Eleven Thousand Workers Vote to Leave the Teamsters Union

by Charles Walker

This article, along with two that follow, was posted on the web site Labor Tuesday for June 24, 2003. The articles have been edited for Labor Standard. (Following the second article we have added a reprint from the Oakland Tribune, which reached us only after the other material had appeared on the Labor Tuesday web site.)

When Northwest Flight Attendants voted last week to leave the Teamsters union and join an independent union, the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA), no one should have been surprised, least of all Teamsters President James Hoffa, son of legendary Jimmy Hoffa. After twenty-six years, a majority of the 11,000 flight attendants had had their fill of the union, especially of the heavy-handed autocracy that’s back and fully in charge.

The head of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Ken Paff, said in a prepared statement, “Hoffa essentially drove 11,000 Teamsters out of the union, 75 percent of them women, by refusing to deal with their issues or their elected leaders.”

The Teamsters Union came close to losing the flight attendants before. On the eve of their 1990 preparations to leave the union, Ron Carey, then a candidate for the union’s top post, urged the flight attendants to stay, saying that when he won the election he would see that their problems would get his close attention. As president, one of Carey’s first moves was to facilitate the organization of a national union local for the flight attendants, who previously had been separated in scattered local unions, and therefore always had minority status and influence. For a time the flight attendants seemed hopeful. They overwhelming voted for Carey the two times he ran for president. And they elected a slate of reform officers, some of whom joined TDU, attended TDU’s annual conventions, and served as key TDU leaders and organizers.

But when agents of the federal government drove Carey from the union on bogus charges that a federal jury wouldn’t buy, the relationship between the national union and the flight attendants once again soured. First, Hoffa put his power behind a proposed concessionary contract, which the flight attendants decisively rejected, despite a Madison Avenue-style campaign that included multiple mailings to workers’ homes and videotape pleas for their votes. Then, when flight attendants began last year to organize for a decertification vote, Hoffa removed the local union’s officers and installed his supporters, ending any chance for reconciliation.

The former local union leadership led the decertification campaign, and seemingly had little trouble winning a majority to their view that the Teamsters officialdom did not have the best interests of the flight attendants at heart. TDU refers to the union the flight attendants chose to represent them now as an “upstart,” a small independent union that won’t have the clout to defend the workers from the airline bosses, who are now on an industry-wide drive for massive concessions. Reportedly, Northwest is demanding that flight attendants agree to wage and other concessions totaling some $900 million over 6½ years.

From the start TDU clearly believed that the flight attendants were making a grievous error, and attempted to win some concessions from Hoffa that might head off the decertification vote. “TDU leaders tried repeatedly,” they say, “to consult with and help the Teamster leadership, calling for expanding the Teamster leadership team, promising a clear end-date to end the trusteeship with a pledge that the unpopular Hoffa-appointees would not seek office.”

But obviously, the flight attendants had no good choices. They could vote to give up unionism altogether, they could endure what TDU has repeatedly called Hoffa’s strong-arm tactics, or they could attempt to use their leverage independently, unhindered by Hoffa’s callous interference.

With their past gains under attack from their bosses, chances are slim that they will prevail where other airline unions are failing. Yet the choice they made to get out from under the Teamster bureaucracy is one that many workers will understand.

Machinists at United Airlines, too, are faced with choices much like the Northwest workers. They may vote to leave the Machinists union, which, like the Teamsters, is a major AFL-CIO affiliate. They are separately being urged to break away and to stay by various leftists in the Machinists ranks, who have failed to find a united answer to the union’s concessions that drive the decertification effort. The efforts of both machinists and flight attendants to try decertification as a remedy to their problems are no coincidence; but their efforts don’t represent a major trend. Despite the several decades of retreat and defeat suffered by U.S. workers, there’s no labor upsurge on the horizon, no clear signs of an upheaval akin to the sort that reshaped unions during the Great Depression and favorably altered the relationship between workers and bosses.

In an independent union, the flight attendants stand a chance of learning more about the pitfalls of business unionism, as their democratic structure gives them a better feel for the battleground of the class struggle being waged against them. To the extent that that potential is realized, the flight attendants have chosen the right course.

The Antiwar Protest in Oakland: Police Might vs. Civil Rights

by Jack Heyman

The author is a San Francisco longshore union official and one of those arrested during the April 7 antiwar demonstration in the port of Oakland. This article is followed by a June 24 report from a local newspaper on new plans by the Oakland authorities to prosecute most of those arrested on April 7. That report is reprinted for the information of Labor Standard readers.

When police opened fire on a peaceful antiwar protest in the port of Oakland on April 7, many demonstrators and nine longshore workers were injured. Police used “less than lethal” riot control weapons. The manufacturer’s instructions clearly warn that shooting directly at people, which police did, can be lethal. Thirty protesters and a longshore union official were arrested in the unprovoked police attack. On May 12, antiwar demonstrators successfully returned to the port to reassert their First Amendment rights to protest. This time port employers delayed ship arrivals to avoid any conflict and police did not attack demonstrators.

The Bay Area has a long history of dock protests. At an Oakland Coliseum rally in 1990, Nelson Mandela credited a San Francisco dock action in 1984 with sparking the U.S. anti-apartheid movement. In 1997, before he was mayor, Jerry Brown marched in a picket line in support of dockworkers in Liverpool, England. Today, he hypocritically defends the police shooting of protesters in a picket line. Even police videos refute their justification for shooting, the claim that the demonstrators threw rocks and bottles and blocked trucks in the port.

Last year during longshore contract negotiations, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing shippers, closed all terminal gates, locking out longshore workers and shutting down all U.S. West Coast ports from Canada to Mexico for ten days. Longshoremen protested by organizing picket lines, rallies, and marches. Following the PMA lockout, President Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act, forcing dockers back to work under employers’ conditions. Mayor Brown did not object to the ports being closed then by maritime employers, nor did he object to Bush imposing what the labor movement historically has called the “Slave Labor” Act.

In the post-9/11 world every event is measured in “national security” parameters. Last June, in an unprecedented act of government intimidation of unions, Homeland Security Chief Ridge and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld made phone calls to ILWU President Spinosa warning that dock actions during longshore contract negotiations would threaten “national security.”

Politicians of both parties are jumping on Bush’s “war on terror” bandwagon, lest they be branded “unpatriotic.” Meanwhile, draconian legislation like the Homeland Security Act, the USA Patriot Act, and the Transportation Security Act, which eviscerate civil liberties, fly through Congress without serious debate. These “patriots” argue paradoxically that nowadays democratic rights have to be suspended in order to protect them.

The state of California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (CATIC) spied on protesters and union officials before the April 7 police attack. In an Orwellian twist, Mike Van Winkle, spokesman for CATIC, who has since been removed from that job, explained, “You can almost argue that a protest (against a war...against…international terrorism) is a terrorist act” (Oakland Tribune, May 18, 2003). Even more chilling, Van Winkle said that “terrorism” included any action that has an “economic impact.” Are union picket lines or civil rights demonstrations or boycotts to be banned in this “war on terror”?

National security was the excuse for government spying on former ILWU President Harry Bridges, the target of an unsuccessful red-baiting campaign to deport him [in the late 1940s and early ‘50s]. Today, spying on Oakland longshore officials, whose union has been outspoken against the war and occupation of Iraq, is no less reprehensible.

Yet when it comes to the awarding of billions of dollars in reconstruction contracts in Iraq to corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton, probing into that’s taboo. Bush handed Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) a $4.8 million contract to run the port of Umm Qasr. The port of Oakland demonstrators were protesting SSA’s war profiteering. Clearly, this was a war for imperial might not civil rights.

The “Blue Ribbon Committee” set up to investigate the latest Oakland police atrocity will have as little effect in curbing “excessive police force” as the Civilian Police Review Board did in curtailing the OPD’s racist Riders. Perhaps, Jerry Brown in his possible run for state attorney general could host a radio program similar to his former KPFA show “We the People,” this time renamed “We the Police.”

Prosecution Planned Against Oakland Antiwar Demonstrators

The following article from the June 24 Oakland Tribune is reprinted for the information of the readers of Labor Standard.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003—OAKLAND—Twenty -five people arrested during the April 7 antiwar protest at the Port of Oakland—including a longshore union leader [Jack Heyman]—were charged Monday with a total of 63 misdemeanor counts ranging from interfering with a business to failure to disperse.

Deputy Alameda County District Attorney Paris Coleman filed the charges after reviewing hundreds of pages of documents, and watching and listening to video and audio tapes. Other prosecutors also reviewed the evidence.

June Breshears of San Francisco’s Global Exchange said Monday that she had not heard about the decision to press charges, but added she is “disappointed.” Breshears said she was the second person arrested that day, before the violence began, and she never heard any orders to disperse.

“After the way the police behaved that day, being so violent toward people who were just expressing their free speech rights, it’s disappointing that they are going to use public funds to (prosecute),” she said. “This is just going to bring more attention to the conduct of the police that day, and going to trial will just be another opportunity to do that.”

A 17-year-old girl arrested at the protest had been charged earlier with failure to disperse. Of the 33 people arrested during the protest, seven were not charged.

Dozens of people, including nine longshoremen, were injured April 7 when police fired lead-shot-filled bean bags, wooden dowels and “stinger grenades” spewing rubber bullets at crowds blocking the gates to two shippers with Iraq war–related government contracts.

Police have said they fired in response to protesters who threw rocks and other objects at them, but none of those charged are accused of that.

One of those charged Monday is among the 31 people who have filed claims against the city saying they were injured April 7. Lindsay Parkinson, 23, said she was struck by a police motorcycle driving back protesters and sustained “severe” injuries. Parkinson said she was unlawfully arrested.

Police said they have television video and eyewitness statements showing people throwing objects at them, but they were unable to detain any of those people.

Coleman said "the facts of this case and the circumstances surrounding the protest support the charges we filed. Really, the bottom line is (the protesters) went there to interfere with the business of the port and that is what they did.

“There are many people in many walks of life who may have disagreed with the war,” Coleman said. “There are a lot of other ways of civil disobedience that don’t violate the law.”

Coleman said he realizes some people might be upset with the decision to file charges. But, he said, “You have to look at the facts presented to you and see if they support filing a criminal case. And obviously, we felt they did.”

When asked why it took so long to file the charges, Coleman cited as one reason the large volume of documents and tapes that had to be reviewed. “We wanted to be thorough, we wanted to be fair and there was a lot to review,” he said.

Breshears was one of 24 charged with interfering with a business by obstructing or intimidating people attempting to carry out business, or their customers. Fifteen of the 25, including Breshears, also were charged with disturbing the peace and failure to disperse.

Jack Heyman, 59, the elected weekend business agent for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, was charged with failure to comply with the order of a police officer and resisting or obstructing a police officer. Police said he was arrested after he refused to move his car as ordered.

Heyman’s attorney, Ted Cassman, said his client is innocent, and blasted the district attorney for pursuing charges. “I think it's a cynical pre-emptive strike by the local authorities to shield themselves from a soon-to-be-pending class-action lawsuit on behalf of my client,” he said.

Three of the 25 also were charged with resisting or obstructing police and two, besides Heyman, were charged with failure to comply with police orders.

Those charged Monday ranged in age from 19 to 64. Most are from Oakland and Berkeley, and others listed Alameda, Emeryville, Danville, Chico, Santa Rosa, San Rafael, Santa Cruz and Grass Valley as their homes, authorities said.

Prosecutors said the defendants would be notified by mail and through their attorneys. They will each be given a court date in the next few weeks, and prosecutors said they will be arraigned in small groups rather than all at once. Each can request a jury trial.

Lt. Howard Jordan, one of the police commanders at the scene April 7, said, “I think it's a good thing that they did (file charges). It vindicates our deployment and shows that we did things the way they should have been done. These folks were out there bent on causing problems. The ones that didn’t, we arrested in a manner that was consistent with the law.”

The Police Department is conducting a review of events that day, and the city has convened a five-member independent panel to conduct its own investigation of the police response to protesters. The Oakland protest was the only antiwar demonstration in the country where police used “less than lethal” ammunition.

U.S. Customs Service Blind to Forced Child Labor, Says Labor Rights Group

by Charles Walker

Whenever you fish a packet of M&M’s out of the lunch bucket or brown bag, you probably munch the pebbly sweets without giving much thought to the chocolate center as your molars crunch down. But if the chocolate in the center came from the Ivory Coast of Africa, chances are that it was made from cocoa beans picked by child labor. Worse than that, some of that child labor was forced child labor. Worse than that, some of that labor was child slave labor, says a labor rights group.

On May 28, the New York Times reported that the International Labor Rights Fund planned to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Customs Service “for breaking American trade law and allowing African cocoa picked by indentured child labor to be imported into this country.” The Ivory Coast is a major producer and exporter of cocoa beans, brought here by the likes of Nestle, Cargill, Hershey, and the ubiquitous Archer Daniels Midland Company, among others.

The labor rights group told the Times, “We are confident that if the Custom Service (sic) began an investigation the industry would take notice and find out whether indentured child labor was used to pick the cocoa beans.” Obviously, the rights group is convinced that forced child labor is used to harvest the cocoa crops, and, as it says, it has “grown impatient with the Customs Service for failing to investigate accusations that cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast used slave or indentured child labor.”

The Times reported that others have also charged that “plantation owners in the Ivory Coast buy children from neighboring countries like Mali to work in cocoa fields.” A 1998 UNICEF report prepared by its Ivory Coast office confirmed that child traffickers brought children to the Ivory Coast to work, though it couldn’t estimate how many children were transported. Perhaps the Customs Service has merely overlooked a State Department report (2002), cited by the Times, which stated that “some forced labor and trafficking in children and women also persisted.”

The liberal labor rights group, founded in 1986 and currently headed by a labor lawyer, believes that a Customs Service investigation will force the agency to agree with the rights group that child labor practices in the Ivory Coast should trigger a provision in U.S. law that bans the importation of products made with forced child labor. Just the threat of a ban, the group expects, will lead major cocoa importers to assist the Ivory Coast farmers “to provide decent wages and basic rights to their workers.” That and proper monitoring systems with legal enforcement should “ensure an end to trafficked child labor in this industry,” the group maintains.

The Customs Service agreed to meet with the group in July, even though, as the Times reported, the federal agency declared, “We reject the charges against us and are in the process of writing a letter to the group explaining what we are doing…We already enforce the law.”