Labor & Business

Seven on the Strike Line: Teamsters 251 Calling for Better Working Conditions

“They wanted to spit their rhetoric about why unions are bad and stuff like that,” said Charles Reid. “And what would happen if the union were to join the company, and how bad it would be for us, and paying union dues when we all knew what the truth was to begin with. So we knew it was all lies when they were spitting it at us… So, they just wanted to frown upon us becoming union and try to influence us to not go through with it, even though we already made up our minds.”
Photo for Seven on the Strike Line: Teamsters 251 Calling for Better Working Conditions

Published on November 27, 2021
By Peder Schaefer, Deborah Marini & Ricardo Gomez

This piece originally appeared in The College Hill Independent, here. Reprinted with permission.

On May 26, 2021, truck drivers working at Johnson Brothers Distribution in North Kingstown, Rhode Island went on strike, calling for better wages, working conditions, healthcare benefits, and pensions. The strikers—Charles Reid, Stephen Silva, Steve Vinacco, Rosendo Ochoa, Nathaniel Babalato, William Duran, and Alex Pelaez—are affiliated with Teamsters 251, the RI chapter of the nation-wide Teamsters union that has represented American truckers since 1903. 

November 17 marks the 25th week of the Johnson Brothers strike, a period marked by daily picketing of the distribution facility and targeted strikes at liquor stores when trucks driven by strikebreakers do deliveries. Together, the strikers have had to navigate harassment from police, harsh weather conditions, and harsh exchanges with strikebreakers. 

Johnson Brothers is a national liquor distributor with 16 distribution centers across the country, and it is the largest distributor of wine in Rhode Island. With the help of Teamsters 251 organizers, all seven of the truck drivers at the Rhode Island site unilaterally voted to unionize in September 2020. These organizers told the College Hill Independent that the company has been negotiating with the union in bad faith and has been disregarding the strikers in order to prevent their unionization efforts from spreading to other facilities. Teamsters 251 has supported the seven unionized Johnson Brothers workers throughout the strike by offering strike pay and work at a unionized facility nearby. 

The Indy spoke with an organizer and four of the strikers at the Johnson Brothers facility in North Kingstown. Their stories speak to the everyday struggle for socioeconomic justice.

– PS, DM, RG

Matthew Maini is a business agent from the Teamsters Local 251 that helped organize the strike. 

Indy: How did you first get involved with union organizing and this strike in particular?

Matthew Maini: Sure. So my name is Matthew Maini. I’m the business agent from Teamsters local 251. I’ve been a Teamster for 31 years… I started out as a steward and worked my way up to the ranks. These guys came to us in September of 2020 and voted unanimously to have union representation. And we started to negotiate with the company in January of 2021, after the certification came in, and then from there, we’ve been at the table since May 26 of 2021. We walked out on strike because the company was engaging in what we would call surface bargaining—bad faith bargaining. They had made unilateral changes to the working conditions without bargaining in good faith. They didn’t want to talk about wages, they didn’t want to talk about health care, and they didn’t want to talk about pensions. 

Health care was a big issue here. These guys are making an average pay of about 15 to 16 bucks an hour. The health care had a deductible of about $20,000 out of pocket, which is unaffordable for these workers. So a lot of these workers were going through the exchange, which was subsidized through the state, and they were being subsidized through the state for medical care, and that’s why we’re here and we’re fighting… I mean, we’ve been here 161 days. Yeah. So we’ve been out here fighting and this local is committed to them. 

We represent other beverage companies where we have a large presence in the beverage industry as a union. We represent Centrex McLaughlin Moran, Horizon Beverage, Northeast Beverage so we have a lot of contracts with unionized companies that pay for health care and they give a living wage. The area standard in this industry for starting pay is about $22 and change. The top rate is probably around $30, plus pension plus health and welfare… which is a fully funded socialized medical plan through the [union] local… 

Indy: The strike has been going on 161 days out here. What have been some of the obstacles you all have faced? What personal obstacles have there been and how have y’all been making it through?

Maini: The guys are out here anywhere between 10 to 11 hours a day, five days a week. We were doing overnights in the summer, which was the busiest time. We’ve been dealing with an oppressive police force, no matter where we go. The police have been the traditional long arm of corporate America where they try to suppress our constitutional rights. We have the right to picket. We have the right to chant. We have the right to pass out flyers. Every step of the way the police have really hindered us. 

We’ve dealt with the weather. We’ve dealt with economic issues: late bills and things. The local provides a strike benefit, which is roughly $375 a week for each worker out here. We have assistance from United Way for paying bills and food. We’ve been doing our best to make sure that they’re fed, that they’re getting medical treatment, that they got some money in their pocket…

And I’ve never met a group of people so dedicated to social economic justice ’till I met these guys. We call them the “Magnificent Seven.” That’s a Clash [the band] term in case anybody was wondering. We call them the “Magnificent Seven” because they really are the Magnificent Seven. They stick together, they are their tight crew… They want a fair wage, a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay and their employer who makes $4.5 billion a year in revenue has decided they’re going to crush these seven men… 

Indy: You’ve spoken to how this is a community effort and the toll it can take, what has community support been like, outside of the folks here?

Maini: Absolutely. We’ve gotten support from politicians like Sam Bell. We’ve gotten support from the Democratic Socialists of America. Other unions… Joint Council 10. All the locals within New England have helped. So yes, there’s been tremendous community support. There’s been tremendous support when we go to the stores and we’re bantering and leafleting, a lot of customers have stood by our side. Even store owners like Marty’s, Lucas and Warren, and Muldowney in Downtown [Providence] had a fundraiser for us. So there’s been a lot of community support who get the battle in the fight for such social economic justice, and that’s good they are standing with us. Rhode Island has a long history of good union families and good values when it comes to unionism. So we’re very fortunate in that.

Indy: We just saw an exchange between the “replacement workers” and the strikers. Ideally, they would be receptive to your organizing message, but what kinds of strategies do you have in mind when talking with the replacement workers? 

Maini: We make it very clear that these people that came in to take these jobs are scabs. They came in to take your job and replace you, and anybody in their right mind that crosses a picket line, whether you’re union or non-union, has committed an injustice to all workers of the world. And when there’s a picket line, whether you’re non-union or union, you honor that because that particular picket line symbolizes social economic justice.

Charles Reid, of Central Falls, has been working with Johnson Brothers for eight years as of November 11. 

Indy: What led you to go on strike?

Charles Reid: I’ve come from a union background. My father was union, and my mother wound up working in the unions too. When I first started here, it was good, it was alright, so I didn’t really pay attention to being in a union so much… But later on down the line I started to see minimum wages going up, and people coming in at higher rates, and our pay basically staying at a [certain] level… And the fact that we started working by ourselves a lot more with ten times more work on the truck, and basically haven’t been paid for health care—everything just started boiling, boiling, and boiling. [Unionizing] was not just something that happened overnight. It was something that came up across through the years of working here. And once Alex [Pelaez, interviewing below] said, you know, I’m thinking about [unionizing], I was like, I’m with it. Because I was tired feeling like I was slave labor. We all got tired of it. You know what I mean? And we all said, “we’re down,” and we did it. 

Indy: What happened when the Johnson brothers found out that y’all were unionizing? 

Reid: Yeah, they didn’t like it too much. They wanted to spit their rhetoric about why unions are bad and stuff like that. And what would happen if the union were to join the company, and how bad it would be for us, and paying union dues when we all knew what the truth was to begin with. So we knew it was all lies when they were spitting it at us… So, they just wanted to frown upon us becoming union and try to influence us to not go through with it, even though we already made up our minds. 

Indy: What’s it been like striking for these past 23 weeks?

Reid: It’s been tough, it’s been tough. In the beginning, we had overnights. It was tough… you know, staying here all day and overnight and having to go in the next morning…Then you wake up early at home, just to come here earlier than we would to come into work. We braved the hot summer days, following trucks and picketing, [and] right now we’re going to be braving the cold you know, and they say rain, and then the snow’s coming. It’s tough, you know what I mean? But anything worth having is worth going through hard times for… We want to keep fighting because we know that it’s all going to be worth it. 

Indy: What do you think of the scabs?

Reid: They can go kick rocks. That’s what I think… They’re misguided people. They don’t really understand what we’re doing. They say they do. They say they know what we’re fighting for. But they don’t care, because they’re making a paycheck. They don’t realize that money is not everything, and when it comes down to it, your self-respect is worth more than money. They don’t get that. Some of them are young, conceited, hot headed, you know, and want to prove themselves but the thing is, that’s not the way you do it. You don’t do it like a scab, saying ‘Oh, I’m here to beat you,’ when in the long run, we were out here fighting so you could have a better chance at having a better life if you choose to. But you choose to be a scab. And that’s honestly, to me, worse than making the decision to be your own person… One way or another my life is going to be better, while they’ll be stalling and stalemating sitting there trying to make ends meet. 

Indy: What’s the impact of the strike on you and your family? 

Reid: It’s made me stronger, actually. It’s made me more aware of myself. I’m seeing what I have in me, and family-wise, some people get it, some people don’t. But the ones that do understand that I’m fighting for something that’s actually worth fighting for instead of sitting back and letting things happen. For instance, one liquor store one time told me, you guys should just be happy with whatever they give you, and then fight for more later. Why, when I’m fighting now? Why would I accept defeat now? And then try to win again later? And that’s the impact [the strike] has had on me, is knowing what kind of strength that me and my brothers have to go through. That’s the impact. 

Indy: What are your hopes for the end of this strike? What do you hope comes out of it? 

Reid: Well ultimately when you go on strike you hope that you get the things that you deserve. You get the contract, you get your benefits, your good pay, your better working conditions and stuff like that. But ultimately, the one thing I want the most is for all of us to be able to live a better life, whether it be here or somewhere else. And I already know that’s going to happen so it’s not even a hope anymore. I mean, it’s definite. So that’s my hope for what happens at the end of this. And we already proved [to] ourselves that we could do it, so I’m not worried about that hope anymore.

Alex Pelaez had worked the longest for Johnson Brothers before the strike, and is the de facto strike leader. 

Indy: What has the experience of striking out here for so long been like for you?

Pelaez: Very stressful. I never imagined when I was telling these guys that we would go on strike, that [we would be here so long]. I told them the most we will be out here is probably three months. It’s already been six months. So I don’t know if they’re mad at me at that or not, but lucky for me, they’re still out here and they’re gonna continue to be out. So I guess I lucked out on that. But I did tell them that it was gonna last no more than three months and we never expected—not even the union guys—to be out here this long. So that’s the most stressful part. The fact it’s just been this freaking long. We don’t even know how much longer it’s gonna be. 

Indy: What’s the relationship been like between all the strikers?

Pelaez: We’re standing strong. We’re like family at this point. We’re here all the time together. We’re fighting, we’re suffering together. Like they say, misery loves company. It’s through misery and pain and hardship that people become stronger and bond more… But when you’re suffering together you stick together more, because you’re all feeling the same thing at the same [time]… It’s actually made us closer, it makes us want to fight harder. So I think in that sense the company is losing, because the longer it goes on the stronger we become and the tighter we become.

Nathaniel Babalato started working as a truck driver in 2020 and has been working at Johnson Brothers for a total of three years.

Babalato: I started as a warehouse worker, then I worked my way up to helper, and then they basically forced me to be a driver during Covid. They told me that they were going to furlough me if I didn’t become a driver. I had no choice, and I needed this job, so I took the driver position. During Covid they cut our hours and they didn’t want to give us helpers. So that was just the tipping scale of why we decided to unionize.

Indy: How has the unionization process affected you personally?

Babalato: Personally, I’ve adjusted to everything, but at first everything was very mentally challenging. Also, physically challenging because we would be out bannering in the blazing heat. We would be doing overnights, and then we would be either in the sleeper truck or in our cars doing overnights, and it was either hot or cold. But now everything has settled down a little bit with the strike lines. We have a better schedule, and are better about knowing how to do everything, but it was very mentally challenging at first because we didn’t know when we were gonna get back. All seven of us didn’t start attending the negotiations until [this] September. That’s when we found out how the company really is, how they really want to “negotiate,” if you want to call it negotiating… In my eyes, that’s not even negotiating, that’s just them being stubborn and not wanting the union in.

Indy: How have you all been building community and supporting each other?

Babalato: As a team we have been strong throughout. We always talk when it’s downtime like this, when we’re just waiting for trucks, or something like that. We talk about our interests,  hobbies, outside life, or just stories and stuff like that.

Indy: What are the interactions with cops like?

Babalato: The North Kingston police actually told us that we cannot picket the trucks—which is illegal to say—and they told us that we only had two minutes to picket each truck which is unheard of. And then they tried to backtrack… Then there was one incident in North Kingstown that we were using the horns and they tried to tell us that we couldn’t. But that was just them trying to force their position on us so we were like ‘Alright fine, we won’t use the bull horns but we can be just as loud with our voices.’

Steve Vinacco is a truck driver with Johnson Brothers on strike. 

Indy: What has made this feel sustainable and like something you can keep doing for like a long time?

Steve: We know that the contract will definitely keep us here long term. So we know what [we’re] fighting for, we definitely know we need to do this. We definitely feel that they’re trying to wait us out. Because that’s what happened in Minnesota. I want to say it was like ten years ago. They went on strike for 14 weeks and they got tired of it, and they walked back into work, and they got a bad contract. It’s not very good. They don’t have union security. So we’re not going to do that—we’re strong…We’re not going to walk back into work without the contract that we have on the table, which is a fair contract.

Indy: Are there some things that you feel aren’t getting through to the public?

Steve: When people see us they say “why?” and “why hasn’t this made the news?” And I’m like, I don’t know, it’s been going on almost six months! It would have to be something really bad, like violence would have to happen, to get the news to pay attention—Channel 12, Channel Six…Something would have to happen to trucks, you know, stolen truck, fire to a truck, fire to the building, to get attention to the news. They haven’t reached out, I mean, it was big that the Providence Journal reached out to us. That’s the biggest so far. But it’s been months and people still don’t know. They’re like, “Oh, we didn’t know you’re striking.” Like really? Salespeople aren’t telling people. We try to tell folks. We were going around for a while to the accounts and talking to them: “Hey, we’re on strike please,” “don’t buy the products,” “substitute and buy from another company.” 

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