When doormen, janitors, elevator operators, and handymen vacate their posts this Wednesday and assemble at polling sites around the city, they’ll be voting on more than just the usual union issues. They will be sending a strong message about Gus Bevona, president of Service Employees International Union Local 32B-32J, whose lavish salary and unusual sense of democracy haven’t been seen since the old days of cigar-chomping labor bosses.
Technically, the union’s members voted last year on this slate, which includes an initiative that would cut Bevona’s salary from $412,000 to $125,000, and one that would put all new contracts up for ratification. But the circumstances under which that vote was cast were highly suspect: In a room crowded to overflow, union officials wearing stickers saying VOTE NO stood guard and watched as members filled out their ballots, right at the registration table. And on those ballots, just above the proposed reforms, were the less-than-subtle words “The joint executive board has unanimously rejected them and recommends that you vote no.” A U.S. district judge threw out the results and ordered Wednesday’s referendum.
Over the course of his sixteen years at the helm of the 61,500-member union, Bevona has become famous as not only the highest-paid union leader in America but also the most autocratic. At a press conference he called to endorse Giuliani’s re-election bid, he ended up stepping in front of the podium and shouting at reporters who asked a few too many questions. A few months earlier, he told a crowd that he would shoot President Clinton if he were in the room.
To some members, his strong-arm tactics are just the way the game is played. “The salaries are a little high,” concedes Henry Hart, a doorman. “But they’ve done well over the years getting us a fair shake.” Many others, however, are fed up. “He does a good job – for Gus Bevona,” says a Greenwich Village doorman who, not surprisingly, is reluctant to give his name.
An increasingly active faction within the union is trying to change the rules by which the game is played. In addition to their ballot initiatives (which Bevona’s spokesman dismisses as having “no other purpose but to serve the blind ambitions of those who proposed them”), last March the group filed a federal suit to recover $2.4 million in union funds it says was spent, improperly, on campaign expenses. Most of that figure represents the legal fees generated when a rival sued Bevona for having him tailed; the remaining $600,000 went to a hardbound history of the local that devotes an inordinate number of pages to praising Bevona – and denouncing his critics.
Bevona, as usual, refuses to comment on the matter. But if he loses the suit, the local’s parent union could fire him and place the local in trusteeship. A decision is expected any day now; until that time, Dominick Bentivegna and his fellow dissidents are going building to building, trying to rally support for the upcoming referendum. Says Bentivegna: “Gus Bevona is busting his own union.”