"He deserved every penny of it," Theresa DeCero, an AFSCME member in Philadelphia, said when told of Keller's pay.
"It's out of line. I need to run for president," said Deborah Williams, another union member in Philadelphia.
Keller's compensation, like that of 15,600 other officers and employees examined in both states, includes salary and any other direct payments for items such as expenses, time away from their full-time jobs, or operation and maintenance of union cars or cell phones for work or personal business.
Last year, five elected officers representing New Jersey or Pennsylvania workers each listed total payments in excess of $400,000. Another five reported at least $300,000. And 20 others got more than $200,000, according to disclosure forms unions are required to file with the U.S. Department of Labor.
In comparison, John Sweeney, president of the national AFL-CIO with 13 million affiliated members, reported total payments of $282,493.
Hundreds held two positions simultaneously, part time and full time, according to an Inquirer analysis. Some held three or four titles at local and national unions. Many served as elected officers for free while getting paid as staff employees, effectively being their own bosses.
In Philadelphia, one of the country's last big union towns, labor groups paid their 2,400 officers and staff $62 million for jobs ranging from president and business agent, to organizer and office staff.
In all, 776 officers and employees in both states got at least $100,000 each, the forms show.
However, 15 times as many union activists - 11,676 people, most of them apparently part time - reported getting less than $30,000. More than 2,200 people served for free.
That raises the question: Do unions overpay some at the top and underpay everybody else?
"In most instances, people are underpaid," said Wendell Young III, longtime president of Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, who received $233,353. "I think salaries are a problem. They're too low for too many people, but too high for a few."
For all officers and employees listed last year in both states, both full time and part time, median payment for one or more positions was just $1,645, largely because so many make nothing.
"We're in it for one cause: to keep the union strong," said Jack Altiere, a trainer for the Painters Union in Philadelphia who also serves as Local 345 president for no pay. "It's not a glamorous job. But . . . it's very satisfying."
The topic is complicated: How much should a labor leader earn? Unlike corporate executives judged by stock price or profit margins, union leaders in theory are measured by what they win for members. While members generally do earn more than nonunionized workers, many bristle at the thought of leaders riding high on workers' sweat.
"If you put these issues to a direct vote, most people would say leaders should make no more than the highest-paid member," said Julian Gonzalez, an organizer of the reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, based in Detroit.
But most locals resist setting strict rules about officers' pay or multiple jobs, typically leaving it to the discretion of an executive board.
"You don't want to go more than 2.5 times the salary of the highest-paid member," said Anthony Cinaglia, former president of Cherry Hill-based Local 56 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. "But that's more of a rule of thumb, not a formal guideline."
Cinaglia was paid $204,925 last year, plus $32,567 in other payments and reimbursements, ranking him No. 2 in the Philadelphia region and No. 21 across both states.
"He was way overpaid," said Ken Marr, 42, a Local 56 member earning $41,000 base pay as a meat-cutter at a Super Fresh store in Hammonton, N.J. "He should've gotten $65,000 - one and a half times what the man in the trenches makes. That's it."
Last month, Local 56 came under investigation for financial irregularities, including Cinaglia's alleged transfer of pension-fund proceeds to cover his salary, according to union officials. Cinaglia denied any wrongdoing but resigned anyway, saying he "didn't want to put my whole staff at jeopardy."
High pay can corrupt officers and damage the labor movement, said a UFCW reform group called Research-Education-Advocacy-People, based in Sioux City, Iowa. "When the public sees huge salaries," it said in a 2002 report, "mistrust and disrespect of the trade union movement in general is created."
Chris Kutalik, editor of Labor Notes, a union-watchdog newsletter based in Detroit, blamed local leaders for holding excessive power over boards.
"Many locals are essentially one-party states where there is no opportunity for real opposition," Kutalik said. "That has quite a lot to do with how salaries get out of hand."
In Keller's case, AFSCME's onetime severance pay reflected the gratitude of board members, said Lynn Kirk, AFSCME's spokeswoman in Harrisburg.
An AFSCME officer since 1969, Keller spawned chapters statewide, established health and benefit funds for 200,000 people and bargained hard in contract negotiations with the state, Kirk said.
When he retired in early 2003 from the $142,000-a-year job as executive director, he was entitled to an additional year's salary and extra pay for each of his 35 years, like any senior local officer. Then his board added pay for a career's worth of unused sick and vacation days, bringing his total salary to $561,149. Keller got an additional $10,235 in expense reimbursement and other payments, plus $18,600 from the AFL-CIO for being an international vice president, a title held by many affiliated leaders.
And Keller gets a pension.
"The man gave his life to AFSCME, and members loved him," Kirk said.
The union did not respond to requests to interview Keller.
Keller's onetime severance package put him above AFSCME's national president, former Pennsylvania labor leader Gerald McEntee, who reported total payments of $464,174 last year.
Across both states, the labor chief with the highest annual payments was John T. Niccollai, head of United Food and Commercial Worker Local 464A in Little Falls, N.J. He got $385,859, plus $21,797 as an international vice president, for a total of $407,656, or No. 5.
Local 464A officials did not return calls for comment.
The UFCW international president Joseph Hansen received $275,933 in the same year. Jill Cashen, a national spokeswoman for the union, declined to comment on Niccollai's salary and said locals set their own salaries.
The UFCW, in fact, had several local leaders in the top tier. No. 1 in the Philadelphia region and No. 19 overall was Clay Bowman, who got $245,609 as president of UFCW Local 1360 in Camden.
No. 4 in the region was Young, president of UFCW Local 1776 since 1962, when he won office by promising to take half his predecessors' pay. Today, his merged local has 23,000 members, $13 million in revenue and $700 million in health and pension funds.
"I've gotten the same percentage increase that my members made over 43 years," Young said, noting that officers recently have frozen their pay in solidarity with members. "I know what I do for my pay, and I'm not self-conscious about it."
His son, Wendell Young IV ($157,579), who has been elected to succeed his father in January, said: "Our members expect us to get the best possible wages for them, but we cannot expect to do that for ourselves."
The younger Young added: "Our pay is not nearly as big as corporate salaries."
Comparison to corporate or government executives is dicey. Keller's annual salary at AFSCME roughly equaled that of his main counterpart at the bargaining table, Gov. Rendell, who gets $144,000 a year.
On the other hand, Philadelphia regional carpenters chief Edward Coryell ($232,529, No. 5 in the Philadelphia region), bargains with developers who make millions and small-time contractors who make far less.
"Labor leaders don't take jobs like this for the money," said Coryell, who said he worked seven days a week on behalf of 12,400 members. "They take them because they want to be leaders of their unions."
While lambasting chief executive officers for their pay gap, some unions have gaps of their own. Median payment for officers and employees was $550 at the carpenters' unions and $1,093 for the UFCW positions - equal to just 1-2 days' compensation for leaders like Coryell and Young.
Teamsters, on the other hand, spread money and jobs more evenly. Their median compensation was $28,462, with 40 earning more than $100,000, led by Philadelphia Local 500 president Frank Gillen's $178,804 (No. 12 in the region, No. 47 across both states).
Gillen did not return calls for comment.
"We definitely spread it around," said Joseph Yeoman, Teamsters Local 331 president in Atlantic City ($103,445). "It's respect for each other."
Gonzalez, the union reform activist, sees it another way. He said Teamsters used multiple titles and paychecks like "a patronage system. It's a good way to keep officers loyal."
Of the top five in both states, two from the International Longshoremen's Association in North Jersey - Local 1235 president Albert Cernadas ($508,755) and Local 1804 president Harold Daggett ($480,607) - have been indicted on alleged ties to organized crime. Both have pleaded not guilty.
No. 4 was L. Dennis Martire of the Laborers Union in Pittsburgh. He got $238,320 as national vice president and $177,193 as business manager of Local 1058, which was placed under federal supervision in 2001 for alleged links to organized crime.
Martire did not return calls for comment.
Whatever their compensation, one trait many union boards seem willing to pay for is political influence. For example, John J. Dougherty, the Philadelphia electricians' union leader ($182,463) controls a well-heeled PAC and uses his political clout in disputes, most recently at the Convention Center last summer.
"I believe," Dougherty said, "you get what you pay for."
Contact staff writer Thomas Ginsberg at 215-854-4177 or email@example.com.
Top Union Leader Payments Locally
A brief look at six of the highest-compensated union leaders in the Philadelphia region in 2003.
Position: President, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1360, Camden
Bowman, 52, ranked No. 1 in compensation in the Philadelphia metro region and No. 19 overall. His local recently won a long court battle over its right to organize Dunkin' Donuts in South Jersey.
Anthony R. Cinaglia
Position: former president, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 56, Cherry Hill.
Cinaglia, 45, ranked No. 2 in the Philadelphia region and No. 21 across both states, resigned as president last month after an internal union audit alleged irregularities in the local's finances.
Edward H. Gant
Position: president, IBEW Local 351, Pennsauken.
Compensation: $237,342 Gant, 52, ranks No. 3 in the Philadelphia region and No. 22 overall last year. He is considered one of South Jersey's most powerful labor leaders and is a former chairman of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
Wendell Young III
Positions: president, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776; UFCW national vice president.
Young, 66, ranked No. 4 in Philadelphia and No. 23 across both states. He is set to retire in January, succeeded by his son, Wendell Young IV, who got $157,579 as Local 1776 vice president and recording secretary.
Edward C. Coryell
Positions: president, Philadelphia regional carpenters council; president, Local 8; president, state carpenters council.
Coryell, 58, ranked No. 5 in the Philadelphia region and No. 24 across both states. His son, Edward Coryell Jr., received $113,547 as regional union business agent and Local 8 delegate.
John J. Dougherty
Positions: Business manager, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, Philadelphia; vice president of the regional and national Building Trades Council.
Compensation: $182,463 "Johnny Doc," 44, ranked No. 11 in the region and No. 44 overall, also controls a well-heeled PAC, serves as Philadelphia Democratic Party treasurer, and has the ear of top political leaders such as Gov. Rendell and U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady.
How This Story Was Reported
Payments were calculated based on financial disbursements that unions reported to the U.S. Department of Labor, on forms LM-2 and LM-3.
Disbursements were taken from all one-year filing periods that ended during 2003. Payment periods extending from 2003 to 2004 were omitted because the 2004 periods have not yet ended.
Both elected officer and staff employee jobs were included because many people held the posts simultaneously. In order to identify union leaders collecting more than one paycheck, similar names in related unions were researched. If verified as the same person, his or her payments were combined into one annual total, whether or not the jobs were held at the same time.
The payments do not include income from outside a union, such as wages from a company or stipends from serving on a local board. They do not include purchase of items such as cars or phones for personal use, but may include their maintenance and operation costs.
The list also excludes compensation to local and regional leaders of the AFL-CIO, which is exempt from the filing requirement because it is a federation of labor unions and not formally a collective-bargaining unit.
To search the Inquirer's database of 15,600 union officers and employees, go to: http://go.philly.com/unioncomp
To see original documents filed to the U.S. Department of Labor, go to: http://www.dol.gov/esa/regs/compliance/olms/rrlo/lmrda.htm