Photo by Robert Burroughs
Black iron bars protect the windows around the machinists union hall on Kearny Mesa Road.
Last month, at a dinner held at Vacation Village, Ray Bryant was honored as Labor Man of the Year. The prestigious award was bestowed on him by officers of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and the Teamsters Joint Council. For Bryant it marked the culmination of many years in the labor movement, years spent working at Convair, Rohr, in the shipyards at Campbell Industries and San Diego Marine, and as a commercial fisherman.
Ray Bryant. Last summer Bryant was mugged from behind as he came out of the Kearny Mesa Rib Cage restaurant/bar.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Since 1978, Bryant, who is fifty-eight years old, has been president of the local district of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a job which gives him control over the 12,000 men and women who comprise the membership of District 50. It is an elective position he worked diligently to obtain and which he now works just as diligently to maintain. And if this is the story of Ray Bryant’s rise to power, it must also be the story of a man named Jim Heller, who has fallen from power, and of the opposite roads these two men have traveled in the machinists union.
Jim Heller. Capehart once protested that Heller had vowed to “kick the shit” out of him.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
It is a story of the chicanery, deceit, and violence that often permeate the murky and esoteric world of labor union politics.
Heller didn’t attend the awards dinner in honor of Ray Bryant, and it’s safe to say that he was surely chafing at the thought of Bryant receiving such recognition. But even if Heller, for some reason, had wanted to join the crowd toasting Bryant that night, he wouldn’t have been able to, for Heller is no longer a member of the machinists union.
“When you are a union activist, you get red-baited a lot.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Last year Ray Bryant saw to it that he was expelled for life from the International Association of Machinists. Heller is an activist, a militant, a troublemaker who represented a threat to Bryant’s power. The successful fight to expel Heller and to punish five of Heller’s supporters likely contributed to Bryant’s selection as Man of the Year. Certainly it didn't work to his disadvantage as his name was being considered by the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. A number of people believe Bryant was simply being rewarded for keeping his corner of the house in order, for putting out the garbage before it began to stink up the whole place.
Jim Heller had never heard of Ray Bryant until Bryant ran for the presidency of District 50 in 1977. Since then, however, a relationship of sorts has developed between the two men; it would not be hyperbolic to say that they hate each other. Their philosophical differences and intense personal animosities represent an extension of a rift that has split the local machinists for the last decade. It began in 1970, when an aggressive, militant union officer from Convair challenged the man who had headed the machinists union for years.
That election was a turning point in machinists’ politics, and those who were involved recall it as one of the nastiest in memory'. The energetic challenger lost in his bid for power by less than a hundred votes, and he loudly proclaimed the election to be a fraud. Polling places had been moved at the last minute, he claimed, and duplicate ballots had been printed and then forged in favor of the powerful incumbent. Dead people had voted. Machinists who later said they were unaware of the election turned up having cast ballots for the establishment slate. An unusual number of absentee votes were recorded. Scores of depositions were taken from persons who swore their ballots had been altered.
After three years of legal wrangling, the U.S. Department of Labor and the international office of the machinists union ordered a new election, and the upstart from Convair won easily.
By 1975 militant leaders had emerged in some of the shops in District 50 under the leadership of the new district officers, especially in the shipyards. In July of that year, machinists at Solar went on strike for 123 days, and in September they walked out at Campbell Industries and its subsidiary company, San Diego Marine, for 134 days. Both strikes were tumultuous, with several ugly confrontations between strikers and police. The machinists union, once considered a sleeping giant, a pussy cat of a union, was beginning to awaken.
Jim Heller was part of that awakening, which coincided with his own introduction to and interest in union activity. He had been working at San Diego Marine (now called Southwest Marine) less than a year in 1974 when a near accident at the ship yard prompted him to action. A large sheet of metal had fallen from a crane, and though no one had been injured, Heller decided to teli his supervisor of his suspicions that the crane was unsafe. The supervisor, recalls Heller, "actually walked away from me.” Heller then went to the union’s shop steward, only to find that ‘‘he was scared of the boss.” Finally he approached the chief steward, in whom he found support and encouragement. The next year Heller says he reluctantly agreed to run for the position of shop steward, and he won. Later that year, when the machinists at San Diego Marine went on strike, Heller found himself immersed in the dispute. It was a tense and exhausting episode, and, financially, a costly one for Heller and his family — in the course of the strike, his brother and father, who also worked at the shipyard, were forced to move into his modest Chula Vista duplex with him because, in their stubbornness, they, like many other workers, had depleted their savings.
Subsequent to the strike, Heller, who is now thirty-one years old, would find himself terminated from his job on five different occasions — for insubordination — and would successfully fight for his reinstatement each time. That tenacious attitude was forged early in his life. When he was growing up, he attended fourteen to sixteen different schools, by his estimate. The last of them, a high school in Wisconsin, lost the transcript from his previous school and didn't graduate him when he thought they should. “They wanted me to do another year, but I refused,” he says. Instead, he took a general equivalency exam to earn his diploma. Heller began doing hard manual labor while he was still in high school, first carrying sheet rock, and then hauling logs in the woods. After he finished school, he joined the Navy, and upon leaving the service, went to work at a foundry in Wisconsin. In his two years of working there, five co-workers died as a result of dangerous working conditions in the plant, he says. Eventually he left Wisconsin, drifted to San Diego and into a job at U.S. Elevator for a year, then hired on at San Diego Marine.
Heller’s father was a union man, but not as involved as his son. “He’d go to meetings once in a while. I can remember him talking about various things in the union,” recalls the younger Heller, who says his father never ran for a union office. Ironically, Heller says when he began working at San Diego Marine in 1974 he was regarded by some union members as being pro-management, in part because he was a hard worker. “I had a reputation for being one helluva worker,” he says without bragging. ‘‘My father always worked his ass off. I just kind of fell into it, too. I never needed a boss standing over me. I didn’t need that constant supervision. If I didn’t have something to do, I looked for it.”
Such diligence didn’t go unnoticed by management, and Heller says he has turned down several offers of a supervisor’s job. He declined them, he says, because “I saw more respect in being elected a steward than being hand-picked as a supervisor. I get more satisfaction being elected by my peers. Maybe I feel that way because of the supervisors I’ve worked for in my early years. A lot of these guys get their jobs by, some people say brown-nosing, some people say kissing ass. A lot of them had to step on people to get where they’re at. I’m not made up that way.” And, Heller adds, a union officer has to command the respect of his peers to get their cooperation, whereas a supervisor can simply fire a recalcitrant employee. “It’s a lot harder to be a good union representative than a supervisor.”
In the aftermath of a job-related injury he suffered a year and a half ago, Heller has been working with a rehabilitation counselor, who he says has suggested he is suited for an upper-middle management job. No way, says Heller. “I don’t go for that,” he says. “I want a job where I’m tested every day.” Union members need what he calls “aggressive advocates”; management types, he suggests, are too “middle-of-the-road. They’ve been away from the work place too long; they’ve forgotten what it’s like.” It would have been easier for him, he admits, to have accepted a management job, but “I believe all the things I’ve been doing need to be done. I enjoy working with the people in the work place.”
When the strikers returned to work at San Diego Marine after more than four months, Heller’s political fervor had been ignited. He began studying health and safety laws, labor law, contracts, and the history of his local lodge, number 389, which is one of nine locals in District 50. The company, he says, offered him, as steward, the option of not punching in and out on the time clock at the plant, free lunches with the company brass, and more privileges not afforded other employees — all in an effort to win him over to the company’s side. Heller says he declined all offers of gratuities and instead began filing numerous complaints over what he perceived to be health and safety violations. “I was on top of them more than the company wanted me to be,” he recalls. He would pay dearly for his diligence.
Ray Bryant is the antithesis of Jim Heller in every way but one: like Heller, he is a staunch, obstinate union man. Bryant is a second-generation San Diegan who went to work at Convair for thirty-five cents an hour as soon as he finished high school. He had to overcome a bout with polio at the age of twenty before working at several jobs at such places as Convair, Rohr, and in commercial fishing. He says he was one of several people instrumental in first organizing Convair into a union shop. “We [organizers] would go sit on the railroad tracks at lunchtime — more or less secretive. We didn’t have the coffee breaks then that we have now. It wasn’t an easy task, believe me.” And when he was a commercial fisherman with his brother-in-law and two friends more than thirty years ago, Bryant says the quartet “shut the whole waterfront down for two days.” It was the first strike ever on the San Diego waterfront, recalls Bryant, who explains that he and the others were unhappy with the prices being paid for their fish. “We just tied the boat up at the dock and gave the whole damn load away. We took a loss to prove a point. It’s a tough way to go, my friend. But we got our price, by God, after two days.”
Bryant proudly says he stands up not only for his union but for his church as well — Faith Chapel in La Mesa, which is affiliated with the Assembly of God. “They do just a fantastic job with the music,” he says of the church. “I’ve gotten all kinds of people from Rohr and elsewhere around the county to go there.” Bryant’s efforts on behalf of the church haven’t been limited to persuading others to join. Twice, he says, he appeared before the county board of supervisors with other members of the congregation when Faith Chapel wanted to build another church, but encountered zoning difficulties. The board denied the church permission to build the new structure. Says Bryant, “Our old friend, [Supervisor] Jim Bates, double-crossed us on that one. Mr. Bates is no longer considered a trusted friend.” Although unhappy with Bates and the other supervisors for their vote, Bryant expresses satisfaction with the conduct of the congregation at the board hearings. “Everyone behaved themselves, because they’re real Christians,” he says. Bryant’s wife of thirty-five years, Kay, also is active in the church. “My wife wants me to get into the ministry . . . that’s what I’d like to do,” says Bryant. “I’ve got a lot of training to do, coming from a hard union background. I try to live my life that way, as a Christian.”
The District 50 president is described as a patriotic man who is fond of wearing an American flag pin on his three-piece suits. And while the hostages were being held in Iran, he often wore a “50“ button. In his office are photographs of himself with Ted Kennedy, Jerry Brown, and Assemblyman Larry Kapiloff. Bryant is about five foot, two inches; he wears tinted glasses and styles his hair in a wavy pompadour that, as one of his detractors sarcastically pointed out, gives him the appearance of being slightly taller than he really is. This same critic theorized that the reason Bryant is fond of wearing shoes with high heels and overcoats “six inches too long’’ is that he is self-conscious about his diminutive size. “He is very sensitive to any teasing about his height,” the man said.
According to some local machinists, Ray Bryant hasn’t always run the most Christian — or ethical — of campaigns when seeking a union office. Bryant worked at Rohr for many years, and it was there that he began his ascent in union politics, with the aid of Ashley Williams, who has worked at Rohr since 1958 and who has been an active member of the machinists union for most of those years. He and another Rohr employee ran Bryant’s first campaign for a union position, that of business agent, about 1960. Williams says he and the other man removed a union insignia, a “bug,” from Bryant’s opponent’s campaign literature and affixed it to Bryant’s handouts. The “bug” indicated the literature was printed by a union shop. But in fact, says Williams, Bryant’s material was printed by Williams’s brother-in-law, who operated a nonunion (and less expensive) shop. Bryant’s opponent discovered the ruse. “To save Ray Bryant’s ass, we took the blame,” recalls Williams bitterly. “We pleaded ignorance.” Williams insists, however, that Bryant was aware of the union bug caper. “Anything he could use to get elected, he would use,” says Williams.
A former president of his local lodge, Williams complains that Bryant has achieved his successes by smearing his opponents rather than by touting his own record. Bryant’s opponents are frequently labeled as “radicals” or “strike-happy,” he claims. “Fear plays an important part in politics,” says Williams. “If you can instill enough fear in the membership, you can get elected.”
Pete Puente has been a business agent at Rohr for the past eleven years — longer than any other business agent in the nine local lodges comprising District 50. (A business agent is a working man or woman usually elected by his peers to represent them in disputes with the company and to enforce the union’s contract with the company. It is a full-time position, with salary paid by the union. A business agent who is defeated in a bid for re-election automatically returns to his former job in the shop.) Before becoming a business agent, Puente was a shop steward at Rohr for seventeen years. He has been involved in many elections. Puente characterizes Bryant as a shrewd campaigner. “I’ll tell you one thing,” says Puente, “he’s clever. He stays in the background and keeps an All-American Boy image.”
According to Puente, Bryant traditionally has his supporters do the dirty work of the campaign for him, and even they are careful to make any attacks on Bryant’s opponents verbal, rather than written, so they can later be denied if necessary. Puente has first-hand knowledge — he ran against Bryant for business agent in 1969 and beat him. “He’ll come up and pat you on the back,” says Puente, “and meanwhile his buddies are over there cutting you up.” As Puente recalls this particular election campaign, Bryant’s supporters insinuated that a vote for Puente was a vote against “the American way” (Puente is Mexican-American) and spread rumors that Puente was an alcoholic (he’s not). Bryant, as usual, stayed in the background.
Puente also says of Bryant: “He’s a great guy for shaking hands and slapping the backs. And I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but the guys in the plant eat this up.” Although Bryant is perceived by many as being pro-management, he has won a number of union elections, says Puente, because he has had control of the shop stewards, who can campaign for him on company time. “His campaigners have the run of the plant, eight hours a day. Five days a week. His opponents are tied down to their jobs.” Furthermore, Puente says the traditionally low voter turnouts in union elections favor a candidate like Bryant, who is already firmly entrenched.
Bryant’s entrenchment began to coalesce in 1977, when he won an upset victory in his campaign for the presidency of District 50 of the machinists union. At the time, Bryant was still at Rohr and was serving as a union business agent. The district office was still in the hands of militants who increased dramatically the number of machinists’ complaints regarding alleged violations of health and safety regulations and the number of arbitration cases involving individual employees. The incumbent president did almost no campaigning in that 1977 election because Bryant wasn't considered a serious challenger. His overconfidence cost him his job. In February of 1978, Bryant started his four-year term as district president.
By this time Heller had come to be regarded as a complainer and a nuisance by San Diego Marine because of his union activism, but with the election of Bryant, management had a more accommodating man in control of the district. Observed the Evening Tribune after Bryant’s election, “His election was welcomed by those in management who will have to deal with him in [contract] negotiations.” Bryant bristles at that assessment of himself. “I was branded a radical and a militant and I always have been,” he insists. A smart militant, says Bryant, is one who, when negotiating a contract, can determine the attitudes of the negotiating committee and “educate” them. “It takes talent to get contracts that people can live with,” he says. “Because of that. I’ve been labeled a conservative. Conservative, my ass!” Strikes, Bryant believes, are sometimes necessary, but they should be “your last ultimate weapon.” He accuses his predecessors of having been “strike-happy” and “tearer-downs. I don't know what they ever built. Some people,” he adds, “can’t stand to see progress.” According to Bryant, strikes these days usually have to be industry-wide to succeed. “We’re not winning them in the streets anymore, like we used to,” he says. “What it’s coming back to ... is fighting them from the inside. We’re having to change our tactics. People have to get used to that.” But lest anybody think he’s weak, too accommodating, Bryant adds, “I’ve been a street fighter all my life. I can be a hard guy, but I prefer the soft approach unless I have to get tough. I can talk to anybody. I’m willing to go halfway — more than halfway.”
But Heller, who admired Bryant’s militant predecessors, sees it differently. He believes Bryant has given in too easily to management when negotiating contracts. “We’re in economic warfare with these guys [the companies],” he says. “One of their goals is to keep us at the lowest wage possible. I don’t care how sweet I ask for a cost-of-living raise. If I can't back it up with the threat of a strike, I won’t get it.” While the two men have radically different philosophies about how a union should be run, the reasons they give for their involvement in the International Association of Machinists are similar. “I went through the Depression as a little boy and I’ll never forget that,” says Bryant. “What are we going to leave our children?” Bryant’s father was a union man, he says, and he recalls, “When I was a little boy, I used to sit on his lap and listen to him and his cronies. I guess that’s got to be something bred into you. You’ve got to have a lot of love for your fellow man.” Heller speaks in terms of working for the good of others. He often mentions that when he was president of his local lodge, he seldom made decisions on his own. It’s not that he is indecisive, explains Heller, but he made a commitment to eliciting the members’ views on an issue before taking a stance. Many union officials — and he thinks Bryant is one of them — are looking only to protect their jobs once they get in office, he says.
Heller also accuses Bryant of quashing dissent within the machinists union by eliminating his political enemies and rewarding his friends. At the time Bryant was elected District 50 president, Heller was a chief shop steward at San Diego Marine. As such, he was a company employee who worked full-time on union business, coordinating the activities of the shop stewards and helping employees resolve some of their problems. Shortly before he was to come up for re-election, in May of 1978, Heller learned that the company was encouraging and aiding an employee named William Ottombrino to defeat him. Such activity is prohibited by federal law. He claims he asked a business agent named Jerry Jackson to file a grievance against San Diego Marine on his behalf, but that Jackson was reluctant because Bryant had allegedly told him he wanted to “get rid” of Heller. Bryant denies the allegation, and Jackson cannot be located. Heller eventually took his case to the National Labor Relations Board and won; San Diego Marine was forced to post notices around the plant saying it wouldn’t discriminate against Heller.
A statement Ottombrino signed for the NLRB admitting the truth of Heller’s charges that management was aiding him provides a fascinating insight into the lengths to which a company may go in its efforts to eliminate a troublesome union activist. Ottombrino said he was first urged by two supervisors to run against Heller, and later by a man named Bob Spears, whom he identified as being in charge of the supervisors. Ottombrino said he didn’t really want to run, but added, “It was because of Spears that I felt pressured into running. If it had not been for Spears, I would not have run in the first place.’’ But run he did, and Ottombrino said one supervisor used a company office to make 300 copies of handbills for him. Ottombrino also testified that a supervisor in the company’s receiving department offered to let him use the supervisor’s secretary if he were elected. “I then, in a joking manner, asked about getting an inside parking space, and he said they could probably do that,” said Ottombrino. Heller, as chief steward, had no such parking privilege. Nevertheless, Ottombrino later withdrew from the campaign “since I didn’t think I had enough capabilities for the job at the time.”
Events in Heller’s life did not become smoother after the resolution of this incident. In the fall of 1978, he and like-minded union members formed the Action Ticket (their motto was “Give ’em hell — Give ’em Heller”) to run for a slate of offices in Local 389. Heller ran against a young man named Ken Capehart for the position of business agent. Capehart, who began working at NASSCO as a pipefitter trainee in 1976, campaigned for Bryant’s election as district president and was promptly appointed by Bryant as chief steward at NASSCO. When in August the position of business agent for Local 389 became vacant and required an appointment, Bryant passed over a number of chief shop stewards, including Heller, and selected Capehart, who was the youngest and had the least seniority among them, to fill the post temporarily. Union rules mandated an election be conducted within three months, but it was actually four months before Bryant ordered one. Heller suspects that the delay was designed to allow Capehart additional time to campaign as an incumbent.
When the election was held, everybody on the Action Ticket but Heller was victorious. In what seemed like a repeat of the infamous, contested election eight years earlier, Heller accused Bryant and Capehart of election irregularities at a Local 389 shop, Kearfott Industries in San Marcos. Heller complained that on the day of the election, Bryant moved the polling place in San Marcos from the union meeting hall to a new, more accessible spot across the street from Kearfott. This was to Capehart’s advantage, Heller maintains, because Capehart had been permitted to campaign at Kearfott and Heller had not. Bryant defends the move, saying the meeting hall, which was rented for union meetings, wasn’t available the day of the election. Heller responds that Bryant knew four months in advance when the election would be held, and could have secured the hall if he had wanted to. He also alleged that Bryant sponsored a raffle of liquor at the polling place to induce Kearfott employees to vote, and that a Bryant supporter returned the unsealed ballot box from San Marcos to San Diego. But perhaps the most convincing evidence to support Heller’s charges was the voter turnout that day at Kearfott. Some 167 people from the electronics assembly plant cast votes, which represented about seventy-five percent of Kearfott’s union members; twenty-five percent is considered a good turnout in most union elections. Apathy was so widespread at Kearfott prior to this election (a previous election for business agent had drawn only eleven votes) that the local lodge hadn’t conducted meetings for five or six months because it could not muster a quorum. Yet on this December day in 1978, not only was there an extraordinary voter turnout, but an incredible landslide in favor of Capehart. Heller remembers the ratio being about ten-to-one against him. Heller won elsewhere, but the Kearfott tally was enough to tilt the election to Capehart.
Heller’s first response was to complain to the U.S. Department of Labor, which said it had jurisdiction only over the election of union officers who were, among other things, involved in the handling of money. That did not include business agents. Since the rest of the Action Ticket had won, Heller and his cohorts decided not to contest the election further. “We decided the worst thing we could do to this local would be to show it couldn’t even run a fair election,’’ he says. Bryant contends Heller dropped his charges because he couldn’t prove anything. He concedes there was a large voter turnout at Kearfott, but that it was not irregularly high.
In early 1977, Paul I. Stevens bought Campbell Industries and its subsidiary, San Diego Marine. About two years later he sold both companies to Peter Schmidt, who then announced his intention to sell San Diego Marine. He warned that no prospective buyers would consent to recognize the unions. The four different unions under contract at San Diego Marine were represented on a negotiating committee that was formed to resolve problems connected with the closing of the plant to union workers. The negotiations continued from June through September and Heller attended most of the meetings. He didn’t like the way the negotiations were proceeding and soon he was distributing a flier entitled “Union Busting?’’ which was critical of Campbell management’s handling of the sale of the San Diego Marine yard. He also formed an ad hoc committee that picketed the Campbell facility for several days and then issued another handbill urging union members to “fight against union busters.” This handout was critical not only of Campbell management but also the leadership of the affected unions for ‘‘selling out” to management.
As the fears of union members mounted over possibly losing their jobs, so too did their tensions, which spilled over into Local 389 monthly meetings in Kearny Mesa. Heller was now president of the local. During the summer of 1979, business agents Tommy Collins and Ken Capehart, along with Bob Carter, the international organization’s representative to the district — and all cronies of Bryant — reported a series of acts of vandalism directed at them. Carter claimed a rock was thrown through a window of his home which narrowly missed hitting his granddaughter, and that the vinyl top of his car was slashed. Collins reportedly had the windshield and lights on his car broken and his tires flattened. Capehart complained of slashed tires and sugar poured in his gas tank. Bryant supporter Bob Scales was dragged outside the union hall by several individuals, beaten, and taken to a hospital where he received forty-three stitches in his face. At one meeting, a motion was made to hire an assassin to kill Collins. Heller declined to accept the motion. And at least one Bryant sympathizer threatened from the floor of a meeting to kill Heller.
Nor was Heller himself adverse to mixing it up. On one occasion he and Collins got into a bloody fight; on another, Collins complained to Bryant that Heller had threatened to “throw' me off the pier.”
And in a letter to Bryant, Capehart once protested that Heller had vowed to “kick the shit” out of him, and tried goading him into a fight. Even Bryant wasn’t immune to the violence and vandalism of that summer. He says he too had a tire slashed, and for a time he had security guards patrolling the union hall parking lot and rent-a-cops stationed inside the hall during meetings. The machinists’ union hall on Kearny Mesa Road reflects its past — black iron bars protect the windows around the district offices. Inside, the doors to those offices are carefully locked every night.
The violence did not stop completely that summer. Several weeks ago, a disgruntled Convair man leaped over a counter at the district office and lunged at Bryant before being wrestled to the floor by two other men. And last summer Bryant was mugged from behind as he came out of the Kearny Mesa Rib Cage restaurant/bar one night, suffering contusions and a separated shoulder that required surgery. Although he didn’t see his attacker, Bryant says he knows who it was, and despite his refusal to name him one gets the feeling he thinks it was Heller. “I’ve got people waiting,” says Bryant. “I’ve got friends in the PD [police department]. [Sheriff] John Duffy is a friend of mine.” And, he adds, he now has a permit to carry a gun. Still, Bryant isn’t easily shocked by acts of violence and vandalism. “I don’t like to brag about it,” he says, “but I’ve done a little night-riding. We went night-riding every night [when I was younger].” For his part, Heller denies belting Bryant or damaging anybody’s cars, nor will he admit to knowing anybody who has. The subject of past violence in Local 389 seems to pain him, and he protests that a few incidents aren’t that many, considering what he says he and others have had to endure.
The turmoil and strife in Local 389 continued into the fall of 1979, right up to the time a settlement was reached between labor and management in the sale of San Diego Marine. The final pact (which Bryant signed on behalf of the machinists without a vote of the membership) resulted in a “preferential hiring agreement” whereby terminated San Diego Marine employees were to be considered first for employment at Campbell (which remained a union shop) before the company hired “off the street.” But the company retained the right of selection, meaning it could pass over a union man after “considering” him, in favor of any other qualified applicant. Says Bryant proudly, “We came up with a hell of an agreement.”
Jim Heller was the last person to be terminated at San Diego Marine. When he left in July of 1979, he was one month shy of five years with the company. Like most of the other workers at San Diego Marine who were now out of a job, Heller submitted an employment application at Campbell. In the meantime, he started a job at a nonunion waterfront subcontractor called S&W Corporation. When a friend of Heller’s at Campbell phoned him to say the company had just hired a break-and-shear operator — the same job Heller had performed at San Diego Marine — Heller naturally wondered why he hadn’t been contacted first under the preferential hiring agreement Campbell agreed to. When he asked the company that question, he was told it had never received his application and that it must have gotten lost. Heller doubted that, so he asked David Gonsalves, chief steward at Campbell and a Bryant ally (who was also Heller’s vice president in Local 389), to file two grievances against Campbell on his behalf. The first was to be for violating the preferential hiring agreement, and the second for discrimination against him on account of his union activities, which Heller contended was the real reason why his application had been “lost.”
Gonsalves passed the grievance along to business agent Tommy Collins, which prompted Heller to write Bryant a letter requesting that a different business agent be given the case. Understandably, Heller felt Collins might not have his best interests at heart. Not only had the two resorted to blows on an earlier occasion, but Heller had also been instrumental in forcing Collins to reimburse the local $250 for forms Collins had purchased without proper authorization. But Bryant did not allow Heller to have another business agent represent him and the grievance wasn’t resolved to Heller’s satisfaction, so he asked it be taken to arbitration. In February, 1980, Collins, Capehart, Carter, and Bryant met and decided not to take Heller’s case to arbitration.
If Jim Heller is nothing else, he is stubborn. Denied an arbitration hearing, he took his case to the National Labor Relations Board, where, in addition to his charges against Campbell, he tacked on another one: breach of duty by the International Association of Machinists in failing to represent him properly.
In the trial that followed, Campbell officials stated their company had no motive for discriminating against Heller because they were unaware of his previous union activities, despite the fact that Heller had for months been accusing the new management of being union busters and had been constantly pestering the negotiating team. What made Campbell’s claim of ignorance even more incredible was that Heller had just received a check for $1500 from the new Campbell management, as a settlement for being unjustly fired by the old Campbell management when it was the parent company of San Diego Marine.
At that trial Bryant stated that he didn’t allow Heller to have a business agent other than Collins represent him in the grievance procedure because of a policy he had begun as District 50 president that allowed no substitutions of business agents in grievance matters. But, admitted Bryant, that decision was never formally published. Bryant, Collins, and Carter all testified that their decision not to take Heller’s case to arbitration was based solely on the facts of the case and that they were able to put aside any animosities they felt toward him. National Labor Relations attorney Robert R. Petering countered that the union officials all had experienced nasty confrontations with Heller and could not help but be biased against him. “Members are put on notice: oppose union leaders politically or personally and some day you will have to go to them to have your grievance processed,’’ said Petering. A decision is pending in the case, but one local labor attorney notes that Petering has a reputation for taking on only those cases he thinks are clearly winnable.
In addition to the turmoil in Local 389 that persisted through the summer of 1979 and the alleged discrimination against him by Campbell, Heller was also injured in an industrial accident at S&W on November 30 of that year. He had been standing in the yard when a crane dropped a 3900-pound sheet of metal that crashed to the ground, crushing Heller’s feet. Although both feet were broken, Heller ran in shock about twenty feet before being corralled by co-workers.
Only five days later an election was conducted in Local 389, and Heller was unsuccessful in his bid for re-election as the lodge’s president. His vice president and political enemy, David Gonsalves, defeated him by fifteen votes. Heller asked the U.S. Department of Labor to rerun the election for a couple of reasons (it still has made no decision on the request): Heller was annoyed that the union had mailed a notice to members announcing the election — but on the wrong date. An amended notice was sent later, but not within a reasonable amount of time, Heller contends. He also alleges that Gonsalves supporters were campaigning for their man at the polling places on the day of the election. But most of all, Heller is protesting an action taken by Bryant four months before the election that he says unduly influenced its outcome.
In September of 1979, Ray Bryant filed the series of charges against Heller and other Local 389 officers that eventually resulted in the expulsion for life from the union for Heller and another man, and the disqualification from holding office in the union for five years for four other officers. And at Bryant’s request. Local 389 was placed in an eighteen-month trusteeship.
The District 50 president wrote to the union’s international president, W.W. Winpisinger, saying Local 389 was so out of control that the trusteeship was necessary. Under trusteeship, a local lodge has its affairs run by the international — in this case, by its representative. Bob Carter — and he handles the lodge’s finances. If the international organization’s representative allows the lodge to continue conducting meetings, he appoints its officers. Carter has prohibited meetings of Local 389.
To support his request for a trusteeship, Bryant made several allegations against Local 389 officers, particularly its president, Heller, who was the only one specifically referred to by name in Bryant’s letter. Among other things, Bryant claimed that the lodge had refused to follow valid directions, that its meetings were often disruptive, that Heller had allowed beer to be drunk at lodge meetings, that Heller was appointed the lodge’s president illegally, that Heller had threatened and ridiculed a business agent (Capehart) in front of management, that Heller had filed an unfair labor practice against the international (in the Campbell discrimination case), and that he had sent out bulletins denouncing the international, the district, and other AFL/CIO unions in the community (during the sale of San Diego Marine). “Anarchy has existed for the past year and a half,” fumed Bryant. Several of these charges, such as denouncing the international and other unions, and ridiculing a business agent, are rights protected by law. Others, such as permitting beer drinking in the hall, are simply frivolous and would hardly seem to merit a life expulsion from the union. Even so, Winpisinger appointed a three-man trial committee composed of union officials from other areas of the country to rule on the allegations. They met for several days in November, 1979, and again in February, 1980, listening to what would amount to ten volumes of transcript. Not only did the committee find Heller guilty of exercising his rights of free speech, but also of being illegally appointed Local 389 president. Yet, curiously, the trial committee never sought the testimony of the man who supposedly made the illegal appointment, Heller’s predecessor as Local 389 president. Nor did the committee deem it necessary to punish the past president for his alleged indiscretion.
Much more serious were two other charges made by Bryant. He alleged that Heller and the other Local 389 officers had engaged in deficit spending in the amount of almost $93,000 in the two-year period from September, 1977 to September, 1979. And Bryant claimed $1243 was spent and not accounted for from a union picnic held at the Big Oak Ranch in El Cajon in December of 1978. What is interesting about the deficit-spending charge is that most of the accused were in the Heller faction of the union, and with the exception of Byron Crawford, the treasurer (who, like Heller, was expelled from the IAM for life), they were not officers for the entire two-year period in which the alleged improprieties are said to have occurred. Heller, for instance, had been the lodge president for only four months when the charges were brought. Another of the accused. Chuck Devillier, who was a trustee, had served about two weeks. And, notes Heller, Devillier was not officially sworn into office until after Bryant filed his charges. Thus, he says, Devillier “had not put his name to one piece of union paper” when the charges were filed. Yet he, too, was found guilty by the trial committee.
Heller concedes his local may have engaged in deficit spending, but says he doesn’t think it is nearly as serious as Bryant portrays it. He says he can’t be sure, because he and his co-defendants were not allowed to see the lodge’s financial records at their trial. He blames whatever deficit there may have been on the fact that the lodge suffered a sharp drop in membership following the layoffs at San Diego Marine — layoffs ironically caused by the ineptness of Ray Bryant in not fighting for a better agreement, in the opinion of Heller and others. The local not only suffered a large reduction in income, says Heller, but at the same time was forced by changes in regulations to start paying more of it to the district in per capita payments.
Bryant tried to show there was an illegal arrangement — possibly involving a kickback scheme — between Local 389 officers and the management of Big Oak Ranch in east county. A check from the union to the ranch was written before the officers could possibly have known how much the picnic event would cost them, according to Bryant’s allegation. But the officers claimed the date on the check had been altered and that the signature on the check — that of treasurer Byron Crawford — was a forgery. A handwriting expert testified at the trial that it was “very unlikely” Crawford had written the check, but the trial committee remained unimpressed. Nor were its members swayed by an unusual series of cancellations on the back of the check that were highly irregular. And while admitting the cancellations were “confusing,” the committee nevertheless said it tended to support Bryant’s conclusions about the check.
It is one of the ironies of this case that Bryant, as president of District 50, should fault one of the district’s local lodges for deficit spending. In the past. District 50 has often been guilty of deficit spending itself (though not during Bryant’s administration), and in fact has borrowed money from Local 389 to make ends meet. It’s difficult to determine, with so many conflicting facts and figures, charges and countercharges, whether Local 389 officers were indeed financially negligent, or if their expulsions and suspensions were merely for political reasons. Today, looking back on the trial, Bryant says, “Filing charges was no easy thing for me. I’m a very compassionate man. I don't like these things. I did a lot of soul searching. It had to be done.”
Ask him why he filed charges, and Bryant immediately mentions the alleged financial improprieties and the fact that the lodge’s officers were “bleeding it [the lodge] to death.” But once he warms to the subject, it is evident Bryant was at least as concerned about the officers’ political leanings as he was about their spending habits. Local 389 officers were “the destructive type, not builders,” says Bryant. “They’d make the craziest fuckin’ motions. There was some weeding out that had to be done.” And what specifically had to be weeded out? Communists. “That element is out there,” says Bryant. “ ‘Funny people,’ I call them. They’re very well trained. In any free country, they get a foothold by infiltration into the labor movement. If I’d let that thing keep festering, I could see it going into the other locals,” he says gravely.
Heller shows no surprise at being labeled a communist. “When you are a union activist,” he says, “you get red-baited a lot.” Some of his friends have asked him if he is a communist. “I don’t know if I am,” says Heller. “I’ve never read any communist books.” Of the few communists he has met in the shipyards, he says, “They are complete assholes.”
In addition to Bryant’s admitted fear of a red menace within the ranks of the machinists, there are other indications to suggest the trial had political overtones. Ten officers of Local 389 were charged in the Bryant complaint — all of them for the same offenses. Six officers — all political opponents of Bryant — pleaded innocent and were subsequently found guilty. Two of these were expelled from the union for life and the other four were banned from holding a union office for five years. Four other officers pleaded no contest or guilty but then were not punished by the committee. Three of them — David Gonsalves, Sid Legault, and Ray Soto — were allies of Bryant. Soon after the trial, Bryant appointed Gonsalves to be a business agent and made Legault chief steward at Pathway Bellows. Ironically, Legault had been handily defeated for the chief steward job there only three months earlier — by one of his co-defendants, Jeff Manley, whom the committee had found guilty.
Perhaps most significant of all is the fact that on a document filed with the U.S. Department of Labor by District 50 following imposition of the trusteeship in Local 389, there is no mention of financial negligence by Local 389 officers. The document is a report in which the district, under penalty of perjury, has to indicate the reason for the trusteeship. One of the complaints the district could have checked off on the form was that of financial malpractice, but it did not. Instead it chose the rather nebulous category of “failure to provide proper representation.”
There is little doubt that the trial contributed to the defeat of the Heller faction in the December, 1979 election (opponents were not bashful about mentioning Bryant’s charges in their handbills), and later to hasten the removal from office of those individuals who were political enemies of Bryant.
Predictably, Jim Heller isn’t about to give up now, even though he is banned from participating in the union. Last September he organized a group called Machinists for Democracy, a collection of like-minded machinists who are trying to “educate” fellow union members in District 50 while at the same time striving to get the trusteeship in Local 389 lifted, as well as hiring a lawyer to press through the courts reinstatement of Heller and the others. The group has also been distributing newsletters at plants throughout the district and raising money through contributions, the sale of T-shirts with the MFD logo, and even through yard sales. The newsletters have constantly attacked Bryant, and the District 50 president says he isn’t going to ignore them any longer.
He says he plans soon to answer Heller’s literature, which he says is “full of lies,” with his own “truth and fact literature.” Bryant says he is concerned about union members reading the Machinists for Democracy newsletters because “sometimes they’re misled by this off-color literature. But I won’t get down in the gutter with them. I never have. There’s always going to be a few bad apples in the barrel, as they say. I’m not going to let them destroy my union.”