Teamsters Council Ousts Reform Leader from Chicago Presidency

David Moberg

Richard Berg’s tenacious, decade-long fight for democratic reform of his Chicago Teamster local union at times seemed quixotic. But after two elections were stolen by corrupt, now imprisoned local leaders, in 2007 the Department of Labor stepped in to run what may have been the local’s first honest election in anyone’s memory.

Reformers’ impossible dream came true, and Berg was elected president of the 11,000-member Local 743 along with most of his slate.

Symbolizing the change at the union, his predecessor was sentenced on federal corruption charges as Berg was addressing a massive immigrants’ rights march. And when Berg took office, he cut his own salary by $70,000, as well as cutting the high salaries of other officers and staff.

But on Monday, Joint Council 25 – which includes all Chicago-area Teamster unions – found Berg and the local’s secretary-treasurer Virginia Gina” Alvarez guilty of improprieties. It ordered him and Alvarez removed from office and both suspended him from union membership and disqualified him from any Teamster office or employment for five years. We spent ten years trying to get the right to vote for members of 743,” Berg says. We look at this as just a power grab.”

According to supporters, Berg has brought to the union — a diverse local comprised mainly of hospital workers — more membership activism and involvement, more education, translation into Spanish of documents and meetings, and more progressive politics and demonstrations of solidarity with other workers. The local also has been more willing to fight recalcitrant employers – running membership contract campaigns or even striking, as the union did with a ten-week walk-out to protect health insurance of SK Tools workers. Berg also ran and lost a campaign for international vice-president on a slate opposing President James R. Hoffa.

Berg is petitioning Hoffa for a stay of the action, pending his appeal to the international’s executive board – a request that is rarely denied, according to Joint Council 25 executive director Brian Rainville.

Four of the seven Local 743 executive board members had brought ten charges against Berg and Alvarez, but the Joint Council’s hearing panel dismissed all but two against Berg and one against Alvarez. The complainants included members of Berg’s slate who, Berg says, opposed the salary cuts promised during the campaign once they were in office. 

Berg says that he had difficulty putting together his winning slate, since many reformers had lost their jobs and other potential candidates thought there was no chance of success, but he was still surprised at the change of heart by his erstwhile colleagues.

The Joint Council found that Berg acted improperly when in January 2009 he fired an organizer and agreed to a $21,000 severance payment without required approval by the executive board.

Berg says he fired the organizer for failing to do his work adequately and agreed to the payment rather than have to fight a threatened lawsuit by the fired employee. He says that under advice of his lawyer he concluded he had power to act because the principal officer is in charge of labor disputes. He claims that he informed the board and they ultimately approved his action in a phone poll. In any case, he says, no one on the board moved to overturn his decision, the appropriate action rather than filing charges with the Joint Council.

But the hearing panel said that no vote was taken, and there was evidence that a majority of the board disapproved of the payment. Also, it concluded that Berg never justified either the firing or, especially, the financial settlement, which should have been approved by the board.

The second finding against Berg involved his interpretation of the local’s by-laws, which prohibit people hired as business agents, who are not members of the local, from becoming members for 18 months. Again, relying on his lawyer’s advice, Berg says, he concluded that the prohibition applied to two agents who were on honorable withdrawal” from the local. The Joint Council concluded that a precedent case established that such agents on withdrawal could become members.

Anyone on the board could have challenged his decisions at the local without bringing charges to remove him from office and union membership, Berg says. It was a political move,” he says. They could have raised it, made a motion at any board meeting.” He continued:

This smacks of a political maneuver. The real issue is we ran on a reform platform, cut salaries and used the money for education, taking cases to arbitration, or going on strike where we needed. It’s okay to deal cocaine [as one of the preceding officers did from the union hall]. But if you interpret the by-laws one way you’re out.

While he insists he was right in his interpretations, his decisions were in any case reasonable,” and the penalties would not be justified, since nothing he decided in the disputed cases was for his own financial or personal gain.

Rainville denied that Berg was being removed for political reasons or in any power grab or coup, as Berg and supporters claim. That makes for great rhetoric on his part but does nothing to answer the actual charges,” he says. The charge has to do with this: did he circumvent the executive board in taking $21,000 in union dues to pay an individual he fired?”

Did it happen?” Rainville continues. If it did, what is the historical model in a case like this? What would the punishment have been if he’d been on the opposite side of the fence?”

Rainville denies that the difference in the Joint Council’s handling of charges against the corrupt old guard – who were never disciplined by the union – and the heavy penalty imposed on Berg reflects a political bias. Unlike the Department of Labor, he says, the Joint Council had neither the mandate to investigate or the subpoena power necessary to ferret out the old guard’s misdeeds.

The evidence suggests that neither Berg nor his executive board handled their internal dispute well, and even though Berg has a reasonable case – if not always the documentation he should have — the Joint Council panel’s interpretation of the meaning of the by-laws also seems reasonable. But the penalty seems quite unreasonable, especially since political interests and conflicts that should be settled in democratic forums, from executive board and union meetings to union elections, are clearly the overriding issues in this case, not any pattern of corruption – certainly not by the low standards of the old Local 743 that were long tolerated by the Joint Council that now proposes removing Berg.

If his internal union appeal fails, Berg could turn to the federal courts. But the reformers now face new hurdles for the September local elections. Important as Berg is as a leader, union representative and Berg ally Joe Sexauer says, We’re not personality driven. We’re about reform. There are a lot of us.”

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

In These Times August 2022 Cover
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