effort on a mass scale to stifle dissent in unions after the adoption of the LMRDA in 1959 came in the Brotherhood of Painters.
One Saturday afternoon early in 1961, Frank Schonfeld, along with a fellow housepainter, dropped into my Seward Park coop apartment in the Lower East Side. I had just begun publishing Union Democracy in Action, without an office, working out of my home, using a Post Office Box address. He said that he expected trouble because he intended to run for secretary treasurer of Painters District Council 9 and was looking for advice. Why from me?
He had first gone to the New York Civil Liberties Union where he met Gordon Haskell, assistant director, who was sympathetic but said regretfully that Frank could not count on the ACLU. Gordon was my old friend and comrade, a co-editor of Labor Action --- by then, defunct. He gave Frank a copy of "Intellectuals and the Lonely Union Reformer."
"The lonely union reformer --- whoever wrote that," said Frank, "sure knows what he's talking about. There really isn't anyone lonelier. I never saw it put better." Haskell gave him my home phone number.
At that time` Painters District Council 9, with jurisdiction over all union painting in the five boroughs, had about 12,000 members; about 8,000 were building trades house painters organized into a dozen or more locals; 4,000 others were members of several loosely affiliated autonomous locals: bridge painters, glaziers, sign painters, paint salesmen.
Frank told a sorry story: the union and the industry a cesspool of corruption; business agents taking payoffs; collusion between top union officials and contractors to keep wages low; cheating insurance funds; violation of the collective bargaining agreement; pressure on workers to evade safety rules; favoritism in hiring; blacklisting of critics; manipulation of elections and referendums. Above all: heavy infiltration by racketeers.
That was 1961. By now, some 40 years and a multitude of investigations later, these facts about construction are common coin. But back then to me, the details were shocking. Could this man be believed? Or, was he the victim of hysterical hallucinations? The Painters union! In my mind it still retained a nostalgic "progressive" aura. In the old days it was headed by a right-wing socialist; some of the old timers were still social democratic-inclined Jewish "paintners." It had once been headed by Louis Weinstock, a leading and acknowledged Communist; and then by Martin Rarback, a Trotskyist. It soon became clear to me that I had a lot to learn about the building and construction trades.
Schonfeld said he intended to organize a caucus, run for the top job of district secretary treasurer, and try to clean up the whole mess. The top job! I demurred. Couldn't you start out with more modest ambitions, say, for some local post? After all you've hardly begun to convince supporters. No, he replied, it's got to be the top job with the power to make changes. I listened without commitment. Even if he is describing the scene accurately --- and who knows? --- does he have delusions of grandeur? I was already wary, having met enough self-proclaimed saviors with Napoleonic visions who quickly faded into the night. And in the years ahead I would meet more. And so I left it vague. We'll be in touch. Meanwhile, I had to check it out. But where?
I asked friends in the United Auto Workers and the Ladies Garment Workers, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and the Seafarers union. Nobody knew a thing. Surely the Jewish Labor Committee must know. Painters DC 9 once had a big Jewish membership and had been part of the New York City socialist-labor-progressive "community." Schonfeld's own Local 1011 had originally been set up for Yiddish-speaking painters. But Manny Muravchik, JLC executive director, had no idea. "It's possible that some agents might be taking a few bucks from bosses," he guessed, "but don't take my word." I begin to realize that nobody I knew outside the union could tell me what was brewing inside.
Then I remembered Lou Cyens, whom I recalled as a former member of the Socialist Workers Party, one who had helped "colonize" the Painters union for the party more than ten years earlier. His brother-in-law, Erwin Baur, was a toolmaker and auto worker in Detroit and then still an SWP member, whom I knew and trusted as a dedicated idealist. Back in 1937, when I was 22, he was president of a Steelworkers local and took me to my first union meeting.
Erwin told me that Lou was still active in the Painters union and was a partisan of the administration under its secretary treasurer, Martin Rarback, the very same man Schonfeld would oppose. Cyens, I thought, must know the score, and so I called him.
I hear all kinds of nasty rumors about the Painters' union, I tell him, what can you tell me about Rarback and the union? Cyens is generously willing to talk at length, but he is stingy with basic facts. He expatiates with a heavy social-political analysis, the kind of deep stuff which rang so familiarly in the Marxist movement. There are, he lectured, progressives and conservatives in the labor movement: Harry Van Arsdale, head of the Central Labor Council and president of IBEW Local 3, is one of those admirable progressives. Rarback is in the progressive Van Arsdale camp, which is why, he says, I support him. In my impatience with the deep philosophy discourse, I interrupt: yes, yes, yes, but what about crooks taking money from the bosses? Here, he gets vague. Well, maybe a business agent sometimes takes a bribe, but that's not the important thing. ---and so back to the philosophy lecture.
"What do you know about a Frank Schonfeld?" I ask. Reply: "Oh a malcontent, used to be with Rarback." I'm beginning to get the picture. Maybe Schonfeld is genuine. Within a few weeks I'm convinced. Everything Frank told me begins to ring true. On May 27, 1961, a drizzly Saturday morning, 250 painters attended a Schonfeld rally in the Bronx to hear him and speakers from six locals explain why they wanted to get rid of Rarback. Later I meet some of them; they all confirmed Schonfeld's charges.
Even before the election, disciplinary charges were filed against several Rarback opponents. In June, in an atmosphere of intimidation, the election was concluded. When the ballot count was announced, Rarback was credited with 3,700 votes to Schonfeld's 1,900, but the tally was deceptive. Schonfeld had limited use of the union mailing list. Votes were tabulated by Rarback's supporters with little oversight. In the autonomous locals, where Schonfeld was not able to distribute a single piece of election literature, the vote went 10 to 1 for Rarback. But among painters where Schonfeld was able to get out at least one mailing the vote went for Rarback 2,500 to 1,800. In locals where Schonfeld had succeeded in compiling his own mailing list and members had received repeated exposures to his campaign handbills, he actually carried a majority. For Schonfeld, they went 1,464; for Rarback, 1,281.
When I first met Frank he was 44, a year younger than me, married to his wife Jean for more than 16 years, with an 11-year old daughter and a 15-year old son, all living in the old Amalgamated Coop Houses in the Bronx. For those 16 years he had earned his living as a house painter, his hands scarred and cracked from the cumulative effects of poisonous paint solvents.
Frank was a rare kind of painter, a rare kind of person. His father and grandfather had been prominent rabbis; and Frank, graduating from a Yeshiva on the way to ordination, seemed destined to follow in the same tradition. But he grew up in the depression-scarred thirties when thousands of young people embraced Marxist social radicalism. In a break with family tradition, he abandoned plans to become a rabbi. The social justice he once sought through the synagogue, he now pursued through the working class and the labor movement. He joined the Socialist Workers Party, the anti-Stalinist, pro-Trotskyist current which centered its activities in unions.
He had broken with the family's religious ties, but in character, personal demeanor, and morality he continued its heritage. He was gentle, quiet, considerate, civilized. Painters, puzzled to explain how so mild a manner could conceal so firm a leader, called him "a real gentleman." Strengthened by a powerful core of moral determination and guided by a code of personal ethics, he joined the labor movement not as a desk man but as an overalls worker. Later, when he left the SWP and his dream of changing the world faded, and others drifted back belatedly to professional careers, Frank retained a vision of workers democracy, now purged of earlier illusions.
By the time I met him, Frank had left the SWP years before, disillusioned with the party and with Rarback; but he remained an active member of Local 1011. No longer part of the Rarback administration, he was nonetheless elected a local recording secretary in the late fifties. It was his job to take minutes ---in English and Yiddish. But one day he missed a meeting to attend a niece's wedding. Upon return he read, in the minutes written by someone else, that the meeting had adopted a motion to impose a 50-cent assessment by a vote of about 700 to 15. He knew such a result to be an unlikely miracle because no more than 50 had ever attended meetings. Disgusted, he resigned the secretary job.
Earlier, during World War II, he had served in the merchant marine. In 1945, together with other comrades in the Socialist Workers Party, he became a painter and a member of Local 1011 in District Council 9. Their SWP cadre formed the core of a new opposition coalition caucus which, in 1947, defeated Louis Weinstock for the top job of DC 9 secretary treasurer and elected Martin Rarback. Then in his late forties, "Marty," like Schonfeld, was still an SWP member; but he had joined the party years before Schonfeld.
When he was younger and still in the SWP, Marty admired Felix Morrow with a trace of that awe which party leaders inspired in their young followers. Morrow, a half-generation older, was an intellectual leader of the party, an effective speaker, the author of a book on the Spanish civil war highly praised among the comrades. In the SWP, Morrow was Rarback's mentor, his model. Time passes. Sometime in late fifties or early sixties, Rarback had been out of the party for a long time. Felix Morrow was commuting to the city on the Long Island Railroad, when a former close acquaintance, whom he had not seen for years, sat down beside him. It was Rarback, a chance meeting. This is Morrow's account to me a few years later:
Marty, eager to talk, seemed determined to prove to Felix that he had made good in the intervening years; he was more than a mere union official; he was a man of affairs owed deference by others, as demonstrated by his recent trip to Florida. Two gangsters had been embroiled in a messy dispute over which was entitled to receive the ample fruits of some successful racket venture. Rarback, asked to arbitrate, went down to Florida to preside over the hearings, along with his aide Frank Grattano. After Marty had listened impartially to both sides and made the award, the lucky winner thanked him by proffering a big bundle of cash. Marty turned up his nose. "I don't handle that," he said condescendingly, "Turn it over to Grattano." Morrow, not impressed, was dumbfounded. (At hearings before one House committee, documentary evidence revealed that Rarback and Grattano had jointly received over $188,000 in one single payment from Jack McCarthy, a labor racketeer.)
When Rarback was first elected secretary treasurer of District Council 9, racketeers were still entrenched in the locals. Louis Weinstock, the Communist leader who had been elected secretary treasurer some ten years before, had to maneuver carefully and make concessions to retain power. In other unions, racketeers had entrenched themselves even while socialists held top office. John Burke, president of the Pulp, Sulphite union, and Pat Gorman, president of the Meat Cutters, were both socialist trade union leaders who failed to prevent the infiltration of racketeers. The difference between them and Rarback, however, was this: they failed to ward off racketeers; Rarback joined them.
One day, while Schonfeld was still in the Rarback camp but becoming uneasy with the direction of the union, the two men were arguing mildly over some aspect of union policy. "Painters are whores," said Rarback, "They'd sell out their own grandmothers for a few days work." He had learned contempt for the members who continued to elect him. They were anxious to make a living, sometimes desperate. He despised them for their need.
For eight years, between 1953 and 1961, Rarback faced no challenger and so was automatically declared reelected. The old CP- dominated Rank and File Caucus had reached an informal live and let live arrangement with Rarback. They grumbled now and then, but after 1951 they never ran a candidate against him. However, when Schonfeld finally raised the banner of revolt, most of them supported him against Rarback. The union continued to crumble; it ceased to exist on the job sites as a protector of working conditions. The contract was not enforced. Between 1953 and 1967, there was not a single general membership meeting of DC 9 painters. Rarback was busy with more lucrative activities; in collusion with employers and crooked city officials he was running a bid-rigging conspiracy in city housing painting. Shop stewardships, filled by the union, became sources of illicit income. Rarback's brother ran the insurance funds. The son of one of the big employers set up a brokerage firm to handle the fund's investments. Favored employers were allowed to fall behind on their insurance fund payments. In 1964, contemptuous of the members, Rarback negotiated a three-year contract which provided a total wage increase of four cents an hour. One and a third cent per year! (He justified the deal by negotiating an annuity plan which swelled the insurance fund coffers, a common source of manipulation.)
For Schonfeld it was depressing to watch the degeneration of the man he had helped raise to power. He rejected every offer to board the gravy train and severed relations with Rarback. At first it seemed impossible to oppose a solidifying machine based on fear and favors. For a time he dropped out of union activity and earned his living unobtrusively as a painter. But by 1960, after the adoption of the LMRDA and a new public interest in union democracy, Schonfeld and a few others decided to take a stand. They formed a Committee for Democracy; Schonfeld announced his candidacy against Rarback, which is when I met him. His organized caucus never totaled more than a dozen or two, a small band but not unusual in union opposition groups. But, as the election results proved, even in defeat they could count on a big reservoir of membership sympathy.
For the next six years, the Schonfeld opposition persisted in a flurry of activity. They ran candidates in some locals, published the Painters Free Press as an occasional tabloid newspaper, distributed handbills, organized small meetings of supporters. Slowly they were winning support, but it was impossible to know its full extent, because elections and referendums were routinely stolen. It was impossible to get an honest count.
When the dissidents were brought to trial before a board staffed by their enemies, Schonfeld's public appeal for the establishment of an impartial public review board, as in the auto workers' union, was circulated to the list of three or four hundred writers and public leaders which I had compiled during the machinists' affair.
Norman Thomas, everyman's ombudsman, who had sponsored the defense of the Chicago machinists, was available to help the painters. On August 24,1961, just as the painters were coming to trial in their union, 300 people came to Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, at a public forum sponsored by Union Democracy in Action, to hear Thomas, Schonfeld, and Dan House, head of UAW Local 365, speak on the need for public review boards in the labor movement. Rarback, accompanied by an official from IBEW Local 3, was there in the hall expecting, no doubt, to "expose" the affair. Taking the floor during the discussion period, he denounced his critics as disrupters and shouted scornfully that the audience consisted of nothing but an assemblage of painter malcontents. Whereupon loud calls came from scattered sections of the hall: Teachers here! Seamen! Carpenters! ILGWU members! Building Service! Paperworkers! It was a preliminary hint of what, over the years, would become an informal national network for union democracy.
Schonfeld and his supporters were being starved out, blacklisted, denied the right to work. Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the union had no hiring hall rights; painters had to solicit their own jobs. Business agents made their own private arrangements with contractors to make sure that their cronies got plenty of lucrative work. But when active Schonfeld supporters arrived: nothing available today! At one point in 1966, Schonfeld wrote to Mayor Lindsay: "A systematic blacklist is operating against us, not only in private industry but even against some who have worked for the city as provisional painters."
Schonfeld himself had worked regularly for many years for a large contractor, the Schatz Painting Company; but after coming out openly against Rarback his work with the company suddenly dried up: "Sorry, nothing today, Frank." Here again, Norman Thomas to the rescue. He wrote a concerned letter to the company president, appealing to his sense of fair play. Who knows what deeply buried sense of guilt the letter prodded in the mind of this Jewish entrepreneur? It worked. Frank went back to work, still able to support his family and to fight another day.
All the expressions of public sympathy contributed little tangible practical aid to the embattled painters; but, modest as it was, it did provide a measure of moral encouragement. But after the adoption of the LMRDA in 1959, union reformers expected more than moral encouragement. They presumably had gained the right to protection under federal law. The painters were the first to test the effectiveness of the law and to test the reliability of the government agencies responsible for enforcing it. In short, they discovered that the U.S. Labor Department was a weak reed and that they were more likely to find recourse and relief in the federal courts.
As soon as Rarback was installed in 1961, he preferred disciplinary charges against all his major critics, heard before a trial committee of his own supporters. Guilty! Of course. And in the normal course of events, normal that is before the enactment of the LMRDA, they would have been summarily dispatched and would have vanished from the radar screen. But not now. By October 1962, Schonfeld's case was decided in federal court. Overturning the trial committee's verdict and restoring Schonfeld to good standing, District Judge Murphy expressed his contempt for the union proceedings, "If this be due process," he wrote, "the moon is made of green cheese." All the trials were abandoned, the intended victims exonerated.
The new law was being tested. I decided to work with these insurgent painters to help defend their rights under the LMRDA. For Frank and me, it was the beginning of a lasting collaboration and friendship that will surely endure for the rest of his life or mine, whichever comes first.
The case of Solomon Salzhandler, a retired painter in Local 442, made legal history. He got into trouble in 1960 because he took his duties seriously as local financial secretary. After inspecting a group of canceled checks, he concluded that the local business agent had forged endorsements and cashed checks for his own benefit. In a little handbill message to local members he called the BA a "petty robber." Not the BA but Salzhandler was brought up on charges in the union, tried, found guilty of slander, removed from office, and suspended for five years. Earlier, three anti-Rarback oppositionists had also been disciplined on slander charges.
In a ringing defense of union democracy, the Court of Appeals in New York voided the union decision and ordered Salzhandler reinstated. "We hold that the LMRDA protects the union member in the exercise of his right to make such charges without reprisal by the union; that any provisions of the union constitution which makes such a criticism, whether libelous or not, subject to union discipline are unenforceable; and that the Act allows redress for such unlawful treatment." The union, the court held, is simply not to be trusted in such cases. "The Trial Board in the instant case," it wrote, "consisted of union officials not judges. It was a group to which the delicate problems of truth or falsehood, privilege, and 'fair comment' were not familiar. Its procedure is peculiarly unsuited for drawing the fine line between criticism and defamation ...."
Union Democracy in Action commented, "If a critic of a ruling administration charges that he has been slandered by the officials, his complaint is contemptuously ignored or dismissed. But if the official charges that he has been slandered by a critic, the result is usually quite different. The oppositionist can expect trial before a committee chosen by his enemies and prompt punishment. This farce, as a result of the Appeals Court decision, is now illegal."
Salzhandler v. Caputo was a landmark decision in union democracy law. All union trials on slander charges were abandoned in Painters DC 9. There were prompt repercussions in other unions. The conviction on charges of slander of John W. Anderson, by his UAW Local 15, was overturned by the UAW international executive board. The trial of Dow Wilson in the Painters' union on the West Coast was abandoned. The MEBA was forced to drop slander charges against dissidents Nick Priscu and John Roman.
For seven years elections and referendums in DC 9 were stolen. To turn their energies and their mounting support into power, the painter reformers needed a fair count in democratic elections. At one gathering ---I think it was a convention of the Socialist Party -- I met Don Slaiman, who was then director of the AFL-CIO organizing department in Washington. I asked him, "How can Schonfeld get an honest election in the Painters union?" He shrugged, "How should I know!" But opportunity knocked in 1967.
A crack in Rarback's protective stockade opened violently one evening in March 1964. In the parking lot of a city housing project Jack Graham, a contractor, was beaten by two thugs with tire irons so badly that he almost died. Luckily, he survived; and, after agonizing over the event for six months, he went to Manhattan District Attorney Hogan with his story.
Graham was the owner of the Westgate Painting Company, a contractor under agreement with Painters DC 9. He provided evidence of a corrupt bid-rigging conspiracy in the repainting of city housing, a lucrative $7,000,000 annual business. Crooked contractors parceled out work among themselves assigning one, then another, to be low bidder on projects. To make an extra buck on top of their inflated "low" bids, they did substandard work, using inferior paints, stealing coats of paint, pushing workers to do shoddy work under intense speed-up pressures. For overlooking obvious violations, city inspectors and union officials got bribes of 3% of the total contract prices. In six years, $840,000 went to Rarback and $420,000 to crooked inspectors. Legitimate bidders could not compete. Graham, for defying the system, was almost killed.
The plot involved contractors, city paint inspectors, and the union. A ring of employers would agree on the price to be charged the city for repainting of city-owned houses, decide on which of them would be the successful bidder, and submit higher prices to assure that their lucky choice would win out. Any unwary or recalcitrant bidder, not part of the clique, who won a contract by submitting a lower bid, would soon find himself in deep trouble. The inspectors would examine his work with microscopic care and find it defective. Do it over! The union would harass him with charges of violating the collective bargaining agreement and stop work on his job. Soon everyone got the message. One city housing official, Nathaniel Wheatman, was indicted in June 1965. Suspended from his job, he was hired by the Schatz Painting Company, first as a lowly painter then promoted to a desk job as a dispatcher. By coincidence, Schonfeld worked for that same company, so that the reformer who was urging painters to come forward with evidence against the crooks now depended for job assignments upon a man indicted on the basis of such evidence.
Rarback was indicted in October 1966, which put pressure on Frank Raftery, Painters international president, to impose a trusteeship over DC 9. But his action was a face-saving sham from the start. The status quo remained untouched. All the old officials were retained in their jobs, including the business agents and the council president who had refused to testify at the grand jury investigation into bid-rigging. Rarback was removed as secretary treasurer but then promptly appointed to a newly created full-time job of educational director at a salary only $25 a week lower than before. Life in DC 9 remained unchanged. All elections were postponed, effectively insulating the old officials from challenge.
The trusteeship, because it was so obvious a whitewash designed only to solidify the corrupt incumbents, opened up an avenue of recourse unforeseen by the officials. LMRDA Title III, which regulates trusteeships, permits alternative recourse: either by complaint to the Labor Department or by private suit in federal court. It presented the Schonfeld reformers with the opportunity they had sought in vain for years. They went promptly and directly before Federal Judge Marvin Frankel asking that the trusteeship be lifted and that the court order an election of officers under strict government controls.
The scene was set for a double confrontation, a challenge to the union officialdom, of course, but also a challenge to the U.S. Labor Department, which had failed abysmally to act during the reformers' six-year ordeal. The case of Schonfeld v. Raftery became a kind of scientific experiment, contrasting the responses of the Labor Department and of a federal judge to the set of identical facts.
Judge Frankel conducted seven days of evidentiary hearings. Here, at last, the reformers were able to record under oath the stolen elections, the corruption, the intimidation, the whole sordid story which they had presented time and again, but in vain, to the Labor Department.
Here we come to an odd aspect of Title III. The law provides that in any action in federal court a union-imposed trusteeship shall be presumed valid for the first 18 months. The DC 9 trusteeship had been imposed in October 1966. But when the insurgents filed their suit in April 1967, less than six months had elapsed. Was the evidence amassed by the insurgents shocking enough to overcome any presumption of validity? After hearing all the evidence, Judge Frankel asked the Labor Department for its opinion and received its familiar kneejerk response.
For six years the department had manipulated law and logic to validate the actions of grafters and dictators in control of the New York Painters union; it was not to waver now. The department urged the judge to dismiss the complaint and uphold the trusteeship. Its attorneys wrote, "...the defendant's action in imposing the trusteeship, and its subsequent ratification, complied with the provisions of section 304(c) and, therefore, the trusteeship is entitled to be presumed valid for a period of 18 months...." But the judge, whose assessment of credibility was based upon actual evidence, brushed aside the department's recommendation and, in a sweeping decision, upheld the reformers on every count.
Frankel concluded that "...the evidence offered at the hearing by the plaintiffs in support of their serious charges against Rarback, his fellow officers, and the Brotherhood was clear, consistent, careful, and highly credible....the Trustee's testimony was false ... it begins a train of evasive, misleading, and plainly untrue testimony for the defendants."
In rejecting the Labor Department's position, he wrote, "the weakest area of the [Labor] Secretary's brief...is in its thin treatment of the facts largely rested upon the testimony of the Trustee." Examining the same background of facts which failed to impress the Labor Department, he held, "the history of D.C. 9 elections extending into the period of the trusteeship has been marred by fraud and other irregularities." He noted that the international officials "witnessed, with apparent indifference, the repeated silencing of opposition views at meetings, and blatant improprieties in local balloting."
Unlike the Labor Department which would have validated the trusteeship, Judge Frankel wrote: "The proof is clear and convincing that the Brotherhood has not proceeded in good faith for any of the purposes authorized by law ... The primary reason for establishing or maintaining the trusteeship was to maintain the status quo ... and thwart the efforts of Rarback's opponents to achieve power by democratic means.."
In June 1967, Judge Frankel ordered an election of DC 9 officers under supervision of the American Arbitration Association and, following their installation, an end to the trusteeship. At last the insurgents could achieve what they had strived for: a democratic election under impartial control.
For seven years, Schonfeld and his supporters had maintained a semi-underground existence in this union of some 12,000 members, where perhaps a dozen or two dared to speak and act openly. An urgent need was to lift that cloud of fear.
But with Judge Frankel's decision, the atmosphere was transformed. Where once a baker's dozen came to local meetings, now there were hundreds. Freedom was in the air. DC 9 was like a nation suddenly liberated from autocracy. A few days before the final voting, 200 came to hear Schonfeld at a caucus rally. "The streets around the polls," he said with some pardonable exaggeration, "will be federal territory policed by federal marshals. You will be under the protection of the United States!" A burst of resounding applause. No civil rights election workers in Mississippi were happier at this news of impending federal intervention. And this was 34 Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan.
When the tally was ready at Manhattan Center on September 6, 1967, a thousand DC 9 painters had gathered in the hall. When the final count from 27 locals was announced, a roar of jubilation resounded: 3,230 for Schonfeld; 2,529 for Rarback. Schonfeld, the new secretary treasurer, was hoisted on the shoulders of enthusiastic supporters and paraded around the hall. He needed a police escort to free him from the press of admiring followers as he walked to his car.
But this is no fairy tale with a lived-forever happy ending. It was only the beginning of another ordeal, even more onerous. Corruption and organized crime, stubborn things, were still entrenched in DC 9.
In 1967 Schonfeld took office as secretary treasurer, the only post filled by direct vote of the entire membership. But most business agents, elected in the locals, were unopposed and resumed their jobs automatically. The deadline for BA nominations had expired before Judge Frankel's order; and at a time when the fog of fear still was hanging over the union; few dared to stand up. By some strange quirk, the judge failed to order a reopening of BA nominations. Schonfeld had been elected to the top position; but the union constitutional structure left actual power in the hands of the old gang. The painter business agents, about 20 in number, held a strong grip over their locals, a familiar scene in the building trades. Painters had no union hiring hall, no seniority protection, no hiring rights, no security. Business agents, in collusion with employers, constructed effective political machines by distributing the best jobs to small bands of supporters and by starving out critics.
On paper the highest authority in District Council 9 was the district council composed of delegates from the locals. Formally, they were elected by the local membership; actually they were handpicked by the business agents. When the BAs, the employers, and Rarback constituted one happy consensual family, this constitutional setup was a fiction. Rarback, always assured of the backing of the international office, could disregard the council. He could do as he pleased because it invariably pleased his cronies. But once Schonfeld took over, the moribund council suddenly sprang to life, asserted its authority, and, with the international on their side, Schonfeld's enemies could undercut him at every point. By itself, Schonfeld's election could not change that pattern. But it did present a first threat to the cozy collusive coalition.
While his enemies were still stunned by the early flush of reform enthusiasm, Schonfeld proposed bylaw amendments to establish conditions for democratic elections: supervision by the American Arbitration Association, guarantees for a secret ballot, identification of voters at the polls, the end of restrictions on the right to run for office. The district council, backed by the international office, managed to delay action for eight months, but when the proposals were finally submitted to a membership referendum, they were adopted by a massive 3 to 1 majority.
Meanwhile, in 1968, Schonfeld led the first general strike of New York painters in 23 years. Three years later, in 1971, when the contract expired, negotiations teetered on the edge until a new agreement narrowly averted another strike. The new militant stance of the union under Schonfeld lifted wages on most painters' work from $4.20 an hour in 1967 to $7.25. Maximum pensions went up from $90 a month to $130. Benefit funds were taken out of the hands of political hacks and turned over to professional management.
Schonfeld was convinced, however, that painters' gains could be sustained only if the union became an effective policing force in the industry and that, he knew, was impossible without rooting out the corrupt system of collusion with unscrupulous employers. But the business agents, backed by the international, were relentless in their drive to get rid of this reformer. In the locals, where elections were set on a staggered schedule, Schonfeld carried on the fight in the BA's home territories by supporting local slates pledged to reform and democracy. His supporters made some gains in the council but not enough to shake off control by the BA coalition.
The year 1969 was a turning point. Schonfeld submitted to membership referendum a series of proposals to reorganize the district council to shift power into the hands of painter locals and eliminate the influence of the autonomous locals, non-painter locals that invariably supported the old corrupt coalition. The amendments passed by a 2 to 1 majority. But when the international office vetoed the change, it was a clear signal to Schonfeld's enemies that his powers would be clipped and that the international would protect them from the reformers. Later that year, an international convention rejected Schonfeld's appeal and upheld the international board's decision against him.
With the open support of the international now assured, the corrupt combination unleashed its campaign to defeat Schonfeld when he came up for reelection in 1970. The drive to unseat him took a bizarre turn at a testimonial dinner sponsored by one autonomous local, ostensibly to honor International President S. Frank Raftery. On the stage was an assemblage of Schonfeld's enemies, inside and outside the union. There was Jimmy Bishop, selected by organized crime and backed by the international to run against Schonfeld. There was the head of the Carpenters District Council which had just completed a successful raid against DC 9. There was the president of Teamster Local 237 which, at that moment, was actually engaged in raids against DC 9 among civil service painters. There was no seat for Schonfeld on the dais with the dignitaries; he was shunted off to a lowly spot on the floor with the masses.
It was a near miracle: in the 1970 election Schonfeld defeated the combination with a comfortable majority. But power in the council still remained in the hands of the old guard combination. For the next three years, backed by the international, they continued a relentless drive to undermine his authority, using their majority on the council to turn meetings into extended diatribes against him, subjecting him to a multitude of disciplinary charges, and finally voting to remove him from office and barring him from running. But, by court order, he was reinstated and was able to run for reelection in 1973.
In the six years of his administration, because he held office but limited power, many of his key supporters found it hard to get regular work. Demoralized by their inability to break through the local and international power structure, some retired, some gave up, some lapsed into neutrality, some even went over to the enemy out of sheer self-preservation. During the six years of Schonfeld's incumbency, some 1,500 new workers were brought into the trade by the business agents and employers; workers who were unaware that they were benefiting from the improved wages and conditions that arose out of the long reform struggle. They knew only that, for their jobs, they were beholden to Schonfeld's enemies.
When he was reelected in 1970, 5,600 had voted. By 1973, when he was defeated, the number of voters declined to 4,600. By then, the combination could no longer be denied. Schonfeld went down; Jimmy Bishop, the choice of the Lucchese crime family, now occupied the top office. The tide of reform had been swept back.
By that time, I had been associated with Frank for over 12 years, beginning with 1961 when he first visited me on the East Side. From 1967, when Schonfeld was first elected as DC 9 secretary treasurer, until 1973 when he was defeated, I served part time as his consultant. Among other tasks, I edited the DC 9 Newsletter. During the 1968 strike, I got out a daily strike bulletin and wrote ads in the daily press to present the union's case to the public. I helped mount a successful campaign to ward off two raiding attempts by Teamster Local 237 to take civil service painters away from DC 9. For this work, DC 9 paid me $750 a month.
For me they were gratifying years and instructive. I learned what it was like to live and work in the building trades, and how difficult it was to survive in an atmosphere dripping with corruption.
When Frank was still an insurgent battling the crooks, he took up the cause of Carl Blum, a woodfinisher, a member of DC 9. Blum had been discharged from his job and deserted by the union when the Carpenters tried to raid DC 9 in woodfinishing shops. Carl was personable, intelligent, a convincing talker, and in his way, a fighter. He and Frank seemed to work well together; and so, when Frank was elected, he appointed Carl as his assistant. I worked with Carl, visited him once or twice at the two-family home he owned in Brooklyn. It was deep into Frank's first term ---Carl was still his assistant --- when Carl told me that he had visited Harry Davidow. It was a strange visit and even stranger that Carl should tell me about it. Davidow was the head of Teamsters Local 295, a powerful mob-dominated union, at the Kennedy Airport. (Many years later, Davidow was ousted when the federal government imposed a trusteeship over the local.) I wondered how Carl had gotten to Davidow and why. Carl told me that they had a long talk about Schonfeld. He said that Davidow insisted that Schonfeld would never get anywhere because "We will just get around him." We? Remember Davidow was a Teamster, not a Painter. Obviously he was talking about the mob.
Then, during Schonfeld's second term, while Carl was still his assistant, Frank was in tough negotiations with the employers over the terms of a new contract. At that moment, Frank learned that Carl was engaged in secret dealings for the top job of secretary of the employers' association. Louis Elkin, who had the job, was about to retire. When Frank explained to a meeting of his Local 1011 that he could not tolerate that kind of apostasy and had to fire Carl as his assistant, Carl was not defensive -- not in the slightest -- when he explained to the assembled painters: "This is America. Everyone has the right to try to advance himself." As Frank's second term was about to end in 1973 and the racketeer-employer-Carpenters-Teamsters- Painters international combine was out to cut him down, Carl joined the anti-Schonfeld camp and was later rewarded with a job as international representative and, in that capacity, served the old gang.
When I first met Burton Harrington Hall around 1960 at a Socialist Party weekend social affair, he was in his early thirties, recently admitted to the bar, with his office at 136 Liberty Street in Manhattan. His rent was somewhere around $35 a month for a hole in the wall in this rundown area full of schlock shops selling discontinued job lots, hardware seconds, cloth schmatas, and nondescript electrical parts bristling with indeterminate wires. He fitted in. It was out of this cubicle that he typed his own briefs, as in Salzhandler, on an old second-hand manual typewriter equipped with a worn ribbon. (Years later, the World Trade Center transformed the neighborhood into a high-priced luxury center where no mere mortal could afford space.)
He was brash, a confirmed bachelor, and looking to do something socially useful; I was looking for someone to do something useful about union democracy. And so our interests coincided.
I was scheduled to speak the following week on my favorite subject, union democracy, at two meetings in Philadelphia. Hall owned a little foreign car; I owned nothing mobile, couldn't drive, and could use a lift. He agreed to drive me down and attended the meetings where we met a few union insurgents. The ones I remember best were from Teamsters Local 107, then engaged in a bitter battle against a corrupt officialdom. Hall was bitten by the bug; that's what got him linked up with Schonfeld and Salzhandler and turned him into a union democracy attorney, devoting the rest of his life to representing a variety of union insurgents. In 1973 at the Supreme Court in Hall v. Cole, representing an insurgent in the Seafarers International Union against its president, Paul Hall (no relative,) he established the right of successful union complainants to collect legal fees in union democracy free speech cases.
In 1961, when Solomon Salzhandler was suspended on charges of slander, he came to Schonfeld for help; and Schonfeld asked me to suggest an attorney who might take the case pro bono. Even today, it is difficult to find pro bono assistance in union democracy cases; in those days it was almost impossible. By then I knew Burt Hall; without hesitation, he agreed to take on what became the leading case in union democracy law: the landmark Salzhandler v.Caputo.
As long as Schonfeld was an insurgent, Hall served him well. He performed admirably in Schonfeld v. Raftery, the successful challenge to the DC 9 trusteeship which opened the way to Schonfeld's victory in 1967. But once Schonfeld was elected, Hall made a bizarre turnabout, attacking his recent client in the press, deploying his legal talents to torment and undercut him. It makes a strange story, revealing an eccentric, unpredictable, even malicious streak in Hall's personality. This aberrant series of events in Hall's career was triggered, but not psychologically explained, by a disagreement with Schonfeld over Hall's future role as an attorney in the new DC 9 administration.
There has always been a delicate problem in the labor movement over the proper role of union attorneys. One can sympathize with a brilliant attorney who pilots union leaders through dangerous waters, legal, nonlegal, and illegal. He begins to think that he is far more capable of running the union than its elected officers. (Sometimes, it is true.) Sometimes lawyers end up in the top power positions, like Arthur Coia in the Laborers and James Hoffa,Jr. in the Teamsters. Often, attorneys, confused about their role, forget that the client is the real boss. This phenomenon is intensified among those crusading attorneys, ready to take on worthy causes, who volunteer to represent clients without fee in civil liberties cases, especially in union democracy cases. After all, they spend huge amounts of time, effort, and even money, ignoring their immediate self-interest, with little pay, usually none. Their true reward becomes their participation in the battle for social justice. Preoccupied with the cause, they tend to forget who serves whom: the client, often a grassroots insurgent, or the brainy lawyer. In the case of DC 9, this kind of confusion, I am convinced, drove Burton Hall over the edge.
Having rid the union of the legal firm that served Rarback's interests, Schonfeld sought a new legal setup for DC with its 12,000 members and 20 locals. He respected Hall as a dedicated attorney, effective in court. But life requires more than legal papers. Justifiably or not, he distrusted Hall's judgment outside the courtroom. (That distrust was vindicated soon after, precisely by Hall's vituperative public attacks on Schonfeld.) Moreover, knowing that Hall worked normally as a one-man band, with no team backup, Schonfeld had misgivings over depending exclusively on him to take over the whole DC 9 legal burden. As a compromise, he proposed that Hall become the attorney for the DC 9 insurance funds and that a second attorney, Henry Easton, whom he knew as a friend and was a partner in a larger firm, represent the union itself. Hall rejected the proposal, insisting upon all or nothing, and that was the end of the happy Schonfeld-Hall relationship. From that moment on, Hall became Schonfeld's inveterate enemy, attacking his erstwhile client, in private, in public writings, and in court.
Hall publicly denounced Schonfeld for capitulating to the corrupt old guard at a time when I was working hard with Frank in campaigns against them. Hall hailed Carl Blum as a "reformer" who was battling against the Schonfeld sellout when I knew of Blum's overtures to a racketeer. Hall tried to press criminal charges against Schonfeld on a nonsensical technicality but the district attorney's office threw out the complaint. His incredible campaign against Frank reached the heights of absurdity in 1973 when the old guard, in control of the council, preferred fabricated charges against Frank and removed him from office. When Frank appealed to federal court under LMRDA Title I, it was hard to believe but Hall represented the chairman of the DC 9 trial committee, Joe Presser, a relative of the Teamsters' Jackie Presser, to defend the removal of Schonfeld. He denounced Frank for "rushing" into court to defend himself, the same Hall who "rushed" into court over and again in union democracy cases! He argued that Schonfeld had no recourse under the LMRDA because it protected the due process rights only of members, not of officers.
Represented by Hall, the Painters' old guard lost that case. Schonfeld was reinstated by court order when the judge ruled that elected officers are entitled to due process under the LMRDA where there has been, as in this case, a pattern of repression in the union. And so here was the only landmark advance in union democracy law achieved because Hall, representing the side of corruption and repression, was defeated. In Schonfeld v Penza, Federal Judge Brieant wrote:
"...the abuse of process in the District Council as against Schonfeld appears ...egregious." He added that the charge was "a smokescreen to give a basis to oust Schonfeld from office and prevent him from running for re-election."
I should make clear that this whole business was a crazy episode in Hall's life, at a moment when something threw him off balance. Apart from this deviant aberration, he spent his whole life, until his death in 1991, representing victimized unionists against autocratic officials, in the course of which he strengthened union democracy law in landmark cases. I have always respected him for that record and appreciated what he accomplished in our common cause.
I write of all this at some length, however, because Hall's irrational assault on Schonfeld was printed in New Politics, which later preserved this performance in hard covers as a chapter on union autocracy. It was a vicious, distorted, sick diatribe against a man I knew as an incorruptible straight-arrow unionist who had the courage to stand up against organized crime domination in his union and who was finally defeated because the odds against him at that time were too heavy for anyone to withstand. It was sad to see Hall join the pack tearing at Schonfeld. My intention is not to derogate Hall, whose lifetime record I otherwise admire, but to set the record straight about Schonfeld whose unwavering defense of decency and democracy I also admire.
Frank Schonfeld was a premature battler against organized crime, fifteen years ahead of his time, too soon to enjoy the protective shield of a later government crusade against the Mafia. Isolated in this corner of the construction trade, at a time when the nation became preoccupied with the war in Viet Nam, with no echo in the labor movement, no support from administrative law enforcement authorities, and little interest in the broad public.
Postscript: With the defeat of Schonfeld in 1973, organized crime fastened its hold tightly over the Painters union in New York City. By 1990, the Lucchese crime family was in total control. Jimmy Bishop, selected by the mob in 1973 to defeat Schonfeld, was murdered by the mob in 1990 after he defied orders to step aside for a new reigning family faction. In the interim, the Schonfeld reforms were obliterated. In 1991, in a new state corruption trial, officials of DC 9 were convicted on racketeering charges; the indictment charged that the union was dominated by the Lucchese crime family. However, unlike Teamster and Laborers locals in New York, Painters District Council 9 was never reorganized by action of federal authorities under the RICO statute.
Now we turn back the clock ten years to 1963; Schonfeld is still bogged down in frustrated opposition, isolated in New York City. But independent of his efforts, and unknown to him, a vigorous reform movement is shaping up among painters in the Bay Area of San Francisco.
One day in that year of 1963, seated at his desk in the office of Painters Local 4, Secretary Dow Wilson, its leading officer, happened to glance into the wastebasket where the office clerk normally deposited the day's collection of junk mail. His eye caught the headline in an obscure little newsletter: "Our Day in Court." Curious, he picked it out and discovered issue No. 9 of Union Democracy in Action with the full text of Salzhandler v. Caputo, the New York painters' case in which the Court of Appeals, establishing a firm basis in federal law for civil liberties in unions, had voided internal union charges of slander against critics. Facing precisely such charges in his San Francisco District Council 8, he realized how important the decision could be for him. His local reprinted the UDA issue and distributed it to union activists all over the West Coast. He decided to link up with the reformers in New York.
That's how he got to know me and Frank Schonfeld. Within a few months he provided us with a bulging sheaf of documents, and for the next three years kept us informed. Early in 1966 UDA got a $1,500 grant from the Prynce Hopkins Fund which enabled me to write, print, and distribute the story of the California Painters in UDA No.18: "California Painters: Fight for tenants' rights; defend union democracy; win hard strike." When Wilson saw the advance text, he ordered several thousand copies for circulation in California. We did print the issue, but he never got the copies, because while we were awaiting delivery from the printer, his enemies in California were preparing to kill him. On April 5, 1966, he was shotgunned to death. Later, Union Democracy in Action told his story:
In 1963, Wilson, then 37, was known only to a small circle of admiring associates and a much smaller circle of bitter enemies; but his leadership qualities were exceptional. He could easily rally a hundred supporters to picket and protest. Flamboyant like John L. Lewis, he spiked his speeches with colorful phrases and literary quotations. No conformist, no suits, no white shirts, no ties. At a time when it was unfashionable, he sported a beard, black and visible, a blazing hunter's jacket and cap. He was murdered just as he was about to break out of obscurity into prominence as a national union leader.
Wilson was born in Washington DC in 1926, dropped out of high school to become a seaman. He married Barbara in 1946, became a housepainter, settled in San Francisco where they raised three children. In 1958 he was elected business agent of Painters Local 19, merged it with another to form Local 4 which, with its 2,500 members, became the largest single unit in the international brotherhood. As the local's recording secretary, he became its de facto leader, turning it into a powerful force in the painting industry and a respected factor in community affairs.
In New York City while the Painters' union under Rarback was running a criminal bid-rigging conspiracy in city housing painting, in San Francisco Wilson's local was exposing the cheating of the city, of tenants, and of the federal government in the painting of public housing. Ominously, he was denounced at the union's district council for upsetting "fine relations" between the union and the city's Housing Authority. He silenced his critics by assembling delegations of rank-and-file members to attend council meetings. Each Bay Area Painter local was assigned to one of three district councils. Some locals were authentic housepainter locals, but others were so-called autonomous locals on the periphery of the trade. Traditionally, the three district councils negotiated jointly with the employers' association.
Representation in District Council 8, which included Wilson's local, was gerrymandered by a lopsided system of representation which gave inordinate power to the autonomous locals and reduced the influence of the housepainters. Wilson's Local 4 with its 2,500 members was awarded five delegates to the council; one autonomous local with only 13 members got the same five. Wilson's supporters initiated a campaign for a new council structure based upon a democratic one-man, one-vote system. They successfully pressured the council to submit the plan to a membership referendum where it passed by a big majority: 1,277 to 379. But in October 1965, just as it later ruled against a New York DC 9 similar proposal, the international vetoed the change. Those who wanted the democratic reforms would not supinely submit. In November 1965, they published the first issue of their own tabloid, the Bay Area Painters News, to campaign for democratization of the council. The publication became the rallying force for reform forces in the Bay Area. Its first issue declared, "Power doesn't scare us. We want our rights. What country do they think we are living in? ... Now or never will we ever permit the G.E.B. [General Executive Board] to have that power of crass dictatorship."
The festering situation had come to a head earlier that year during a Bay Area five-week housepainters' strike, July 1 - August 6. Painters walked out when their union contract expired in June 1965. The three district councils had agreed, as usual, that none of their locals would settle without provisions for a uniform Bay Area contract. Wilson was elected to the bargaining committee; and, from that position, he became the effective leader of the strike. Then, without warning, while the strike was still on, District 33 unilaterally signed a separate contract with employers and ordered its locals back to work, undercutting those locals still on strike. One local in Wilson's District 8 and another in District 16 followed suit in abandoning the strike.
Wilson fought back. He mobilized mass picket lines; he brought mass delegations of strikers to meetings of locals in District 16, whose secretary treasurer, Ben Rasnick, was Wilson's bitter enemy. Despite DC 33's attempted defection, the strike lines held, and the stoppage remained solid. Three weeks later, after Wilson had led a two-front battle against the employers and against the sabotaging union officials, the strike was won. The victorious strike leaders boasted that 7,000 painters had achieved one of the finest contracts in the union's history. Later Wilson announced that he would be a candidate for vice president of the international and initiated a national campaign to round up support.
Convinced that high-ranking union officials had been paid off to try to break the strike, Wilson publicly denounced local officials who had led the back to work movement as "finks and strikebreakers." He reserved choice words of opprobrium for Ben Rasnick, whom he excoriated as a "scabherder."
Wilson had defeated the employers; he had fought off the sabotaging area union officials. Now, he faced an attack from the union's international officialdom. When Wilson's enemies charged him with slander, the international office, bypassing the locals, took over the trial proceedings and dispatched two international representatives to investigate Wilson. As the trial opened in November 1965, a delegation of 300 painters protested; the American Civil Liberties Union asked for the right to monitor the proceedings, and Congressman Phil Burton protested.
The trial soon had to be abandoned; because the central charge against Wilson ---"slander"--- clearly violated the federal court decision in Salzhandler.
The union's general counsel, Herbert S.Thatcher, had represented it in an unsuccessful appeal to the U.S.Supreme Court against Salzhandler, the very decision which made the slander charge against Wilson illegal. When Thatcher was rebuffed by the Court, he knew that the charge against Wilson could not stand up.
After three days of testimony, the trial committee suspended the effort to suppress Wilson, but only for the time being. Under federal law, it could not validly find him guilty; but it would not declare him innocent. Leaving an overhanging threat, an ambiguous verdict sounded this ominous warning: "...the present charges against Brother Wilson should be dismissed without prejudice to the renewal of such charges or similar charges should it become necessary to do so and if a repetition of the conduct alleged in the charges should thereafter take place...."
"I firmly believe," wrote Wilson in the Bay Area Painters News on December 20, 1965, "that further attempts will be made to nail my hide." Tragically, his prediction proved accurate. Success in beating off the illegal prosecution actually led to a verdict of death for Wilson. He had become a dangerous threat to a corrupt conspiracy. Only his death could remove that threat.
By early 1966 Wilson's reputation in the union had extended nationally, as a militant unionist, a stand-up guy who could fend off employers and arrogant union officials; other locals looked to him for leadership. Sacramento Local 487, impressed by his achievements, asked him to represent it in negotiations. At this point he became suspicious of the management of the local's Health and Welfare Fund. Working closely with Wilson was Lloyd Green, secretary of Local 1178 in Hayward; Green was a leader in opposition to Ben Rasnick, secretary treasurer of District Council 16, the "scabherder" target of Wilson's barbs.
As April 1966 drew near, copy had been completed for UDA No. 18 with its background story of Wilson's battle; but it had not yet come back from the printer. "The strike is won," it reported, "the trial is over. The campaign for internal democracy in the Brotherhood of Painters continues. A notable success has been recorded in California."
It was late afternoon, New York time on April 5, 1966, that I got the horrible news. Morris Evenson, Wilson's second in command, phoned from San Francisco to say that Wilson had been murdered late that night by three shotgun blasts to the head. So far, by parties unknown. He was so terribly upset that he could say no more. I felt a heavy responsibility to do something, something. If we hadn't saved Wilson in his internal union trial, he might still be alive. I knew it was a crazy thought, but I couldn't repress it. But what to do? What do you do when someone you've been working with is murdered? Isolated and without resources in my little Manhattan apartment, what could I possibly do? I owned no copying machine. No computers, no faxes, no internet in those days. How to let the world know?
The full battery of modern technology at my disposal was a 20-year old manual Royal typewriter with a faded ribbon, a telephone, a stack of ultra-thin (now obsolete) onion skin sheets, and fine carbon paper. Total staff: me and my wife, Revella Benson. We phoned all New York dailies, called major local radio and TV stations. No one interested. Luckily, we had accumulated one bit of capital: Union Democracy in Action No. 18. The issue had just arrived from the printer, only a 4-page newsletter; but it reported the first full account of Wilson's battle in California.
Press releases! With that old typewriter and onion skin, six near- legible copies could be tediously tapped out at a time if you hit the keys hard enough. But it didn't have to be long: "Dow Wilson murdered in San Francisco. For background and significance, see enclosed issue of Union Democracy in Action. Call for more information." We mailed the crude release, along with UDA No 18, to the dozen leading national dailies whose addresses were readily available. All ignored us, except one. But that was a big one.
Somehow, the amateurish product reached the city editor at the Washington Post, who passed it on. "Frank, this may interest you," he said to Frank Porter, the paper's labor editor. (Later, Porter told me and Schonfeld that he had been a seaman in his youth and could understand the battles of unionists for justice.) Porter phoned the Post's office in San Francisco, verified the accuracy of the murder report, and flew to New York City to meet with me and Frank Schonfeld. Three weeks later, he broke the story in a long four-part major series, April 24-27, beginning on the first page of the Post's Sunday edition. The story of Dow Wilson, Frank Schonfeld, and the painters' battle for reform now was national news. And just in time.
A few days later, on May 8, Lloyd Green, leader of Painters Local 1178 in Hayward and Dow Wilson's close collaborator, was the next to die. As Green sat in his office, the killer fired through the window and blasted him to death with a shotgun. Again, it was horrifying and frightening. Again--- What to do? What to do? What to do? The murderers were still unknown and at large.
There was Norman Thomas, still with us. He agreed to sponsor a "Citizens Committee for an Investigation of the Wilson-Green Murders and of Racketeering in the Painting Industry." In 1959 for the two expelled machinists, we had managed to enroll a tiny support committee of three. By this time, however, Union Democracy in Action had been at work for more than six years and now had a following, small but respected. With the help of Rochelle Flanders, a close friend, not working, we enrolled more than 20 co-sponsors in addition to Thomas, including Algernon Black, Irving Howe, Mike Harrington, Msgr Charles Owen Rice, Father Philip Carey, Meyer Shapiro. The committee called for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Gordon Haskell, then ACLU development director, and I became committee co-coordinators. (Soon thereafter, Flanders was hired by the United Federation of Teachers to help edit its newspaper.)
Late in May 1966 the case cracked open when Norman Call and Max Ward, two employer insurance fund trustees, were indicted in state court for the murders, along with three fund administrative employees, revealing a conspiracy to defraud the funds of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Two days later Sture Youngren, the fund administrator, committed suicide after confessing to stealing $60,000. In September Ward and Call were convicted of murder; the charge against the other three was reduced to embezzlement.
In the San Francisco Bay Area local unions mourned the deaths and marched in protest. But, despite the mounting pressure of publicity, not the AFL-CIO under George Meany, nor the Painters international, nor any AFL-CIO affiliate bothered to note these events or to express horror at the assassination of two labor leaders. When pressed, Frank Raftery, Painters' international president, shrugged it off. "Those who live by the sword," he told one reporter, "die by the sword," an enigmatic remark ---really stupid--- because it was Rasnick who lived by that sword!
The AFL-CIO national Building Trades Department commented, but only to clear its skirts. It affirmed vehemently that no one in "labor" was responsible, that "labor" was clean. But its public relations reassurance and self-consoling stance was brutally upset when Norman Call, convicted of murder, came up for sentencing in September. Anxious to avoid the death penalty, he confessed that after Wilson had beaten off the slander charges at the union trial, Rasnick had ordered the murder. He revealed that after the internal union charges against Wilson had bombed, Rasnick directed the two "to go ahead and make plans for him to be killed." And there was more. Ward's wife had been sleeping with Rasnick. She testified that, in a moment of unguarded intimate indiscretion, Rasnick had admitted ordering the killings. He was convicted and sentenced to life.
The story was now wide open. On July 6, 1967, the Wall Street Journal ran one of its major investigative pieces on the Painters union, reporting on reform movements and corruption scandals not only in New York and California, but Buffalo, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC. Business Week and Time published stories. Even the New York Times broke down and ran a small notice.
In Washington DC Painter reformers exposed widespread cheating in the painting of government buildings. The Washington Post reported, "One coat instead of two was used on a repainting job last year at C.I.A.'s headquarters in Langley. That job was done at night under such secrecy that union stewards were not allowed to make sure that the painters' contract was not violated." A fine example of C.I.A. vigilance!
Meanwhile, back in New York City events were coming to a head. Martin Rarback, secretary treasurer of District Council 9 in New York had been indicted for bid-rigging. The international imposed its mock trusteeship over the council which left the corrupt status quo unmoved.
With Ben Rasnick indicted for murder, the pretense that the killing was unrelated to the battle for union reform could no longer hold water. An AFL-CIO executive council meeting was scheduled for February in Florida. In preparation for the sessions, reformers in New York and in California drafted an appeal to the AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Committee, outlining the long history of corruption, blacklisting of critics, stolen elections, beatings and murder of dissidents, sweetheart deals with employers. They asked the AFL-CIO to remove the top officers of the Painters union and restore democratic rights in the union. Evenson and Schonfeld flew down to Florida to deliver their message. But their appeal never reached the EPC; by that time the committee was defunct and the Ethical Practices Codes were a dead letter. But they did get national attention. The Miami Herald ran a front page, full-sized, photo of George Meany receiving the text of the appeal from the hand of Morris Evenson.
Meany, now under mounting public relations pressure to do something, appointed a committee. It performed its expected servile service. After a cooling off cycle, and without bothering to interview even a single complainant, it advised Meany that there was nothing to do, which he did.
Postscript: In California the battle culminated in an uneasy stalemate.
With Wilson gone, his friends held on in District Council 8, but only
as an island, as a redoubt of independence from a suspect international
office. Without his driving force, his talent for mobilizing support in
the union and in the community, they lacked the ability and the fervor
to use their local strength as the springboard for a national reform movement.
With the murder of Wilson and Green, the reform lost its vital spark and
the impetus for a national reform movement was dissipated.
And in this case, it had a more immediate and more lasting effect. The painter's battle shaped union democracy law through the decision in Salzhandler and established a firm statutory base for civil liberties in unions. And their ordeal prompted the formation of the Association for Union Democracy. Many of those who had joined the Citizens Committee for Wilson and Green as an ad hoc formation in 1966 agreed to sponsor AUD as a continuing organization in 1969.
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