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October 24, 2014

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Teamsters’ next hurdle: Election

Accusations already flying over contested contract

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  • Tommy Blitsch, Teamsters Local 631 President discusses why he has decided to break the local's unwritten policy not to speak with members of the media in speaking with the Sun.
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  • Blitsch talks about the turmoil that has plagued Teamsters Local 631 and how his colleagues and him have moved the local into a better direction.
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  • Blitsch contrasts other union locals' elections with that of local 631's elections.
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  • Blitsch responds to the complaints reported by the media from Teamsters Local 631 members.
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  • Blitsch talks about how local 631 pays for their elections and denies that members' jobs have ever been threatened in order to gain contributions.
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Beyond the Sun

Las Vegas Teamsters Local 631 is never at peace.

After struggling for at least a decade with corruption, mismanagement and infighting, the union now faces a brutal election campaign.

More than three dozen members have lodged federal labor board complaints against the union since 2005, alleging its leaders ignore their grievances against employers or don’t properly represent them in contract talks. That’s a significant number, according to labor experts, and far more than in other Southern Nevada unions.

Kevin Hardison, a former 631 business agent who works for the garbage hauler Republic Services, claims in his complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that union leaders have “retaliated, restrained and coerced” him because he spoke out against a contract negotiated with Republic, according to documents obtained by the Sun through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

The question of whether that contract amounted to a sweetheart deal between union leadership and Republic now threatens to tear Local 631 apart. Hardison, a candidate for union president, uses it as a plank in his political platform.

“They lied about our contract,” he told the Sun. “What we voted to ratify and what’s in place are two different things.” Hardison claims the contract voted on didn’t include a requirement that drivers have a commercial driver’s license, while the final contract included the requirement, which cost the jobs of a number of the union’s 6,500 members.

After Hardison told co-workers he was voting against the contract and why, the union filed internal charges against him — and held a hearing without him. He received notice three days later, he said.

“It’s a political witch hunt,” Hardison said. “They don’t want me to run because I’m a viable threat.” He lost an election in 2005 by a handful of votes.

The union’s leader, Secretary-Treasurer Wayne King, and its president, Tommy Blitsch, have been in office only since 2006. Other Nevada labor leaders say they’ve finally put Local 631 on the right track.

In a Sun interview, Blitsch denied the allegations by Hardison and other members.

Blitsch said the charges amounted to politics. “Everybody has a right to run for office,” Blitsch said. “We’re not trying to hold anyone back. It’s simply not true.”

The union’s members work in an array of industries, including cement, conventions, construction and garbage. Hardison’s slate includes a diverse group of insurgents taking on current leaders.

What promises to be a bitter election will be but another turn in a turbulent history, one that illustrates the challenges faced by modern unions that must contend with unfriendly labor law, hostility from conservative politicians and multinational corporations with the cash to crush them.

Unions must also balance the principal of union democracy, which encourages members to determine their contracts and leadership, and the need for stability in the face of external adversaries. It’s a balance that has long eluded Teamsters 631.

In 2000, the union was placed under emergency trusteeship because of what Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr. called “severe mismanagement.”

The local’s alleged improprieties may sound familiar to current members: failing to file grievances on behalf of members, negotiating substandard agreements with employers, failing to enforce collective bargaining agreements, and inadequately representing members. It was the first trusteeship in the local’s 63-year history.

Dane Passo, a special assistant to Hoffa, was sent to Las Vegas to oversee the local until the Independent Review Board, a federal watchdog of the Teamsters, exposed another scandal.

Investigators found that within months of moving to Las Vegas, Passo engineered a deal with William T. Hogan Jr., the leader of the Chicago Teamsters, to steer hundreds of convention jobs to nonunion workers employed by a temporary labor firm where Hogan’s brother was a top executive.

Ed Burke, a onetime Chicago Teamster and a business agent at a California local, was appointed trustee of Local 631 in June 2001, becoming the third overseer in a little more than a year. He eventually ran for office himself in 2003 and was elected secretary-treasurer on a slate that included Blitsch and King, who’s currently recovering from surgery.

But in 2006, the IRB found that Burke had failed to discipline Frank Incandella, a business agent who had maintained contact with the scandal-tarred Passo. Burke, investigators said, took action — firing Incandella — only when the business agent became a political rival.

The agency recommended that Burke be charged with bringing reproach upon the union. Hoffa appointed a review panel and Burke ultimately cut a deal, which required him to leave the local permanently and barred him from holding union office for two years, but allowed him to retain his status as a Teamsters member.

(In the Sun interview, Blitsch said Burke left on his own, before acknowledging the IRB’s role.)

Wayne King replaced Burke as secretary-treasurer and now faces his first election as the union’s leader. More than a few Teamsters object to King’s leadership.

Last year King was negotiating with members of a different local, Teamsters 995, who worked in a training facility owned by Local 631. King demanded they accept at-will employment, allowing Local 631 to fire the 995 workers whenever it pleased and for whatever reason.

As a bargaining tool for a union, it was counterintuitive; the whole point of unions is to give workers rights in the face of management that would prefer to grant none. King sought to curtail the rights of those workers.

The negotiations grew tense, leading to a confrontation between King and Teamsters Local 995 Secretary-Treasurer Mike Magnani, according to minutes of a meeting obtained by the Sun.

When Magnani questioned why one of his workers had been fired, alleging that she had faced intimidating tactics from 631 leadership, King refused to discuss it.

A profanity-laced shouting match ensued.

Magnani: You know what? You’re an (expletive.)

King: Yes I am.

Magnani: You’re an (expletive.)

King: You don’t come in here and accuse me of doing stuff like that. Kiss my (expletive.)

Asked about the incident, Magnani declined to comment.

Blitsch said the leaders of the two unions are, in fact, close. He questioned the authenticity of the meeting minutes.

(The Sun heard an audio recording and authenticated the minutes with more than one person at the meeting.)

Blitsch said the union had emerged from its dark past and that his administration had negotiated the “best contracts this local has ever seen.”

He said the incumbents’ platform would be based largely on a round of contract wins last year. (Some workers say the contracts aren’t that good at all.)

The campaign clearly has begun.

On the union’s Web site, which features the opening chords of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and the image of golden Teamster horses in battle formation, King’s profile says “Wayne King’s versatile union career will make him the ideal Secretary/Treasurer dedicated to serving the entire membership.”

King’s use of the Web site to run for reelection appears to violate federal labor law, which prohibits using union money for reelection.

Blitsch declined to comment on his slate’s campaign finances or its methods of raising money, but he denied the use of union funds.

Blitsch also dismissed the notion that members were unhappy with leadership, despite the dozens who complained to the NLRB.

“We represent our members,” Blitsch said. “That’s why we haven’t lost any of those cases.” (Blitsch said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of the complaints.)

He added: “I believe we have a really good crew in here, and no matter what the adversity, we keep moving forward.”

In at least one case, the NRLB ruled against the union, finding that King, when he was a business representative, improperly altered the stated job qualifications of a member because the member engaged in “intra-union” activities.

This complaint goes to the heart of grievances of some members, including several who work with Hardison at Republic: Those who question union leadership are pushed out.

Workers roundly rejected a Republic contract offer last summer, despite encouragement from union leadership that they ratify it.

The workers complained that the raises offered were insulting — 75 cents per hour every six months for the life of the contract. But that came with a caveat: Workers had to increase their contributions to the union health and welfare fund.

John Masters, a Cleveland labor lawyer representing Hardison in a number of unfair labor complaints against 631, acknowledged that the company gave workers an extra $55 per week by eliminating a worker contribution to the health and welfare fund. Masters said it was largely wiped out, however, because the contract stipulated that the 75 cent raise include all health and pension costs.

Once it was rejected, union leaders negotiated another contract, but it was inferior to the last.

Union leadership again urged members to ratify it and warned against a strike.

Many workers found that position strange. They believed they could gain leverage with the unpleasant prospect that a strike would leave garbage rotting in summer heat.

What might be more galling are recently released Labor Department documents showing King gave himself a $10,432 raise last year, an increase of 14 percent. Blitsch’s raise was nearly $9,000, or 13 percent.

Members’ conclusion: Union leaders are in cahoots with management. They offer no evidence, and Blitsch said the leadership has been nothing but loyal to members and has shown commitment to great contracts.

Blitsch acknowledged that union leaders didn’t adequately explain the strength of the contract to workers. He blamed the rapidly rising cost of health care for eating into raises and denied politicizing the union.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University labor expert, said locals the size of 631, with their small, diverse bargaining units, are disadvantaged against large corporations, such as Republic Services.

Local 631 has enjoyed limited growth even as its industries and the region have grown rapidly. The union has added 1,500 workers in 10 years, which lags well behind the Culinary Union, the Carpenters Union and the Service Employees International Union. Clark County’s population has grown twice as quickly during that period.

Bronfenbrenner said one question in a local like 631 is the effect of fierce union democracy: “Debate is good, war of ideas and all that. But it sounds like what you’re seeing is they’re stuck and not getting anywhere.”

Gary Mauger, the head of a different Las Vegas Teamsters local, said multiple slates running for election at 631 every three years has yielded leaders without a mandate.

Mauger has faced an election challenge just once in his 13 years as head of Local 14. The keys to maintaining power — and thus stability, he said: Returning all phone calls, processing grievances to a conclusion and visiting workers at the companies the union represents.

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