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Teamsters Who Were Attacked Fight Union in Court

February 07, 1988|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer

The bloody mob assault on a group of dissident Teamsters three years ago stopped dead their drive to challenge the entrenched leadership of a large local union.

The challengers were beaten and kicked and several were seriously injured--one suffered a collapsed lung after he was stabbed with an ice pick--as they tried to enter a union meeting in Montebello to nominate a rival slate of officers.

Lead by James Bender of Fountain Valley, the dissidents have made a comeback of sorts, not in a union hall this time but in the new federal courthouse in Santa Ana.

Lawyers for Bender and eight others are trying to prove that Robert E. Marciel, the powerful secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Wholesale & Retail Food Distribution Local 63, was part of a conspiracy to terrorize and intimidate the dissident faction in 1985 with the aim of stopping their efforts to challenge his rule of the 15,000-member local.

After three weeks of trial--the first to take place in Orange County's newly commissioned federal courthouse--the dissidents rested their case Friday.

Their task has been complicated by the fact that virtually all of the those attacked have been unable to identify their assailants. The defense contends that that flaw is fatal to the dissidents' case.

The defendants are Marciel, the local union, a regional union group called Teamsters Joint Council 42 and union member Al Friedman. Friedman was identified by one witness as the man who pointed out Bender at the start of the attack.

U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts denied Friedman's request Friday that he be dropped from the case. But Letts acknowledged that "the record in the case is not strong against Mr. Friedman."

The dissidents' case has been a series of unsettling tales about how they were assaulted outside a hiring hall in Montebello on Nov. 2, 1985.

Harry F. Rodriguez, a 22-year Teamster member, testified that he was seeking nomination for trustee on Bender's slate. He drove Bender to the hall that evening, but when he turned toward the parking lot, an unidentified man wearing a union jacket told him it was full and directed him away.

Rodriguez found parking on the street, and he and Bender, joining up with others, began the walk to the hall.

Suddenly, a group of about 30 men wearing Marciel reelection T-shirts surrounded them.

"I heard someone ask, 'Who is Rodriguez?' I said I was, and I put my hand out to introduce myself," Rodriguez testified.

"I was struck from behind on the head," Rodriguez said. "I went down, and that's when I felt everyone kicking me."

A friend covered Rodriguez with his body, saving him from added blows. Rodriguez testified that he was shaken and having trouble breathing but did not realize an ice pick had been stuck in his back, collapsing his lung, until he talked with a doctor in a hospital emergency room.

Other plaintiffs, who have claimed medical expenses and lost wages ranging up to $13,000, told similar stories.

Bender, 54, who planned to run against Marciel for secretary-treasurer, was beaten unconscious.

Jack Douglass, 56, who planned to run for president of the local, said he suffered permanent hearing loss after he was knocked down and repeatedly kicked in the head. Douglass testified Friday that he talked to Marciel about the opposition four months before the election.

In his office at union headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, according to Douglass, Marciel talked about the upcoming election and the perils of high union office.

"He said the job has a lot of problems," Douglass testified. "He said, 'I got shot at on the freeway. My house has been firebombed. I've been run into on the freeway. I'm just trying to tell you some of the problems you'll have here.' "

Marciel said he would not give up office, Douglass added.

Douglass testified that Marciel said: " 'Under no circumstances do I intend to lose this job. I'll do whatever it takes to keep it.' "

Local Expanded

Marciel has headed Local 63 since 1978. Under his leadership, the local absorbed Local 357 in 1983 and Local 467 in 1984.

According to court documents, Marciel earned $126,700 in 1984. Local 63 had a budget of $4.7 million in 1986.

In a sworn statement, Marciel said Bender came to Local 63 as a business agent from Local 467. Marciel said he fired Bender as business agent seven months after the merger because of "unsatisfactory job performance."

Marciel also said Bender approached him before the 1985 election and offered to drop out of the race if he could get his job back as business agent. Marciel turned down the offer, according to his statement.

"I did not direct, order or request Bender and his supporters to be physically attacked on their way to the Nov. 2, 1985, nominations meeting. I did not participate in the physical attacks and was unaware they had occurred," Marciel said in the statement.

After the incident, Bender filed protests with the local and the international union. Marciel said he received permission to schedule a new nomination meeting. When that was held Jan. 4, 1986, no one opposed the incumbents and they were automatically reelected through December, 1988.

Bender said he refused to participate because there were "no safeguards, protection or investigation."

The dissidents' attorneys, David G. Finkle and Charley M. Stoll, are seeking unspecified punitive damages against Marciel and the local. They claim that the union, through Marciel, conspired to intimidate the opposition or failed to control the aggressive actions of his supporters.

The trial is expected to last another week.

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