Who's the Boss?

A union reformer fires his staff.

When newly elected Dave Reynolds took over as secretary-treasurer of Washington's largest Teamsters local, 763, he figured it would be, in his words, civil war. He meant war between his reform-minded Seattle unionists and the old-guard supporters of international Teamsters boss James Hoffa. It has turned out to be a war among reformists instead, and it hasn't been civil. A few weeks ago, Reynolds fired three union representatives and an organizer who had supported his stunning December 2000 election win over Jon Rabine, a Hoffa ally and the state's most powerful Teamster. The fired workers complain that Reynolds is incompetent to run the eclectic local whose membership of 4,400 includes ambulance drivers, corrections officers, newspaper mailers, and morticians. Some of the fired reformists say they want to support another candidate for the 2003 election and even suggest Reynolds should step down now. Last week, Reynolds said he couldn't stomach their complaints and was "forced to let them go."

He was hesitant to be specific. "I'm not sure I want to talk about this," said Reynolds, 57, who had vowed to run "an honest, open" union. "There were four people fired in part for gross insubordination and for breach of the duty of trust. They apparently had problems with my decisions, but they never came to me about them. They also sent out an e-mail to staff that was just insulting to me and unprovoked."

Reynolds went into more detail in a letter sent to union members July 23 and obtained by Seattle Weekly. "You may have heard that Teamsters Local No. 763 no longer employs union representative[s] Miguel Gomez, Holly Bauman, Mike Brannon, and organizer Sarah Luthens," he wrote. "Unfortunately, these disgruntled staff members attempted to force me to give up my responsibilities as secretary-treasurer in favor of their own personal unelected candidate. I could not agree to such a proposal. . . . You did not elect me to engage in such a betrayal of your trust."

Supporters of the four fired workers issued a public notice as well. It was critical of Reynolds' "poor administration, nepotism, and lack of common sense" and said, "when he finds himself unsupported by the staff, he runs to his wife for advice." His wife, Carla Kiiskila, is an attorney and former Teamsters organizer. Reynolds will not have far to go to consult her now, however. In his letter, Reynolds says that she "has volunteered to serve our union without pay," as least temporarily replacing one of the fired workers. "Carla served as [my] campaign manager and, incidentally, happens to be my wife," he wrote. "I am sometimes accused of listening to her."

One of the fired foursome, organizer Sara Luthens, says "to have this happen to us is almost unimaginable." She and the others backed Reynolds' efforts to help clean up a union notorious for corruption, goons, and ties to organized crime. The dissidents' national organization, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, has endeavored to unseat supporters of Hoffa and Hoffa himself, son of ex-boss Jimmy Hoffa, who ran the union from prison and was later murdered. "We're dedicated to this union and to seeing it change," Luthens says. She and the others lost faith in Reynolds after the local developed internal and financial problems, Luthens says. That put 763 in jeopardy of being placed in trusteeship by the international and giving the Hoffa old-liners control again.

"We proposed a short-term plan to help Reynolds do his job more effectively," Luthens says, "but he became threatened—unnecessarily—by that." The local is already facing a challenge from the local Teamsters ruling party, the Hoffa-controlled Joint Council 28, which last year threw out Reynolds' election on a challenge from Rabine. Rabine claimed without proof that Reynolds violated union campaign-spending rules (the international in Washington, D.C., has so far not backed the council's finding). Luthens says, "We were up front with Dave about bills not being paid and business not being taken care of. We said we wanted to support someone else for the election. He calls that a breech of trust. If we had been secretive, I guess we would still have jobs."

Reynolds, whose defeat of Rabine was aided in part by his outspoken support for workers during the 2000 Seattle Times and P-I newspaper strikes, says he has also hired firebrand newspaper striker Ivan Weiss as one of the staff replacements. "We'll continue to fight for change," Reynolds says, "just like before."


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