October 19, 2006

As Labor Leader Is Charged, Council Promises Reforms

With the New York City Central Labor Council's longtime president facing 43 federal racketeering charges, the leaders who have stepped in to oversee the organization pledged yesterday to make major changes in its ethics procedures and its role in helping New York workers.

Ed Ott, the council's acting executive director, said the board of directors had been too passive and needed to be more involved in overseeing its leaders.

While mindful of the presumption of innocence, Mr. Ott said many labor leaders felt betrayed by Assemblyman Brian M. McLaughlin of Queens, the council's president, who was indicted Tuesday on charges of obtaining $2.2 million through embezzlement, bribes and kickbacks. ''I'm extraordinarily upset,'' Mr. Ott said.

He said he planned to reach out to immigrant workers and to create a committee to help veterans. But he said the labor council, an umbrella group of 400 union locals representing one million workers, had a lot of repair work to do.

''It's our responsibility to re-earn our credibility,'' said Mr. Ott, who was the council's political director under Mr. McLaughlin. ''This is a collective responsibility and collective burden. I've always been willing to talk about corruption in the labor movement. We have to be held to a higher standard.''

Mr. McLaughlin is accused of misappropriating funds from the central labor council, the State Assembly, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, various political and campaign committees and a Little League association in Queens. He pleaded not guilty on Wednesday and is free on $250,000 bail. His lawyer, Jonathan P. Bach, did not return telephone calls yesterday.

Union leaders who had worked closely with Mr. McLaughlin said they were stunned by the breadth of the indictment.

''If Brian did what he's accused of, it's disgusting and we've all been betrayed,'' said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and a member of the labor council's board. Denis Hughes, the chairman of the council's executive committee and the president of the New York State A.F.L.-C.I.O., has proposed far-reaching constitutional changes at the council to ensure more financial accountability and transparency.

''We also want to have some ethical practices and procedures that make some sense and have some real teeth,'' said Mr. Hughes, who has pushed for ethics seminars for state and city union leaders.

Mr. Hughes declared that no future head of the labor council should simultaneously hold a political office. ''This job requires full attention from that individual,'' Mr. Hughes said. ''You can't have two full-time jobs and expect to get it done.''

He said the council needed a strategic plan. ''We have to look at what exactly is our mission,'' he said. ''Our members are losing economic security. Many workers can't afford to live in the five boroughs any more in ways we were able to a generation ago. We have to help fix our education system, supporting the needs of students as well as the teachers.''

Mr. McLaughlin began a six-month leave last month and Mr. Ott, 56, who has become the acting executive director, is now his probable successor. Mr. Ott began his career in labor in 1970 as a glassware washer at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, helping 1199, the hospital workers' union, organize employees there. He said Mr. McLaughlin had helped revitalize the labor council, but he promised to do much more, planning to create a health and safety program and to train small unions on how to organize nonunion workers.

Mr. Ott vowed to work on reversing labor's decline in membership. ''There is not a culture of organizing at the center of the labor movement in New York City,'' he said. ''It's left to individual unions. We have to get union leaders and union members thinking all the time about organizing.''

Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said the council needed to form more alliances to help workers, perhaps with parents or immigrant groups. ''No movement can operate as an island anymore,'' she said. ''We have to focus on what the labor movement is all about -- working to make sure that the next generation of workers is better off than this generation.''

Mr. Appelbaum said labor should ally itself with groups like Make the Road by Walking, an immigrant advocacy group in Brooklyn, and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which is pushing for economic development and improved housing.

''We can't keep on going the way we've been going,'' he said. ''We have to find new ways to do things.''