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October 2, 2014

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Reform slate ousts Teamsters officials accused of sweetheart deals

Beyond the Sun

A long-troubled Teamsters local has elected a leadership slate of reformers, throwing out incumbents accused of steering nonunion work to preferred companies in exchange for favors and jobs for relatives.

Teamsters Local 631 represents 6,500 workers in the convention industry, in trash collection, and for United Parcel Service and other companies. A slate led by Kevin Hardison and John Phillipenas solidly defeated the incumbents, headed by Wayne King and Tommy Blitsch, in a bitterly contested election.

About a dozen union reformers told the Sun this year that union leadership was colluding with major convention center contractors to provide them with cheaper nonunion labor.

Members told the Sun the union had set up a lucrative nonunion employment agency within the union hall, at the expense of union members, whose hours were cut. They complained that as they waited for work, the union hall dispatcher gave jobs to nonunion workers who paid $60 to be on the union work list.

In exchange for getting sweetheart deals from the union, the convention contractors did favors for union leadership, including providing work for family members, according to some union members. Blitsch’s wife, for example, had been working for the Freeman Cos., a giant in the convention services business.

Members in other industries had their own gripes: Bad contracts due to coziness with company managers and mismanagement of union funds at a time when union leaders gave themselves significant pay raises.

“We’re going to put things back into the hands of members,” Hardison said. “That means we listen to their concerns, we go out and represent them, we return phone calls, we go to job sites.”

Hardison said the local would crackdown on contract violations, conduct an aggressive organizing campaign against nonunion companies and strengthen alliances with its two sister locals, as well as with other Southern Nevada unions.

The election was fierce, with King and the outgoing executive board suspending Hardison from membership for two years, thereby making him ineligible to run for office. The suspension was overturned on appeal by Teamsters Joint Council No. 42.

Messages the Sun left at the union hall for King and Blitsch were not returned Friday.

The insurgents take over a union with a long history of turmoil.

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

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., leader of the Chicago Teamsters, to steer hundreds of convention jobs to nonunion workers employed by a temporary labor firm for which 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 in 2003 and was elected secretary-treasurer on a slate that included Blitsch and King.

But in 2006, the review board recommended that Burke be charged with bringing reproach upon the union. Burke left the local, which made King the secretary-treasurer and Blitsch the president.

The new leadership must also confront a $47 million unfunded liability in the pension fund.

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