in a series on DC 37 history 1998 2002
a better union
President Gerald W. McEntee, right, decided to put District Council 37 under trusteeship
after reports of theft
and a fraudulent contract vote surfaced. He appointed
his top assistant, Lee Saunders, left, as administrator.
By GREGORY N. HEIRES
BEGINNING of District Council 37s history in 1944 until today, its national
parent union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees,
has been a strong partner in the fight for justice for municipal workers.
When DC 37 went through its darkest days, AFSCME came to the rescue. Members
were shocked in 1998 when financial improprieties and contract vote rigging by
union officials came to light and AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee responded
He sent in a team of legal, financial and management experts
headed by his top assistant, Lee Saunders, to restore the strength and reputation
of DC 37 AFSCMEs historic flagship which had been a beacon
of progressive unionism for decades.
We owe AFSCME a debt of gratitude
for their vital help in this time of need, said DC 37 Executive Director
Saunders served as administrator of DC
37 for nearly four years. Working with a new Executive Board, he relit DC 37s
aggressive spark and replaced a culture of corruption with one of change, hope
and vitality. Greater membership involvement enlivened the contract negotiations
process, and hundreds of shop stewards and political activists mobilized grassroots
support for a massive multi-union demonstration in May 1999 that paved the way
for improved health benefits and raises that totaled 9 percent in the 27-month
Historic pension gains
A new team restored the unions political clout, strengthening DC 37s
role in elections and lobbying efforts and winning historic pension improvements
Driven out of its 125 Barclay St. headquarters for six months
by the devastation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks one block to the south, the union
dispersed its operations to sites around the city. But DC 37 still maintained
the strength to stop Mayor Rudolph Giuliani from contracting out work such as
running the massive cleanup at Ground Zero, which was done by a team of Local
Members and leaders debated whether to change
the voting structure of the union and stuck with the current delegate-based system
for electing top leaders rather than the one-member-one-vote method. A self-described
reform group, the DC 37 Committee for Real Change, became a player at the union
for a time.
Committed to greater transparency, Saunders encouraged the
PEP to report on Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthaus prosecutions
of 38 former officials as well as AFSCMEs own forensic and financial investigations.
PEPs change to full-color printing, a new website and a new communications
director improved the unions outreach to members and the public, which came
to know DC 37 workers as Everyday Heroes.
Significantly, Saunders worked with the leadership to institute important
safeguards to protect members dues and to prevent widespread improprieties
from occurring again. These included:
third-party oversight of contract votes,
- an Ethical
Practices Code and an independent Ethical Practices Officer,
constitutional amendment guaranteeing members right to review union financial
- strict accounting procedures
requiring independent, outside audits of locals,
bidding on union purchases of goods and services, and
distribution of DC 37 budgets and audits to all local union presidents.
Roberts, who led key organizing drives in the 1960s
and 70s that put DC 37 on the path toward growing from 30,000 members to
120,000, became part of the team that assisted Saunders in the rebuilding process.
Seeing the corruption at the union she had worked so hard to build broke
my heart, said Roberts, who accepted Saunders invitation to return
to DC 37 to help restore members confidence.
Known for her tenacity
and special rapport with rank-and-file members, Roberts emerged as the consensus
candidate of the unions elected leaders to head DC 37. Immediately after
she was sworn in as District Council 37 executive director on Feb. 26, 2002, Saunders
announced that the trusteeship was over to the applause of more than 300 union
delegates. You have your union back, he said.
has come a full circle, said Roberts, after she took the oath of office.
Roberts said she looked forward to restoring the tremendous faith members had
in the union during its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.
I will never
let you down, Roberts told the delegates.
We all want to
make sure that the members of this union get the respect and services they deserve.
And we are working closely with AFSCME, which is prepared to take an active role
at any time if we need their help.