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Interview with Richard Berg:: How Reformers Won in Teamster Local 743

By staff

Fight Back! has been a supporter of the reform movement in the Teamsters since we began publishing, but the struggle inside Teamsters Local 743 began years earlier. We interviewed Richard Berg, the president-elect of Local 743 about the history and meaning of the victory over the sell-out gangsters that dominated that union for so many years.

Fight Back!: How did the struggle against the old guard begin in Local 743? When did you get involved?

Berg: I started as a custodian at the University of Chicago Hospitals in 1988. Marriott was an outside contractor that came in to try to whip us into line and increase the level of exploitation of the workers so they could make a little money for themselves and even more money for the university. I was a relatively new steward. We decided to get the workers together to fight back against it.

We had a meeting of second shift workers. We had keys to every office, so we put a flier on every desk, from the president of the university, the dean of the medical school to every secretary. The flier said, “To the University of Chicago. From: your workers. Fire Marriott!” It then listed our eight demands. We all wore buttons that said, “No Marriott.”

We sent a message to everyone at the hospital that we were going to fight, and that we weren’t going to tolerate this level of exploitation. It sent shockwaves through the place.

The next day, the management of Marriott, who had refused to even hear grievances from me in the past, called me in their office before I could even punch in and fired me. Then they went to each worker and asked them to take off the buttons. If he or she refused, they would suspend them for three days. As the word got out what was going on, all the workers came down and lined up to get suspended because they weren’t going to take their buttons off.

As they realized they didn’t have enough workers anymore, they started reducing them to one day suspensions. Then managers started turning their heads away to say, “I don’t see your button.” People would say, “See my button, see my button.” The vice-president of the university called all the workers into a big room and said, “You should all go back to work. We can figure this out.” The workers replied that they wouldn’t make any deals without their union steward. Management pointed to a steward from the kitchen, “Your steward is over there.” The steward responded, “I’m not their steward, you fired him.”

The fight was there, but this didn’t happen overnight. It was a planned action to hit back against what we were facing. The next day I got a call from the union, asking what the heck was going on. They did everything they could to put out all the fires and tried to make nice with management. But this is a fundamental contradiction – it’s not about making nice, it’s about fighting for dignity and respect. We organized the fighters among the workers and unleashed them. The union thought that any struggle was wrong. They saw their only role was to collaborate, to get on their knees and beg for a better situation for the workers. This has been the contradiction with them from that day until when we beat them in October, between those that want to fight management and those that want to collaborate and make deals.

Fight Back!: How did the workers at the University of Chicago Hospitals learn that the whole old leadership of Local 743 had to be opposed?

Berg: Initially we saw that our business agent was selling us out. Many people thought that we just had a bad business agent. In fact, he was a nice guy, he’d always return phone calls and do things like that, but he’d never stand up for the workers. Whenever there was a conflict between labor and management, he’d beg for you, and if that didn’t work, he’d sell you out.

Things began to change when the president of our local was removed because of his affiliation with organized crime. He let the old president of our local who had also been removed because of his affiliation with organized crime continue to run the union. Our local went into trusteeship and while we were in trusteeship, we met people from across the local. We were able to compare notes with workers from other hospitals, from nursing homes and manufacturing. We found out who was actually in our union for the first time, because they kept us all separate. As we compared stories, we realized it was the same story at every place. That was the beginning of what became the 743 New Leadership Slate.

We decided from those first meetings to support each other. If there was a battle across town, we’d go there and try to help them organize it. [After the trusteeship ended, the old gang managed to return to power.] When Montgomery Ward’s shut down, we organized huge rallies to support the workers. We called on the local union to bring in people from the international to help. The local union wanted to just let the place shut down and the workers go on. So we picketed the union hall and demanded that the union do something to fight for these workers.

Fight Back!: How did you build the New Leadership Slate and root it among workers in the local?

Berg: The best example is Tony Caldera, who has been one of the leaders of the slate since the beginning. He still teases me to this day because when I first met him, I didn’t want him on the slate, because I didn’t know him very well. That was the biggest mistake I ever made. He has been one of the best fighters from the start until today.

He always looked out for all the workers. When the battle happened at Silver Capital three years ago, he was out front. [Silver Capital was a factory with mostly undocumented, Mexican immigrant workers. It closed in 2004 and Local 743 sold out the workers, refusing to fight for severance pay.] He convinced Marcela Garcia, the leader of the workers there, to run on our slate against Jose Galvan, the business agent who had threatened to call immigration when the undocumented workers complained about being sold out. Tony and Marcela galvanized our slate and Silver Capital became the example for all the immigrant workers in 743. When Tony told their story to workers across our local, it rang true. It was their story as well.

Unfortunately, Tony’s factory, Frederick Cooper, had the same fate, closing in the summer of 2005. He led the struggle of the workers there as well. Under his leadership, those workers have won hundreds of thousands of dollars from the owners of Frederick Cooper, after the union had agreed to let them go with absolutely nothing at all. Tony did this by uniting with community organizations and pressuring the alderman around zoning issues.

Fight Back!: Now that you’ve won the election, what conclusions have you reached about how the old guard managed to stay in power so long?

Berg: Collaborators rely on management to stay in office. They had their dirty tricks and their willingness to break the law and our union’s bylaws and constitution. Of course, they always had plenty of money and resources, while we had to rely on fundraisers, a few dollars from every worker and volunteers. The ultimate thing, though, was that management supported them.

I was fired three times at the University of Chicago. Not once did it have to do with my work. I was a very good worker; I always have been. It was because I threatened management that they would fire me on trumped up charges.

During this recent election, I was kicked out of every workplace in the local, not allowed to speak to workers about how to make our union better. At the same time, every employer would invite the old guard in, often on company time, to talk to workers about why they should vote for them. Is this against the law? Of course it is. These laws aren’t enforced because the people who make and enforce the laws are the same people who own our companies – the factories, nursing homes and hospitals in Local 743.

Fight Back!: What’s the new day going to be like for the workers in Local 743?

Berg: The New Leadership Slate is going to take all the resources of this union and put them to work to serve the people. The workers should expect to have business agents out at the job sites on a regular basis and to have their phone calls answered. Dues money will go toward contract enforcement, toward getting workers dignity and respect and aiding in the fight we have been talking about in this interview.

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