Reformed LIUNA Local brings in the rat

Laborers Local 91 has changed tactics since some of its members were convicted last year on federal racketeering charges for intimidation at non-union work sites. The union has sworn off physical threats.

Now, it’s using a 10-foot inflatable rat to send a message to non-union workers and contractors — a message some of the targets say is an unsubtle hint of Local 91’s history of violence.

The large rubber rodent first appeared earlier this month near a hotel construction project on Niagara Falls Boulevard. Union members said they plan to use it in the future at other job sites where union workers are lacking. “On picket lines in the early 1990s, there was violence,” said Michael Godzisz of Lockport, one of the laborers on the site this week, “but now we’re waging a legal battle.”

Beatings, extortion and death threats over six years in the 1990s culminated in the convictions of 18 union members last year on federal charges in one of the biggest racketeering cases ever prosecuted in Western New York. Prison terms were slapped on several union bosses and their henchmen.

Former union President Mark Congi, 47, of Youngstown, received the longest sentence — 15 years in federal prison. Local 91’s former business manager, Michael “Butch” Quarcini, was indicted but died of cancer in 2003 before he could be tried.

New union leaders are taking a different tack on job sites, starting with a peaceful protest against general contractor DEC Management of Atlanta, which has hired some nonunion workers to build a $6 million Holiday Inn near Niagara Falls International Airport.

The rat is among the union’s new tools. It cost about $4,000 and stands outside the construction site for about four hours every morning before being deflated and carted away.

While inflated, it stands in front of the hotel site with the name of the general contractor attached to it.

“This is an informational picket line to make people aware that this is a non-union job,” Godzisz said.

The picketing laborers also stop construction vehicles as they enter the site but do so for only three or five minutes at a time, he said. After

being informed of the nonunion situation, the truck drivers may decide to enter or not enter.

“We can’t hold them up, and if we keep walking they can’t run us over,” said Rob Connolly, Local 91’s business manager. “After about five minutes, we let them go out of courtesy.”

The Holiday Inn construction site superintendent said some trucks belonging to subcontracting companies won’t cross the picket line. The superintendent, who lives in Atlanta, asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation from Local 91 members.

“This job needs all-round people, but the laborers chose not to negotiate and came on with an attitude,” he said. “The next day, the rat showed up.”

Connolly, Quarcini’s successor, said of the Holiday Inn project: “We talked with DEC, and they said they were going to do it their way. They bring in people from outside who take their money and go home. The local community doesn’t benefit.”

The site boss said he would have to pay the laborers $55 an hour in wages and benefits, more than the $35 an hour he pays union electricians working the job.

“We work up and down the East Coast,” he added. “The last thing I want to do is come into town and ruffle any feathers.”

The site superintendent said he has hired some local union workers for the project. One of them, an electrician who has lived in Niagara Falls all his life but didn’t want to give his name, said he is so fed up with Local 91 “bully tactics” that he’s going to leave the city and join DEC Management in its various projects elsewhere.

Laborers Local 91 cleaned house after the government crackdown, making a complete change of leadership. But the union still strikes an imposing presence in and around the city.

Part of the United Office Building in downtown Niagara Falls was vandalized in June after Local 91 members picketed a $6.5 million renovation project at the historic art deco building because non-union workers were hired to remove asbestos from inside the building. Carl Paladino, the developer, said the laborers are not trained to do such work.

DEC Management President Mike Thomas said by phone from Atlanta that the four-story, 88-room Holiday Inn on Niagara Falls Boulevard is still on schedule to be completed in February.


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