The United States attorney in Manhattan, David N. Kelley, said in a motion that in changing the job referral system, the New York City District Council of Carpenters violated a consent decree it signed in 1994 in response to a federal effort to eliminate corruption. Prosecutors said the union was dominated by the Genovese crime family, and it was widely criticized for letting mob bosses pick carpenters to put up and take down displays at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The consent decree requires the district council, which represents nearly 25,000 carpenters, to obtain federal approval before changing its job referral system.
In court papers made public this week, Mr. Kelley argued that the changes give construction contractors far more leeway to hire whichever carpenters they want, irrespective of length of unemployment. The old system generally required them first to hire the carpenters who had been unemployed the longest.
Prosecutors say corruption will be easier under the new system because contractors will have more power to pressure unemployed carpenters to do their bidding.
"Because contractors can handpick virtually 100 percent of the work force at a job site, carpenters are now beholden to contractors for job opportunities," Mr. Kelley wrote. "Carpenters who are at the mercy of employers for job assignments know that if they stand up for the enforcement of union rules or legal requirements or refuse to work off the books or for cash when asked by a contractor, they run the risk of being laid off."
Many contractors prefer paying workers off the books, he said, to avoid paying fringe benefits and to hide evidence that wages are below those required by the union contract.
Mr. Kelley filed the contempt motion last month with Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. of United States District Court in Manhattan, who oversees the consent decree. The government also wants the district council's president, Peter Thomassen, cited for contempt. The union has until October to file its response.
Gary Rothman, a lawyer for the council, defended the revamped system, saying it was part of a contract, signed in 2001, that is good for the city's carpenters.
"The employers wanted the ability to hire whom they want and when they want without restriction, and the union got a good deal out of it," Mr. Rothman said. "They got a 25¾ percent increase over five years. That was a magnificent contract. The journeyman carpenter makes over $70 an hour with benefits."
Mr. Rothman questioned why prosecutors filed their contempt motion four years after the contract was signed. He defended Mr. Thomassen, saying he was just one member of a 20-person negotiating team.
The United States attorney's office declined to elaborate on the motion.
Many rank-and-file carpenters say the current job referral system is unfair because it has left many of them unemployed for months at a time, while favored carpenters find steady work.
"This new job request system is horrible," said Gregory Butler, a Harlem resident who has been in the union for 13 years. "It's among the worst things that ever happened to us. They can get guys who work for cash. They can get guys to work for less than the regular rate."
Under union rules, companies must hire half of their carpenters from the union's out-of-work list. Before 2001 employers also had the right to give priority to unemployed workers who had worked for them in the previous six months.
But now employers can hire virtually anyone they want off the out-of-work list.