Newsletter of Teamsters Joint Council 7
Volume 56, Number 1
What started as a tough contract negotiation with a long-time employer in the Bay Area has turned into a major union, community and environmental campaign spreading across the Central Valley.
For the last 52 years, Local 853 has represented the warehouse workers at VWR—a Brisbane-based distributor of medical and scientific supplies. For most of that time, the union and the company enjoyed good labor relations. In 2007, however, after the Chicago-based private equity and investment firm Madison Dearborn Partners purchased VWR, labor relations began to sour almost immediately.
In the midst of negotiations last fall, VWR suddenly announced that they intended to close their Brisbane facility and move the work out of town. They initially sought to keep the new location a secret, but the union learned that they plan to move to Visalia. This move will impact 68 Teamsters and roughly 80 more employees. It also represents a significant blow to the City of Brisbane’s general fund, as VWR generates 50% of the city’s sales tax revenues and 14-18% of its annual general fund revenue.
Since the move came to light, VWR has refused to meet with Brisbane officials and union representatives to discuss alternatives that would enable the company to continue to employ Teamster members. Further, they are not offering employees transfer rights to the new facility, a fair severance package, or neutrality for organizing rights.
When it was clear that the negotiations were at a standstill, the local started looking for new strategies. “We contacted the IBT’s Capital Strategies Department to investigate Madison-Dearborn’s investment portfolio. We figured that the Teamster pension funds, with billions in investments, should offer us some clout,” says Local 853 Business Agent Bob Strelo.
After some diligent research, the IBT uncovered several investors to target. IBT Secretary-Treasurer Tom Keegel wrote letters to these investors and to the other unions to inform them about what was going on at VWR. For a while, it seemed like the pressure of the strategic corporate campaign paid off as the company came back to the table. “But ultimately, we realized we were going to need a larger campaign,” Strelo says.
In fact, the union has since learned that the City of Visalia has been fast tracking this project with apparently no community input or regard for either the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and San Joaquin Valley Air District rules requiring permits for emissions associated with large-scale industrial developments.
“It’s all been under the radar,” says Joint Council 7 Political Director Doug Bloch. “They’ve circumvented local and state environmental laws in an effort to shut the Brisbane facility and move as quickly as possible to bust our union.”
“Visalia is a community hard hit by unemployment and it’s a targeted tax credit area,” Strelo says. “It’s easy to see why Visalia would want the jobs, but as far as we’re concerned, those would be pirated jobs.”
In December, working with attorney Richard Drury and the Center for Environmental Health, Joint Council 7 joined Local 517 member and longtime Visalia-resident Kevin Long to file suit against VWR and the City of Visalia in Tulare County Superior Court.
The proposed VWR distribution center is estimated to be 500,000 square feet in size and will generate hundreds, if not thousands, of truck trips daily. These trucks will transport hazardous chemicals, emit dangerous particulates in the air and travel through residential neighborhoods and by farms and cattle ranches, significantly impacting air quality, traffic and noise.
The San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District requires building development projects larger than 100,000 square feet to secure approvals for specific air emissions. VWR has not applied for those approvals.
The suit seeks to halt construction of the massive facility until important environmental and public health clearances are obtained as required by California State law.
“The Teamsters have long fought to protect the health and safety of drivers and communities from the dangerous effects of poisonous diesel emissions and have helped pass some of the strongest environmental and public health and safety laws in the country,” said Rome Aloise, President of Joint Council 7, which represents more than 700 members in Visalia alone. “We won’t let out-of-state companies like Madison Dearborn violate our important environmental protection laws or run roughshod over our communities at the expense of our health and safety.”
The company’s plan to consolidate its west coast operations in Visalia will significantly increase distribution distances to many of the company’s largest customers further exacerbating the environmental and human health impact throughout the state. “Having represented VWR workers for more than 50 years, Teamsters know well the dangers of this business,” Aloise said.
“As a member of the Visalia community all of my life, I want to preserve our environment and make sure it is always a safe and comfortable place to live,” said resident Teamsters Local 517 member Kevin Long, who is a named party to the lawsuit. “Thousands of truck trips will ruin that!”
The Center for Environmental Health has signed on to the litigation and several local and statewide environmental groups are looking to support it as well. “This has been characterized as a ‘union fight,’ but it’s so much more than that,” says Bloch. “The relationships that we’ve built with environmental organizations through our work on the port campaign are paying off here,” he adds.
As the lawsuit wends its way through the courts, the Teamsters are seeking to mobilize the membership locally. “I’m just sick of people calling us a special interest group when we’ve got 700 members plus their families who live in the Visalia area,” adds Bloch. “We represent workers in some of the largest companies in town,as well as the police officers. We’re not a special interest — we’re the community.”
Bloch is excited about the opportunity that this campaign raises to do grassroots organizing among our own Teamster members. “Right now, we don’t have much political clout in Visalia or Tulare County because we’ve never tried to mobilize it. But this issue is waking up a sleeping giant.”
Bloch says that Locals 517 and 431 brought out members to testify at the Visalia city council meeting. Teamster members have also addressed the Tulare County Workforce Investment Board.
This effort is being noticed by the media. Stories have already appeared in the Fresno Bee, the Fresno Business Times, the Visalia Times Delta and the Valley Voice.
The VWR campaign has received strong support from Locals 350 and 856 in terms of making political connections on the Peninsula, and Local 856 represents the Visalia police officers. Locals 431 and 517 have been mobilizing their members locally. Local 853 continues to put our VWR members at the center of this fight and the IBT has devoted significant time to all aspects of the organizing. “This has been a fantastic model for how we can work together to fight for our members and communities,” Bloch adds.