Association for Union Democracy

Victory in Teamsters Local 901, Puerto Rico by Barbara Harvey, Esq.

Barbara Harvey is an attorney and serves as an AUD Director.

Teamsters Local 901 represents every Teamster across all of the mountains, farmlands, towns, and cities of Puerto Rico. Secretary-treasurer German Vasquez ruled with an iron fist, and no one dared oppose him for union office.

In March 2010, on a recommendation of the Independent Review Board under the Consent Decree and following a trial, Vasquez was removed from union office and suspended from membership for a year by IBT general president James P. Hoffa, for embezzling $73,300 from the union by paying himself unauthorized raises. His fine was the amount of union funds he had embezzled – not one cent more.

One year before Vasquez fell from power, three brave women stewards who had led a rank-and-file election challenge to his executive board in October 2008 were put on trial by the executive board they had unsuccessfully challenged. Migdalia Magriz, Silvia Rivera, and Maritza Quiara were removed as elected stewards, suspended from membership for six years (two full terms of union office), and fined $10,000 each.

The stewards’ offense: subjecting the union to liability by standing in a picket line with striking fellow members at Coca-Cola Bottlers, at the strikers’ request. The charges accused the three women of supporting an unauthorized strike, though neither the strikers nor their supporters had any reason to know, while on strike, that Vasquez had told Coca-Cola that the strike was unauthorized. To the contrary, Vasquez himself had sought, and gotten, a strong strike authorization vote from Coca-Cola members a couple of weeks earlier.

The disciplined stewards had done nothing wrong. This case may be the first, ever, in which union stewards were disciplined for peacefully picketing in support of a strike by fellow members at another shop, on their own time.

The charges were also clearly retaliatory. The Coca-Cola membership had voted for the stewards’ election slate by a lopsided margin of 108:6. But not even the Coca-Cola stewards who had organized the strike were disciplined; nor were stewards from other shops who also stood in solidarity with the strikers.

Seven months later, perhaps to avoid accusations of sex discrimination, similar charges were filed against the three men who had run for office with the women stewards, and they were also found guilty. But they were never disciplined and the disciplinary findings against them were later withdrawn under a settlement agreement.

It took three separate legal proceedings, but the women stewards were repeatedly vindicated in each legal action they needed to take. The National Labor Relations Board held that their removal as stewards affected their seniority rights and therefore their employment relationship, and was subject to remedial action under the NLRA. It ruled that their exercise of the protected right under Section 7 of the Act to support the strikers did not subject the Local to liability and that the Local violated the Act by subjecting them to discriminatory discipline.

But it was clear that the NLRB would not issue an order in time to rehabilitate Magriz, Rivera, and Quiara as candidates for office in the next union election, and ultimately it ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to vacate the suspensions from membership and the internal union fines.1 They therefore sued under the LMRDA for injunctive relief. The court granted a broad preliminary injunction, the full relief requested under Sections 101(a)(1), 101(a)(2), and 609. It enjoined the Local from interfering with the plaintiffs’ rights “to attend and participate in all meetings of the union membership, to campaign and to be nominated for union office, and to have their names placed on ballots for union office, if nominated”; from collecting the fines; from interfering with their reinstatement as stewards; and “from imposing or threatening discipline against plaintiffs for exercising their LMRDA rights to campaign and run for union office and to enforce their legal remedies challenging the actions of the Union under any law ….”2

The plaintiffs had to return to court to compel the Local’s compliance with the preliminary injunction by taking steps to ensure that Magriz’s employer transferred her back to the area that she had served as a steward. The court ordered the requested supplemental relief, but Magriz had been replaced as steward by a supporter of the incumbent Rodriquez administration, and she was unable to win the quickie steward election that was ordered by Rodriquez after her lengthy absence from that unit. Rivera, who had continued to work in the unit that elected her, was easily re-elected.

The DOL relied on the court’s restoration of the pre-disciplinary status quo and certified Magriz and Rivera as candidates in the 2011 supervised officer election. (Quiara had by then retired.) Its Title IV lawsuit was voluntarily settled, but the plaintiffs were unable to prevail against the advantages of incumbency in this large jurisdiction, including hundreds of shops, many in remote locations that plaintiffs were unable to visit.

The court ultimately entered a permanent injunction on terms somewhat less broad than the preliminary injunction, rejecting a mootness argument, vacating and nullifying the $10,000 fines, and reaffirming its preliminary injunction under LMRDA Sections 101(a)(1), 101(a)(2), and 609.3 The legal victory would surely have been sweeter had it been accompanied by a political victory. But Local 901 has come a large step closer to democratic governance.

Notes: 1. Union de Tronquistas de Puerto Rico, Local 901, 358 NLRB No. 129 (Sept. 18, 2012).

2. Magriz v. Union de Tronquistas de Puerto Rico, Local 901, 765 F. Supp.2d 143 (D.P.R. 2011).

3. Magriz v. Union de Tronquistas de Puerto Rico, Local 901, ___ F. Supp.2d ___, 2013 WL 1223338 (D.P.R. 2013).

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