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Interview with Richard Berg, Teamster Local 743 President, removed by Hoffa

By staff

There is a big battle going on in the Teamsters Union, pitting reformers against corrupt officials. In Chicago, Teamster union reform leaders, President Richard Berg and Secretary Treasurer Gina Alvarez of Local 743 were removed from office by Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa Jr. this past Friday. Hoffa’s action aids corrupt union officials and criminals trying to worm their way back into Chicago’s Teamster unions. Fight Back! interviewed Richard Berg just before he received the official letter from Hoffa Jr.

Fight Back!: Why has Jimmy Hoffa Jr. removed you from office?

Richard Berg: Hoffa has consistently supported corrupt union officials as long as they supported him. We have been fighting against corruption in Local 743 since 1988, for 22 years. The past two Teamster Local 743 presidents are in jail. They stole a Teamster officers’ election from the working members of our union, from our 743 New Leadership Slate, and from myself in 2004. Hoffa did nothing to investigate this theft. When we gave him the evidence he looked the other way. Finally, the U.S. Department of Labor had to step in to prosecute these criminals.

Also, I ran against Hoffa and his slate in 2006. I ran for International Vice President of the Central Region on the Tom Leedham Slate. I received over 40% of the vote. Hoffa's popularity has slipped dramatically, so he wants to eliminate his rivals as a way to keep his job as International Teamster President.

Fight Back!: What were the charges against you and Secretary Treasurer Gina Alvarez?

Richard Berg: There were 10 charges filed against me, and 6 charges filed against Secretary Treasurer Alvarez. All except one was dismissed. I think that they had to dismiss them because they were so obviously biased, charges based on politics, instead of on merit.

The one remaining charge is technical and minor. It stems from a settlement to avoid a lawsuit with a do nothing union representative that worked for local 743. Even though he didn't deserve a penny we paid him $21 thousand. While this is too much, I made the decision in order to save even more money in legal fees. Everyone on the local 743 executive board was notified and no one raised any objections even though they had the right to do so at that time.

Secretary Treasurer Alvarez's involvement was the same as those that filed the charges against us. She simply signed the check along with me. All the charging parties later approved this at the next Local 743 executive board meeting.

The bottom line is that we did nothing wrong. Nothing! This is simply a power grab by those who oppose workers building a fighting labor movement.

Fight Back!: Did either of you benefit personally?

Richard Berg: No, in fact I have cut my salary by $70 thousand a year and cut my benefits by well over 50%. I believe that union officials should live like the workers they represent, not like kings and queens.

Some union leaders resent Secretary Treasurer Alvarez's efforts to eliminate the perks of officers and staff. She looks after Local 743 Members dues money carefully.

Fight Back!: The members of the executive board that brought the charges against you included several that ran with you in 2007. What happened? Why did they turn against you?

Richard Berg: This is a great disappointment. When we ran for office we told the members we would cut the salaries of officers, work hard and put the resources of the union to work for the members. Larry Davis, Chantell Harlin and Fernando Garcia thought that this was just campaign talk. After we won they demanded the same big salaries the old guard officials had. They wanted to hire their friends and pay them big money.

When Secretary Treasurer Alvarez and I resisted this, the conflict started. Eventually they worked with the Hoffa camp to enrich themselves by turning their backs on the reforms that we had put in place.

Fight Back!: The New Leadership Slate in office picked a number of fights with employers in Chicago and northern Indiana, most notably SK Hand Tools in Chicago, where workers struck for over 2 months to defend their right to health care, among other demands. Will the officers that brought charges against you continue this fighting attitude toward the bosses?

Richard Berg: This may by the biggest difference between us and them. We communicate with the workers. We organize and mobilize local 743 members to fight for dignity and respect on the job, to fight for a better life for themselves and their families.

Those who threw us out are satisfied with local 743 being a company union, a union that collaborates with management. The truth is that they just want the workers dues money for themselves.

Fight Back!: What does this mean for you and Gina Alvarez? Will you be allowed to run for office in the next local elections this year?

Richard Berg: This week Gina and I will file a lawsuit asking the judge to reverse the Hoffa Executive Board's ruling. We believe that the workers should decide who runs their local union, not Hoffa and his cronies.

If we are not successful, the 743 New Leadership Team will run a slate without us. It is not about Gina and I, it is about the workers having a union that will fight in their interests. We will support the 743 New Leadership Team whether we are candidates on it or not.

Fight Back!: Can this attack be stopped?

Richard Berg: The workers have the power to stop this power grab. Despite some officials’ lust for power and money, unions are the organizations of workers. The real working class leadership in this union must step forward and fight to take this union.

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