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Teamsters Head Assails Tortilla Company at Rally

Labor: Ron Carey uges boycott on behalf of striking truck drivers. He is running for reelection as union president in a hotly contested race.

August 19, 1996|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Teamster Union President Ron Carey, amid a hotly contested reelection race against the son of the late Jimmy Hoffa, appeared at an East Los Angeles rally Sunday to urge striking workers to organize boycotts of the nation's No. 1 tortilla company.

Carey, president of the nation's largest private-sector union, used the flatbed of a truck as his podium to deride Gruma USA, maker of Mission and Guerrero brand tortillas.

About 160 unionized truck drivers who deliver the tortillas made by Gruma USA went on strike earlier this month, asking for better wages and a pension plan. Gruma, the U.S. arm of a Mexican firm, has hired temporary workers to fill in for the strikers.

The strikers, who work six-day weeks, say the long workweeks and low pay leave them virtually unable to care for their families.

"It's the same old story, the same old greed," said Carey, shaking his fists in the air. "This is a bloodsucking company that is taking huge profits out of this community."

Gruma officials say their drivers are the highest paid in the industry. On average, said Human Resources Vice President Roberto Velazquez, truckers earn $785 per week for 48 to 55 hour workweeks. Velazquez said tortilla distribution was "over 95% back to normal," despite the strike.

Teamsters truckers listening to Carey speak scoffed at the company's assertions about their pay. Rodolfo Villa, 30, says he works 10- to 12-hour days. For that, he earns $250 per week base pay, and a like amount in commissions. He says he begins work about 4 a.m. and does not leave for home until 4 p.m.

"Working here, you don't have a life. It's humiliating," said Villa. Pointing to his wife and three children, Villa said the typical meal is rice and beans. He must pay $25 per week for health insurance from the company, and makes monthly payments for a truck he purchased from Gruma as well.

"They keep saying: Things will get better. Just wait," says Villa mockingly.

Carey's appearance came as Teamsters members face a divisive election in November. Local 63 Teamsters President Bob Molina dubbed Carey "the greatest president we ever had in the Teamsters union."

The bare-knuckled race for the Teamsters presidency pits Carey against James P. Hoffa, son of the legendary Teamsters leader who disappeared in 1975 and is presumed to have been murdered by the Mafia. California, home to about 10% of the union's members, is considered a swing state in the election.

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