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Rigged: The fight over a union election in New York City

In July of 2023, the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 983 held a leadership election. Part of AFSCME District Council 37, Local 983 represents roughly 3,000 city employees across a wide spectrum of typically lower-wage, blue-collar jobs, from park rangers to motor vehicle operators, season aides, and highway repairmen.

The election for leadership had been delayed for over a year as the challenging candidates, led by Jolifer Noe, a Haitian immigrant who works as a traffic enforcement agent for the NYPD, challenged the union’s new voting practices in court. Noe was nominated for the position of Local 983 president, along with four other candidates seeking election to the positions of secretary treasurer, recording secretary, and two candidates for union vice president positions.

It was to be the first contested election for Local 983 in nearly ten years. According to union rules an election is to be held every three years, but since 2013, when current Local 983 President Joseph Puleo took the union reins from his predecessor Mark Rosenthal, neither Puleo, nor any of his officers had faced an election challenge for their lucrative and powerful positions.

Being president of Local 983 means negotiating contracts in conjunction with the umbrella union, District Council 37, for the various and numerous job titles collectively bargained for under the Local’s contract, and it comes with a big payday.

According to Local 983’s filings, Puleo in 2022 received $349,083 in compensation from the union, more than 10 percent of the $3.2 million Local 983 received from membership dues, meaning at least ten cents of every dollar members paid the union for representation went to him. Puleo gets an extra bump of $22,522 from the District Council, bringing total pay in 2022 to $371,605, putting his pay just above that of DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, and well above the compensation for Mayor Eric Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

Puleo and his union administration had won election in 2013 over long-time incumbent Mark Rosenthal. Rosenthal had been elected to union leadership in 1998 following a corruption investigation that revealed a “vast pig-sty of corruption, self-dealing, lavish party going, and vote rigging,” according to City Journal. The scandal within DC 37 saw union local presidents in handcuffs and DC 37 placed under trusteeship by AFSCME International.

Rosenthal came in and cleaned house. When he was elected, it was the first contested election in 20 years and it was not without controversy, including accusations of threats and intimidation. Puleo won an election in 2013 over the aging Rosenthal, who since passed away in 2017, and has been at the helm of Local 983 ever since.

But Noe and his supporters had grown frustrated with leadership, arguing that their contracts were delayed, leadership was showing favoritism to certain worker classifications, and that the process to become a union steward had been undermined to keep leadership in power.

The frustration among Local 983 members had become public in the years leading up to the 2022 nominations and in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which said that government employees could not be forced to be part of a union as a condition of employment.

In 2021, two long-time NYPD traffic enforcement agents and union members, Edward Mendez and Hortencia Garcia, filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging Local 983 leadership, including Puleo and union vice-president Marvin Robbins, prevented them from resigning their union membership and continued to collect dues from their paychecks.

That same year, another long-time union member and traffic enforcement agent, Edward Seabron, also attempted to resign from the union, reportedly over Local 983’s negotiating efforts. Seabron’s attempt to resign was met more harshly by union officials, with Robbins going to social media, posting a photo-shopped picture of Seabron, who is Black, shaking hands with a Ku Klux Klan member on Local 983’s Facebook page.

Seabron not only sought to resign from the union but had begun gathering signatures from other union members to decertify Local 983 as their bargaining agent. Robbins – who’s colorful social media posts show him in uniform, and sexually explicit images, under his funeral service consultant Facebook page – also posted a video with the KKK image, calling Seabron a “lying sack of shit,” a “loser,” and threatened to “take action,” against him, according to the court complaint.

The post and video resulted in a Seabron filing a petition with the Office of Collective Bargaining, alleging Robbin’s and Local 983 leadership had engaged in “unlawful interference” of his union rights to petition for new representation.

The union argued the post was directed at former Local 1181 President David Casey, who they accused of racism and misappropriation of union funds and was trying to “tear the union apart,” by encouraging members to join the International Law Enforcement Benevolent Association (ILBEA).

 Noe’s nomination, while perhaps a long shot, also represented a threat to the existing order.

Nearly 25 years after Rosenthal came power because of, in-part, election rigging within the union, and with former President Donald Trump’s claims of 2020 election rigging still roiling national political discussions on democracy, Local 983’s leadership responded to Noe’s challenge by changing the election rules.

The move set off a court battle between union leadership and their challengers, showing how democracy is regulated by union leadership and veers toward favoring incumbents.

Part 2: COVID Fears

Following the nomination of Noe and other candidates to challenge the incumbents, Local 983 leadership moved to implement two changes to the union’s voting system that were previously unheard of in Local 983’s history and that Noe alleged went against the local’s constitution: implementation of electronic voting and slate voting.

Neither change, which would have required altering Local 983’s constitution, were voted on by members and both were implemented by Local 983’s Election Committee after the nomination process – something Noe also claimed was forbidden under union rules.

According to Local 983’s constitution, all voting must be done in person through a secret ballot at one location over the course of one day. It was a constitutional change implemented in 1998 following a court petition brought by Puleo, among others, that challenged the Local’s previous elections via mail-in vote — part of the corruption charges that included steaming open ballot envelopes and ballot stuffing that rattled the union and led to Rosenthal’s presidency.

According to election flyers mailed out by Local 983, members were given PIN numbers they could use to vote by phone or by computer, although members could still vote in person.

Local 983 also moved to implement “slate voting,” something never before done by Local 983. Essentially, checking one box for Puleo, for instance, meant a vote for all his selected officers as well. Again, the change was made following the nomination process.

Union leadership argued that electronic voting was necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter sent by Local 983 Election Committee Chairman Joe Oro to members, Oro wrote that “a number of people who had attended [the April 15, 2022, nomination meeting] became ill with COVID.”

“In light of that, and in light of the continued transmission of COVID, the Committee committed to insuring (sic) that members would be allowed to vote remotely, if they wanted, so that no member would need to risk COVID in order to vote,” Oro wrote.

Noe and the other opposing candidates filed a petition with the New York Court, which didn’t find the COVID argument compelling, and issued an injunction against the election scheduled for June of 2022, believing the challengers could succeed in their lawsuit on the merits.

“Firstly, the Petitioners contend, and the Court agrees, that an election with a hybrid or remote system of voting would violate the Local 983 constitution,” wrote Justice Lyle E. Frank [EXHIBIT A]. “The Court respectfully does not believe that the ongoing COVID pandemic is a sufficient reason for this part of the constitution to not be adhered to. A mask wearing requirement and social distancing could lead to adherence with the constitutional provision in question.”

The Court also agreed that altering the voting method following the nomination process violated AFSCME’s Local Union Election Manual, which allows for electronic voting for locals with more than 2,000 members.

“What is not proper is to change from the method used previously to a new method after the nominations have taken place,” according to the Local Election Manual cited in the Court’s decision. “If a change from one method to another is desirable, the new procedure should be approved by membership vote (or announced by the election committee) before the nominations begin.”

The Court cited the same argument from the election manual regarding slate voting, agreeing that it violated the Local’s constitution. While leadership argued a campaign flyer sent to members does not explicitly say “slate voting,” it appeared rather obvious.

“It seems clear that Respondents’ campaign flyer indicates that slate voting will be available for the incumbents, and a change in voting methods need to either be approved by membership vote or announced by the election committee before nominations begin,” Judge Frank wrote in his decision.

Although Local 983 argued “there is a process by which the Petitioners could avail themselves if they feel aggrieved,” Frank ultimately sided with Noe. “The Court also believes that there is irreparable harm demonstrated by petitioners and that the balance of the equities weighs in favor of the petitioners,” the decision read.

But it was precisely that “process by which the Petitioners could avail themselves,” that ultimately led to the Appellate Court overturning the injunction against Local 983’s election.

Basically, to bring a lawsuit regarding a union election, the complainant must first exhaust all administrative and union remedies. Basically, Noe had to take these election issues to the union first before he could go to the court system, a potentially long and difficult process for Noe and the challengers.

In February of 2023, the Appellate Division overturned the decision [EXHIBIT B], saying the Court had “improvidently exercised its discretion,” when it enjoined Local 983 from holding an election that violated their own constitution and rules by citing AFSCME’s constitution and rules.

“AFSCME’s constitution prohibits members from instituting a civil action without first

availing themselves of the remedies in its constitution, which provides a procedure to challenge the conduct of an election so that a protesting party has an opportunity to be

heard,” the decision says. “Furthermore, according to the provisions of AFSCME’s constitution, petitioners may appeal an adverse determination to a judicial panel, then to a full judicial panel, and then again to an international convention.”

Basically, it was up to the union to handle it, and if Noe wanted to appeal the election results, he would have to appeal it to Local 983’s Election’s Committee and only after the election had taken place, before potentially moving up the chain of command within the International, according to correspondence between Noe and AFSCME International Judicial Panel Chair Carla Insigna.

Part 3: Do not listen to the lies

Following the Appellate Court’s decision, a new election for Local 983 leadership was then scheduled for April 11, 2023, complete with electronic and slate voting overseen by the American Arbitration Association, which would also tally the votes.

Jolifer again wrote to AFSCME Judicial Panel Chair Carla Insigna [LEE SAUNDERS 04-13-23], this time levying a charge against Local 983 Election Committee Chair Joe Oro and seeking an immediate hearing to have Oro removed or to place the Local under a trusteeship.

“We believe that the Judicial Panel has the power to order an election to be conducted properly if it knows in advance of the election that the Local is acting improperly,” Noe wrote. “If the Judicial Panel does not have the power to process charges against a remove (sic) a local election committee and conduct an election before it is conducted unlawfully, then I request that this complaint be referred to [AFSCME] President [Lee] Saunders so that he can put the Local in a trusteeship and have the trustee conduct an election.”

The April 11 election date came and went with no vote. Local 983 First Vice President Marvin Robbins issued a notice to Local 983 members on social media, along with a copy of Noe’s letter to Insigna, claiming the election had been cancelled because of Noe’s letter, even though Insigna had denied Noe’s requests on March 20.

“Do not listen to the lies,” Robbins wrote. “The election was cancelled again because Jolifer sent the following letter to the international union. We are waiting for approval for the election committee to schedule the next date.”

 Noe fired off another letter on April 13, this time to AFSCME President Lee Saunders, saying postponement of the April 11 vote was not announced to members and that another vote had not yet been scheduled. Again, he requested the International put Local 983 under trusteeship, as it had for AFSCME Local 375, all to no avail.

An election date was finally set again for May 15, 2023, again with in-person, electronic and phone voting, all to be monitored and counted by the American Arbitration Association. The vote was finally held after more than a year delay.

Tallying the votes was likely not a difficult proposition. Despite fears of COVID if the election were conducted according to Local 983’s constitution – in person, in one location, on a single day – there was likely little to fear: a grand total of 493 union members, 20.5 percent of the union, voted in the election, and nearly 80 percent voted online. Puleo won re-election with a 244-vote margin. [EXHIBIT E]

This time Noe took his issues to Local 983’s Election Committee [NOE LOCAL APPEAL], but it’s safe to say that they already had a bad taste in their mouths for his election challenge, having already gone through a year-long court process that sought to overturn the new rules they had implemented, and it appears the election itself was not immune from some controversy.

Election Committee chairman Joe Oro claimed in an Election Committee report sent to members [LOCAL 983 ELECTION REPORT] that Noe showed up to the polling place on election day and went “into a rage,” alleging that 40 members had not received PIN numbers and were turned away from voting – an allegation the union denied, saying the AAA members present did not witness this and Noe never produced the names of the members who’d been turned away.

The Elections Committee counsel reportedly even walked up and down the sidewalk before the polls closed calling out for anyone who may have not yet voted. Oro also claimed in his report that there was a photographer with a “large telephoto lens” taking pictures of members going in and out of the polling location who would not identify himself and whom they ejected from at least two building.

“It was readily apparent to the Local 983 Election Committee that the photographer…was there for a nefarious purpose and to intimidate/harass members of Local 983 who came to vote in the election,” Oro wrote.

At the Election Committee Appeal hearing on June 2, 2023, Noe was represented by attorney Arthur Z. Schwarz, who also represented Rosenthal during his clean-up of Local 983 and indicated to the Committee that he had helped draft Local 983’s constitution. They reiterated the arguments they’d put before the Court: that the manner in which the voting method was changed – electronic and slate voting — was in violation of Local 983’s constitution, and that COVID was a poor excuse.

“The excuse that was used was that COVID is rampant in the city, and we can’t have people coming to a voting place,” Schwartz argued, according to the hearing transcript [EXHIBIT H]. “Broadway shows are functioning, movie theaters are functioning, Locals are having meetings, and there was nothing going on in the city on May 15, 2023, that would make it unsafe for them, as the Local 983, to come one by one into a voting place and vote. The public has been doing that since 2020.”

Schwartz further argued that electronic voting was “wholly inappropriate” because people were able to call, give some personal information, and be given a PIN number to vote, with no way to verify their identity, and that the voting system had never been tested before. “It simply occurred on the day of the vote,” Schwartz said.

Noe and Schwartz claimed Noe was not allowed to view the dues records of voting members to determine if they were eligible to vote. Noe further claimed that Vice President Robbins was calling people who had retired “10, 12 years ago to come down and help on the telephone or computer, to help them win the election.”

The whole appeal before the Elections Committee lasted 38 minutes.

Part 4: Local 983 Election Committee Pushes Back

Twenty days after Noe’s appeal, Oro sent out the Election Committee’s report, denying all of Noe’s allegations and making their case to Local 983 members that union democracy had been upheld in a point-by-point refutation of Noe’s protests.

On the matter of electronic voting, the Committee report again said COVID fears were the primary cause of the change, but also deferred to AFSCME International’s constitution that allows electronic or telephone voting for locals with more than 2,000 members, arguing that the international’s constitution supersedes that of Local 983’s.

The Committee also argues that just because slate voting has never been done by Local 983 before, doesn’t mean that it was barred under the union’s constitution and bylaws, a stark turnaround from their claim in court that the election flyer did not indicate slate voting.

Of the major points of Noe’s challenge, perhaps most interesting, is the Election Committee’s argument that a change in voting manner and method does not require approval before the nominations are complete. The Committee argued that AFSCME Local Union Election Manual passage in question – that it is improper to change methods after nominations have taken place – was referring to how names are placed on the actual ballot.

“This language plainly applies to how the ballot is to be arranged, not the use of remote voting options,” Oro wrote. “Brother Noe’s claim to the contrary is wrong, so the Committee rejects it.” Indeed, the language cited by Noe and Schwartz regarding changing the manner and method of voting is preceded by language specifying how names will appear on the ballot.

The Committee ruling goes on to reject Noe’s claims that some ineligible people voted; that some were denied the right to vote or were pressured to vote a certain way by incumbents; and that improper records were kept as “speculation,” and “insufficient to establish a violation.”

The report also insinuates that Noe was behind the photographer Local 983 officials observed photographing the election.

“It should be pointed out here that in their appeal of the Local 983 elections neither Brother Jolifier Noe nor his attorney Arthur Z. Schwartz have made any specific allegation involving fraud of any nature whatsoever,” Oro wrote. “Not even one single allegation of anyone voting when ineligible to do so or of any member of Local 983 voting more than once. Moreover, even if there was any truth to any of the technical violations that have been alleged in general (without any specificity whatsoever) by Brother Jolifier Noe or his attorney Arthur Z. Schwartz, such technical violations would not have had any impact upon the Local 983 Elections in which the successful candidates won by a margin of 3:1.”

“As such, there is no basis upon which to overturn the results of the Local 983 elections even if the technical violations alleged by Brother Jolifier Noe and his attorney Arthur Z. Schwartz, were true (which the Local 983 Election Committee has thoroughly investigated and found not to be the case,” the letter to members concluded.

The Election Committee quickly moved to accept the report and swear in the old guard once again. Noe again appealed to AFSCME International with another letter to Carla Insigna, which reportedly went unanswered [LOCAL 983 APPEAL TO JP].

Part 5: “Fair and Democratic Elections”

Noe’s ill-fated challenge to Local 983’s leadership – the first such challenge in ten years – shows that the internal union mechanisms in place regarding union elections are first and foremost controlled by the union. These are not public elections; they are internal, private elections, albeit ones that can have big effects on thousands of union members and ultimately affect public policy.

But the unions are as much a bureaucratic, political institution as any other and one that is, perhaps, more strictly controlled by the incumbent powers. Noe’s path to challenging a new voting system by Local 983 involved waiting till after the election had occurred and then appealing that election to an internal union committee who implemented those voting changes and whose members are “generally” appointed by the Local president with approval by the executive board, according to the Local Elections Manual.

Although AFSCME International chose not to intervene in Local 983’s internal election battle, AFSCME has been forced to intercede in other locals within New York City’s District Council 37.

In 2016, AFSCME President Lee Saunders placed Local 375 under a trusteeship following a series of challenges in the local’s election – namely that the two slates of candidates had violated AFSCME’s constitution by improperly using union resources to send campaign emails to members’ work emails, largely in support of the long-time incumbents. The initial election was vacated and, following a second election that saw the same issues, Saunders stepped in to take control.

“I am of the opinion that the local is acting in violation of the International Constitution by its repeated engagement of conduct that violates several provisions of the Bill of Rights for Union Members, including their right to fair and democratic elections and their right to full participation in the decision making process,” Saunders wrote in a 2016 letter.

Ultimately, the incumbents were defeated by the challengers, headed by Michael Troman, who remains Local 375 president. In October of 2016, following his victory, Troman sued AFSCME International to remove the trusteeship, essentially arguing his administration was being punished for the sins of their predecessors. The court sided with Saunders and AFSCME International

More recently, in January of 2024, AFSCME International removed DC 37 Local 1549 President Eddie Rodriguez from leadership and ordered him to pay back more than $30,000 in union dues that were used “improperly” on car service for his daily commute. Two local vice-presidents were also expelled, including Ralph Palladino, who was ordered to return nearly $30,000 of his severance package. Rodriguez said he would appeal the decision, claiming it was “political,” according to The City. Local 1549 also remains under administratorship by the International.

More than twenty years after the federal government cracked down on corruption within DC 37 resulting in a black eye for AFSCME, the International was, once again, having to step in to right the ship for DC 37’s locals.

AFSCME International intervened in Local 375 only after election improprieties and challenges became endemic, while the financial improprieties of Local 1549 were hard to ignore following an audit by AFSCME International conducted following member complaints.

But with no problematic election history to draw upon because there hadn’t been one in ten years, and, thus far, no financial impropriety allegations leveled against leadership, Noe’s challenges were defeated first in court and then by his local’s election committee.

Although AFSCME promotes its union elections as “fair and democratic,” union leadership carries an advantage through an internal process that is extremely difficult to challenge in court and appears to work only when the problems become too big to ignore.

“The Court is not aware of how long that process could take, and in the interim, the union would be operating under an election result that likely violates the Local 983 Constitution,” Judge Frank wrote in the initial court decision. “Moreover, there would certainly be harm to the reputation of the union.”

In Local 983, with less than 2,400 members eligible voting members, only 20 percent of whom voted, Noe’s election challenge fell on deaf ears and was easily quashed by those who sought to stay in power through an internal process that favored current leadership.

More than two decades after Rosenthal took over Local 983 amid a corruption scandal, perhaps the 2023 leadership election could have harmed the reputation of the union, as Judge Frank wrote, had anyone really noticed.

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