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labor Mourn Stanley Hill, 1st Black Leader of DC 37

Stanley Hill rose through the ranks of District Council 37. He became its first black executive director but was forced to resign when the union was rocked by a corruption scandal involving some of his closest aides and political allies.

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Stanley Hill, who rose through the ranks of District Council 37 to become its first black executive director but was forced to resign when the union was rocked by a corruption scandal involving some of his closest aides and political allies, died Jan. 25 at 82.

The cause of death was complications of pneumonia, his son Brett told the New York Times.

Key Role in Electing Dinkins

Mr. Hill, who went to work 60 years ago for the old city Welfare Department because no teaching jobs were available and quickly became a union activist because he was disturbed by conditions in the Harlem Welfare Center , succeeded Victor Gotbaum as DC 37’s leader in 1987. Less than three years later, he mobilized the union’s membership to play a pivotal role in electing David Dinkins as the city’s first African-American Mayor.

But budget problems in the fall of 1990, Mr. Dinkins’s first year in office, led to the layoff of close to 2,000 DC 37 members the following year. It was an omen of more bad developments, among them the Mayor losing his 1993 re-election bid to Republican challenger Rudy Giuliani, who in 1995 told Mr. Hill that if he didn’t agree to a two-year wage freeze at the start of a new contract, he would be forced to lay off as many as 30,000 members of the union.

Sentiment was divided within DC 37 about how seriously to take the threat, with some local presidents saying that firing even 10,000 members would seriously hurt city services and make it more difficult for Mr. Giuliani to win a second term.

But Mr. Hill had to reckon with a different calculus: Mr. Dinkins, who gained office with his union’s help and had a strong affinity for its racially-mixed rank and file, had nonetheless laid off a painfully high number of its members. What was to stop Mr. Giuliani, who had been elected despite the union’s strong opposition and made clear his strongest allegiance was to cops and firefighters, from getting rid of several times as many DC 37 members if it was the only way for him to gain significant budgetary relief?

Didn’t Wait on UFT Vote

By the time Mr. Hill decided he couldn’t afford to play chicken with the Mayor, the United Federation of Teachers had agreed to a five-year contract in mid-fall that began with a two-year wage freeze but offered raises in its final three years totaling 10.75 percent. Rather than wait to see whether UFT members would give final approval to the terms negotiated by their then-president, Sandra Feldman, Mr. Hill opted to negotiate a similar deal as part of a coalition of civilian-employee unions shortly before Thanksgiving.

The wisdom of making the agreement at that point came into question when more than 56 percent of the UFT’s rank and file rejected the city’s terms in early December. Suddenly Mr. Hill was in a position to trying to sell a deal that began with a two-year pay freeze to a membership whose largest contingents were among the city’s lowest-paid workers and therefore facing the biggest struggles if their salaries failed to keep pace with the cost of living.

The terms he and other members of the union coalition agreed to presented another big obstacle. The selling point for living with the wage freeze was a no-layoff close that would be in effect for the first three years of the contract, but it did not apply to Hospital Workers Local 420, because the Mayor said such a clause would hinder his efforts to sell off several facilities that were operated by the Health and Hospitals Corporation.

This kind of privatizing had long been anathema to Mr. Hill, as well as to other top DC 37 officials. In the late 1970s, as an assistant director of what was then the union’s largest local, Clerical-Administrative Employees Local 1549, he vociferously opposed the contracting-out of work he believed should be performed by its members.

Antagonized ‘420’ Leader

Besides yielding on that principle, his deal antagonized Local 420’s president, James Butler, who was long known for organizing mass demonstrations against policies previous Mayors tried to implement that he believed were harmful to his members. He had a visceral dislike of Mr. Giuliani, one that intensified when the Mayor argued that the hospital system was designed to offer patient services, not act as a jobs program, which Mr. Butler regarded as a thinly-veiled slap at his largely minority membership.

Had the UFT deal been ratified, DC 37’s rank and file would likely have approved the terms from the belief that nothing better could be gained if the union went to arbitration. But with no wage pattern in place once UFT members rejected the terms, sentiment remained strong against the deal in many DC 37 locals as voting began at the end of `1995.

Each union conducted its own balloting, and some held mail ballots while others did the voting at membership meetings. Mr. Hill’s hopes of getting the terms ratified took another hit when one of his key allies, Charles Hughes of Local 372, opted for a union-meeting ratification process. While the vote by those attending was nearly unanimous, only about 350 of them showed up from a membership of roughly 24,000.

In contrast, other major DC 37 locals whose memberships were roughly half the size of Local 372’s, such as Mr. Butler’s and Social Service Employees Local 371—which Mr. Hill had served as president in the early 1970s—produced a combined vote of 9,286 to 505 against the deal. Even with smaller locals aligned with Mr. Hill said to have voted to ratify it, by mid-January 1996, it looked like all that stood between Mr. Hill and a ringing rejection of his deal was Local 1549.

A Long, Unlikely Count

When the counting of that local’s ballots was delayed until Feb. 8, it spurred suspicions of chicanery. When it was announced on that date by Mr. Hill that the contract had been ratified by slightly more than 5,000 votes among the full union membership, the whispers turned to screams. The New York Times reported that Local 1549 President Albert Diop said his members voted in favor of the deal by a count of 10,002 to 2,267.

Given that he represented one of the lowest-paid groups of employees within DC 37, opponents of the pact scoffed at the idea that there could have been such a landslide in favor of a two-year wage freeze at its outset.

Mr. Butler was succinct, saying, “They stole the vote.” Local 371 President Charles Ensley wrote to the head of DC 37’s national union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Gerald McEntee, urging an investigation.

Mr. McEntee declined to order a probe; he would later say that Mr. Ensley had not offered specific evidence of vote-rigging that warranted a look by the national union. Critics within DC 37 pointed out that Mr. Hill and Mr. Diop were AFSCME vice presidents, giving them some leverage with Mr. McEntee, since the national union’s vice presidents chose its president.

Other Trouble Within Union

The contract stood, and other municipal unions grudgingly negotiated similar terms, with many of them subsequently joining DC 37 in breaking from their long practice of supporting Democratic candidates and endorsing Mr. Giuliani’s re-election in 1997. But while the grumbling about the voting process gradually subsided, there were other signs of trouble emerging within DC 37 as a group of union reformers coalesced and highlighted questionable practices within a number of locals.

In Motor Vehicle Operators Local 983, there were complaints about an unfair election process during the same year, 1995, that the contract was reached. One dissident group in late 1997 also questioned how the local wound up buying holiday turkeys for members at $44 each when individual members could have bought the same birds for $25 in a supermarket. And there was a darker shadow looming over that local.

its longtime president, Frank Morelli, who was known to associate with organized-crime figures,was reportedly behind the beating in the early 1990s of Vincent Parisi, the president of Local 376, on a loading dock outside DC 37’s headquarters. In what was believed to be retaliation, a couple of years later he was subjected to a more-severe gang assault in the office he occupied—which adjoined Mr. Hill’s—in his capacity as president of DC 37. He died about six months after the attack.

Local 372 had become DC 37’s largest local—a product of the eventual UFT contract that gained ratification after Mr. Giuliani agreed to relieve Teachers of cafeteria duty, which led to the hiring of a couple of thousand cafeteria workers to handle that chore, all of them represented by Mr. Hughes. The additional dues revenue didn’t do much to stem the shortfall in the local’s treasury, however, and by early 1998 it was discovered that the 30-year president had plunged the local $10 million into debt.

Couldn’t Honor ‘Autonomy’

Mr. Hill, who when asked about allegations of impropriety against leaders of the union’s 56 locals would typically respond that their autonomy limited his power to intervene, in this instance decided the problem was serious enough that he notified AFSCME, which removed Mr. Hughes from office and placed Local 372 under an administratorship.

In May, Mayor Giuliani took advantage of the fact that the contract Mr. Hill had agreed to exempted Local 420 from the no-layoff guarantee, with 585 members of the local who couldn’t be placed in other city positions losing their jobs.

Less than a month later, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office issued subpoenas for numerous DC 37 locals, including the ones run by Mr. Hughes and Mr. Diop, to turn over their records to a grand jury that was conducting a criminal probe. Later in June, more bad news piled up: one local president, Bob Crilly of Local 2627, told this newspaper about an operation to supply holiday turkeys to all the locals at exorbitant charges, with Local 376 President Joseph DeCanio, who had succeeded Mr. Parisi, receiving “commissions” from the supplier.

On the last day of the month, reformer Mark Rosenthal was elected president of Local 983, easily defeating Robert Taylor, a former chauffeur for Mr. Morelli who had succeeded him following his death.

Exposed Corruption Within

Once in office, Mr. Rosenthal gained access to records that indicated the local had been engaged in a variety of dubious schemes featuring exorbitant payments for holiday parties. That included one held at Leonard’s of Great Neck for which a payment of more than $80,000 had been made not to the caterer but to an East Northport travel agency. He also questioned a half-million-dollar payment to a veteran union lawyer made in advance of him preparing an arbitration case seeking significant raises for one group of the local’s members. Several other labor lawyers said it was unusual for the entire sum to have been covered before the case was actually presented.

And Mr. Rosenthal’s presence in DC 37’s Barclay St. headquarters gave him access to Mr. DeCanio, whom he befriended while cautioning him that he should cooperate with the Manhattan DA’s probe or risk becoming the fall guy for crimes in which other, more-prominent union officials were involved.

He ultimately succeeded in persuading the Local 376 president to talk to investigators, and in November the DA’s Office began issuing indictments involving not only large-scale corruption but the rigging of the DC 37 contract vote nearly three years earlier. Front-page coverage in the New York Times made it a national story, and by the end of the month Mr. McEntee met with Mr. Hill to urge him to step down. The DC 37 leader said he had been unaware of the corruption and insisted he could navigate the union through the mess, but Mr. McEntee was getting heat from AFSCME local presidents around the country about the bad publicity, particularly after the Wall Street Journal published an editorial calling for legislation restricting unions’ ability to spend money for political activities without their members’ consent.

Forced From Job

Two days after their Nov. 25 meeting, Mr. Hill told Mr. McEntee that he would not resign because he didn’t believe any of his actions violated the AFSCME constitution, leading the AFSCME president to announce the following day that he was being placed on unpaid leave and an outside administrator, Lee Saunders—who had been running Local 372 since February—would take charge of DC 37.

Mr. Hill did not return to his job, announcing his retirement early in 1999, and the administratorship remained in effect until February 2002, which allowed DC 37’s finances to be stabilized after its assets were discovered to have dwindled from more than $22 million to $4 million. Much of the decline spurred from Mr. Hughes’s overspending and embezzlement at Local 372 and somewhat lesser financial misconduct by Mr. Diop at Local 1549.

Unlike them and more than two dozen other union officials, Mr. Hill was never charged by the DA’s Office, and there were no indications that he engaged in any of the dishonest conduct. But the criminal trial of Mr. Diop and longtime DC 37 Associate Director Martin Lubin for their roles in fixing the contract vote had the effect of portraying Mr. Hill as a figurehead who was propped up by powerful local presidents because he was either oblivious to their corruption or disinclined to take steps to root it out.

Mark Shaplo, a childhood friend of his who pleaded guilty to embezzlement and became a cooperating witness to gain leniency in sentencing, testified that Mr. Hill was popular with the union’s rank and file and “took care of the politics” in dealing with government officials on issues of concern to DC 37, but was not really involved in its day-to-day operations.

The Big Ballot Switch

He and Gary Tenenbaum, the president of a local representing Parks Department Recreation Directors and city Chaplains, told jurors in Manhattan Criminal Court that while they and other union officials pressured local presidents to inflate their vote totals in favor of the contract to keep Mr. Hill from being embarrassed by a rejection of the deal that could also sour his relationship with Mr. Giuliani, he was out of the loop for the actual conspiracy, whose most-vivid detail involved a Saturday afternoon early in 1996 when the Local 1549 ballots were opened and those that were cast against the contract were discarded and replaced by 5,000 ballots marked “yes” that Mr. Diop had ordered printed and held in reserve.

Mr. Shaplo testified that he, Mr. Lubin and Mr. Diop hatched the vote-rigging plan, and when he suggested they confide in Mr. Hill, “Mr. Diop said to me that Stanley’s got a big mouth and I don’t think we can trust him.”

Mr. Diop and Mr. Lubin were both convicted in the vote-rigging scheme. One irony regarding the need for it was that after alienating Mr. Butler by excluding Local 420 from the no-layoff protection and creating a 4,000-vote bloc against the contract that made the fix necessary, Mr. Hill played a key role in organizing opposition to the selling-off of HHC member hospitals that prompted the City Council to vote down Mr. Giuliani’s privatization plans for Coney Island Hospital.

But while the trial didn’t definitively resolve the mystery of why the vote-rigging scheme took root, testimony hinted that it was less about helping Mr. Hill save face with the Mayor and avoid massive layoffs than it was about officials including Mr. Diop and Mr. DeCanio being concerned that Mr. Giuliani—a former Federal prosecutor—might respond to a rejection by focusing on improper financial practices in which they had been engaged.

‘Hurt Rudy, He Hurts Stanley’

Mr. Butler at the time offered a dissenting opinion. He said in an interview that because the Mayor’s budget depended on large savings from a two-year wage freeze being imposed on the entire municipal workforce, rejection of the terms by DC 37 “would have brought him to his knees” and as payback he would have “probably hurt Stanley, hurt him very badly.”

In retirement, Mr. Hill did not divorce himself completely from the union in which he played an integral part for four decades, the final 12 years as its leader.

DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido noted in a statement that Mr. Hill—who is survived by his wife Ruby, sons Brett and Stanley Jr., and four grandsons—became a proponent of solar renewable energy because “he believed it was good for the environment and would provide an economic boost to communities in need.”

He added, “In recent years, it was a pleasure to see Stanley again at union events, flashing his great smile and spending time with members. He loved them, and they loved him.”

That was true even among union veterans who had suffered through the corruption scandal, with some saying that he had been betrayed by subordinates whom he trusted too much. Even as DC 37 was teetering under the weight of then-Manhattan DA Robert M. Morgenthau’s investigation, many rank-and-file members, while harshly critical of Mr. Diop in particular as someone they never saw and whom they said failed to provide the services for which he was elected, would speak warmly of Mr. Hill for working hard on their behalf and getting out into the field to encourage them while soliciting their input.

‘Became a Mentor’

Anthony Wells, the president of Local 371, said that after gaining that job nearly a decade ago, he was offered guidance by Mr. Hill, whose activism in the local culminating with his two years as its president starting in 1970 made him particularly familiar with its issues and history.

“He became a mentor,” he said in a Jan. 29 phone interview. “It was quite helpful; we honored him at one of our dinners a few years ago.” Mr. Hill received a standing ovation when his award was presented during that event at Russo’s on the Bay in Queens.

Mr. Wells declined to speak at length about the corruption scandal that became the downfall of the former executive director, noting that he was not Local 371’s president at the time and was not privy to the circumstances that led the man who was, Mr. Ensley, to be so critical of Mr. Hill.

His one comment about that period was, “I think he was too trusting, and he focused on external stuff, not internal stuff.”

Asked what he thought Mr. Hill’s legacy would be within DC 37, Mr. Wells replied, “Those who knew him, I think he’s going to be remembered as a decent, gentle giant who people felt they could talk to. He was approachable and he was responsive.”

And, he added, the former DC 37 leader provided an example even after the events that damaged the union’s reputation and fiscal solvency led to his forced exit.

“Even when you go through a dark period, you retain your dignity,” Mr. Wells said.