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Biz Union Black Ops P06: Silent Partners

Written by Wanda Pasz Sunday, 19 March 2006

Before we get into the details of the UFCW's innovative hospitality industry penetration plan, it's important to take stock of the context in which it unfolded and get acquainted with some of the other biz union players who helped make the UFCW's dream come true.

Was the UFCW simply being opportunistic in the spring of 1994 when it entered into its secret raiding pack with Jean Guy Belanger and his crew - taking advantage of an HEREIU organization distracted by an aggessive assault by federal law enforcement agencies?

Not likely. If Cliff Evans and his cronies wanted to launch a raid on HEREIU's Canadian turf, they could have done it more openly - much as the Steelworkers Union was doing - by wrapping themselves in the flag of "clean unionism" and redefining the raid as a rescue operation. The UFCW had enough clout in the Canadian Labour Congress to pull this off. But instead the UFCW chose a more dangerous path.

It's also important to consider that the secret pact of 1994 did not mark the beginning of the UFCW's foray into the hospitality industry. That began a good two years earlier and involved a strategy that was innovative to say the least.

Before we get into the details of the UFCW's innovative strategy, it's important to take stock of the context in which it unfolded.

With the HERE International Union up to its ass in federal agents and facing a long period of government supervision, the timing of the UFCW's Black Op with the leader of HERE's largest Canadian Local was as curious as the reactions of both HERE International and its mob associates to the UFCW's covert raid.

By involving the UFCW in the undercover scheme Cliff Evans was risking a political firestorm with another International union and running the risk of pissing off the mobsters who had been leaching off its financial resources for decades.

The charter that the UFCW granted to Belanger and his crew made no bones about it:

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is prepared to grant you and your organization a charter covering the geographical jurisdiction of the Province of Ontario and trade jurisdiction in the hotel, restaurant, food service, casinos and related or associated types of work.

By cozying up to a self-admitted mob associate Evans also ran the risk of drawing the heat to himself and the UFCW.

Yet neither HERE International Union nor the mob seemed bent out of shape about the UFCW's brazen attempt to intrude onto their turf - including their coveted casinos. For his part, Evans seemed comfortable sidling up to his new home boy Belanger. Indeed, over the preceding couple of years he had been rubbing elbows with more than a few colourful characters - all in an apparent attempt to supplant the HEREIU on its home turf in the Canadian hospitality industry.

The presence of the well-known local mobster Eddie Melo and assorted other thugs at Belanger's special membership meeting on August 9, 1994 signalled that his mob associates, far from being pissed with him, supported his efforts to disaffiliate. The fact that his entire executive board and crew of business agents went along with the disaffiliation attempt - risking their jobs, their career prospects and worse - suggested that they had a sense of security about what they were doing that was, well, unusual in the circumstances.

As for HERE International, its response to the breakaway attempt was measured and low-key. While it was quick to assert its authority over Local 75, the International Union confined its objections to the legal arena. Raiding charges - which would have drawn more attention to the covert plot - were not filed with either the Canadian Labour Congress or the AFL-CIO.

The tepid reaction of the International union was all that much more remarkable given that Local 75's breakaway attempt was not an isolated event. At least two very similar events had occurred in the preceding two years - both with Evans or his minions lurking in the background.

In December of 1994, just after the Ontario Superior Court affirmed the trusteeship of Local 75, a similar (and ultimately unsuccessful) breakaway attempt was made by HERE Local 73 in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Following a somewhat more structured process than Local 75 had undertaken in July of that year, Local 73's executive board passed a motion to withdraw (rather than disaffiliate - a distinction that they hoped might help them skirt around the International union's constitutional restrictions on disaffiliations - but didn't) from the International union and morphed into a new independent union called the Hospitality, Commercial and Service Employees Union of Canada (a.k.a. "Hospitality Canada").

The smell of the UFCW loomed over the Local 73 breakaway attempt, in the form of a UFCW International Representative and Evans' crony named Ralph Ortlieb and Evans' nephew Michael Fraser. The shadier side of the HEREIU organization was hanging around too - in the form of a crusty old Montreal-based enforcer named Thomas (Tommy) Rees. Rees and Evans went a long way back. Maybe that's why the HEREIU reaction was, again, somewhat subdued.

Coming as it did only two months after Local 75's trusteeship was affirmed by the Ontario Superior Court, Local 73's withdrawal attempt and its reliance on an argument that there was some big difference between a disaffiliation and a withdrawal from the International, was downright cheeky. But as in the case of Local 75, HERE International put the Local in trusteeship and let things go at that.

Maybe Edward T. Hanley and the HEREIU big shots were just too busy trying to keep themselves out of the slammer to get too excited or maybe they were just getting used to their bigger Canadian locals walking away. The International's dispassionate response to this second breakaway in less than a year paled in comparison to its live-and-let-live reaction to the breakaway attempt of HERE Local 88, another large Ontario-based local, a couple of years earlier, in 1991.

HERE Local 88 represented some 4,000 workers at Swiss Chalet Restaurants across Ontario. In 1991, its Business Manager orchestrated a raid and "went independent". HERE International did nothing at all. There was no trusteeship, no legal hassles, nothing.

Local 88 had an unusual history - even for a HERE local. It was originally created in the late 1970's as an independent (but company-dominated) union run by an ex-police officer named William Whyte. Running the union, then known as the Canadian Union of Restaurant and Related Employees (CURRE), was a sideline for Whyte who also ran an armoured car business.

In 1983, Whyte merged the independent CURRE with HERE, creating HERE Local 88, to forestall a raid by a militant faction within the UFCW.

Tommy Rees, the HERE enforcer, was installed as President of Local 88 and Whyte was retained as the Local's business manager. Another HERE enforcer named Frank Ragni was brought on board as a business agent.

In 1985, the UFCW's Cliff Evans put an end to the raid by the UFCW militants, handing the workers - thousands of potential UFCW members - back to Rees and HERE in a backroom deal (although Evans kept a few hundred for his favourite Local - UFCW Local 175).

(For the full story see MFD's six-part feature on The Swiss Chalet Workers).

Rees and Whyte ran Local 88 quietly for a few years. Whyte kept busy running his armoured car business while Rees made like a union leader. The presidency of the Local was as quite a prize for Rees - a prestigious pre-retirement post with a sufficiently large membership to boost his status in the HERE organization.

In 1991, Whyte resurrected the mostly defunct CURRE (Whyte kept a few locals outside of Ontario out of the merger with HERE) and proceeded to raid Local 88's members across Ontario - a project that required him to orchestrate the decertification of Local 88 and certification of CURRE in approximately 40 restaurants scattered around Ontario.

He successfully pulled off this remarkable feat in a period of only a few months. As if that wasn't remarkable enough, HEREIU didn't seem to care. There was no trusteeship of the Local 88, no objections or counter-petitions from members, no whackings, nada. Whyte simply walked off with a local of 4,000 members and it was no big deal.

Rees returned to Montreal to his International Organizer/enforcer job with HERE International. Ragni, the ex-HERE enforcer and Local 88 business agent followed Whyte to the independent CURRE where he was installed as Vice President. He also worked for Whyte's armoured car business, National Armoured, picking up cash and, according to later news accounts, arranging loans and a few other things.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, Whyte had by this time become quite cozy with the UFCW's Evans who was laying the groundwork for a merger with the 4,000 member restaurant union.

A favour that Evans did for Whyte in 1991 indicated that the courtship that was at an advanced stage. Confronted with dissident Local in BC, Whyte turned to Evans for assistance. In a rare gesture of brotherly love, Evans assigned one of his top International Reps to carry out the trusteeship on Whyte's behalf. It doesn't get more lovey-dovey than that.

A merger of CURRE and the UFCW would ultimately take place several years - and a very interesting adventure - later.

Less than a year after they broke free of the HERE International Union, Whyte, Ragni and a few other guys became quite famous when a daring armed robbery of at Whyte's National Armoured headquarters netted some clever thieves over $8 million, most of it in untraceable cash.

Four employees of National Armoured were charged in the robbery: Ragni, his brother-in-law Nick Camardi, Whyte's brother-in-law John Fullerton who was also the armoured car company's security director and a driver named Nicolae Mazare. According to media reports, Fullerton initially confessed, fingering Whyte as the mastermind of the heist and suggesting that the proceeds would be laundered through real estate investments.

Security director John Fullerton was hauled into the police station. There, police said, he failed a lie-detector test, though Fullerton's lawyer disputes that. But Detective Ronald Newton developed a rapport with Fullerton, a thin man who was ill with Crohn's disease, a chronic bowel-wasting condition.

One week later, on Dec. 7, Fullerton was back in an interview room with Newton. For the next 43 minutes, Fullerton gave a detailed confession of the crime. According to transcripts of the confession read at the Lloyd's civil trial, he told police the company was so desperate for cash it had been stealing from customers' cash bags for months.

Fullerton said he and Frank Ragni had stolen about $70,000 with Whyte's approval. Fullerton called it cash lapping and said they would return the money the next day from another customer's bag. When it became impossible to pay back the money they decided to rob National itself, he told Newton, according to transcripts.

Whyte, he said, would get the bulk of the share. Newton asked how the robbers would get their money. "Umm . . . they said they were going to wait a year or two and then slowly start trying to create different ways to . . . put into real estate and different things", Fullerton replied. "I guess Bill would basically handle that kind of stuff". Do you have any idea where they stashed the money? Newton asked. "I haven't a clue", Fullerton replied.

According to the transcripts, he identified four others involved in the crime: Ragni, Ragni's brother-in-law Nick Camardi, National driver Nicolae (Mike) Mazare, and a man he knew only as "Cosmo".

Fullerton said Ragni told him he had consulted with Whyte on the robbery. Fullerton had no direct knowledge of any involvement by Whyte. Police moved quickly. Based on information from Fullerton's confession and a statement from Mazare, they arrested those two, Ragni and Camardi. Cosmo was never identified.

Where's the Loot from Biggest Ever Robbery, Toronto Star, November 29, 1997

All four eventually beat the rap. By 1997, all charges against them were withdrawn amid accusations of bungling by law enforcement officials.

In 1997 Whyte merged the independent CURRE with the UFCW following a courtship that began many years earlier but was delayed - for whatever reason.

Around the time that Evans was cozing up to Whyte in the early 90's, the UFCW poohbah was also getting friendly with yet another mob-friendly Toronto-area union boss - Tommy Corrigan. Corrigan was something of a living legend in the Toronto labour scene. A foul-mouthed, cigar-chewing, ex-boxer from Chicago, he made HERE's Belanger look like a choir boy.

According to a Globe and Mail feature that appeared in 1987, Corrigan migrated to Canada from Chicago in 1960 and began "accumulating unions the same way some people grab fast-food franchises", eventually acquiring three locals of three different unions which he ran out of his stately mansion at 34 Madison Avenue in Toronto's upscale Annex neighbourhood: Teamsters Local 847, Textile Processors Union Local 351 and the International Union of Allied, Novelty and Production Workers, Local 905.

Each one of Corrigan's unions had an trackrecord of mob-connections: The Teamsters had the distinction of making the US government's list of "top four most mobbed up unions". The Textile Processors were connected to the Cleveland mob and the Novelty Workers, owned and operated by the Nardone family had an impressive trackrecord of involvement in pension fund and related scams (which have linked them to the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Luchese crime families). Here's a recent example:

Joseph Nardone Sr., the founder and retired president of Local 148 of the Novelty and Production Workers Union, and his son, Joseph Nardone Jr., were both convicted at trial for their embezzlement scheme against Local 148. The Nardones were indicted in October 2002 and charged with conspiracy to embezzle in excess of $350,000 in welfare funds and union funds as a result of a multifaceted fraud scheme. From 1996 through 2001, the Nardones created unnecessary construction projects at the union's Jersey City office building. They conspired with Stanley Rothman, a contractor who had previously pled guilty, to skim $250,000 from the inflated costs of the construction projects. As a result of this investigation, numerous other Local 148 officers and business agents have also been convicted. Local 148 is presently under a Federal Court-ordered trusteeship because of corruption and abuse of fiduciary powers. This investigation was conducted jointly with the Department of Housing and Urban Development OIG and EBSA. U.S. v. Nardone, et al. (D. New Jersey)

US Department of Labor, Office of the Inspector General, Semi-Annual Report, 2004-2005

Surprisingly (or maybe not), by the mid 80's Corrigan had attracted the RCMP's attention during an investigation into a fraudulent stock promotion scheme in the Bahamas.

The members of his three locals included a mixed bag of laundry workers, drivers and hotel workers. (While the HERE was the hotel union, Corrigan's Textile Processors Local represented workers at about a dozen Ontario hotels. HERE did not appear to mind sharing a small piece of its turf with him). Much like HERE's members, the members of Tommy's unions were generally poorly paid and under-represented. Tommy was prone to boasting that his contracts rivaled those of the larger, more prominent HERE Local 75 but there really wasn't much to brag about. His contracts reeked and his union operations were notorious as a home for various shady characters.

His status a "union leader" did provide him with a certain respectability which he used to aggressively schmooze Toronto's social elite. Tommy contributed to charitable causes, hung out in posh restaurants and attended upscale social functions where his path crossed with the good, the bad and the perverse.

Reviled by most union leaders, by 1990 he'd found a friend in the UFCW's Cliff Evans and his sidekick, UFCW International Representative Ralphie Ortlieb with whom he would become a partner in real estate investing. Corrigan would also play a part in helping the UFCW establish itself as a player in the hotel industry.

In 1996 merged his Textile Processors union with the UFCW, bringing workers from a dozen or so hotels into the UFCW tent and turning over their pension plan to Evans, Ortlieb and their pals. The Textile Processors Local became UFCW Local 351 with Ortlieb installed as its president. Corrigan's Novelty Workers local was also spun off to Ralphie Ortlieb and his wife Betty. The Teamsters local continued to operate as a Teamsters local.

As a sort of added bonus, a former Corrigan associate named Richard McNaughton who left the Teamsters Local 847 in the early 1990's (after a feigned falling out with Corrigan) to start and independent security guards union, also rolled his independent union into the UFCW in 1995.

All things considered, the UFCW did very well out of its relationships with Whyte and Corrigan throughout the 1990's, picking up thousands of members without having to actually organize any of them. The mergers also brought a the Textile Processors pension plan and CURRE's benefit plan into the UFCW's orbit. The UFCW expressed its gratitude.

Inside sources report that, as a token of appreciation, the UFCW's "merger partners" received pensions from the UFCW's Canadian Commercial Workers Industry Pension Plan. Their foot soldiers landed well-paying jobs with UFCW locals: CURRE's Frank Ragni with UFCW Local 206 and the Textile Processors Danny Serbin (Corrigan's nephew) at UFCW Local 175.

But more importantly with these mergers and the thousands of hotel and restaurant workers that they brought into the Canadian UFCW, Evans, Fraser and Ortlieb were able to turn the UFCW into a hospitality union and not just a hospitality financier which, through its innovative hotel industry penetration strategy, it had quietly become.

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