Editorial & Opinion

Oped: Teamsters strike is a defense of Rhode Island jobs

17 weeks ago the drivers chose to strike. Johnson Brothers hired scabs, shipping in poorly-paid replacement drivers on short contracts out of states as far away as California, intentionally stealing jobs from Rhode Islanders. The Teamsters responded by mobilizing all their forces in Rhode Island to picket and banner with the strikers, provide them with union strike benefits, and getting them work driving for other companies during the strike so they can feed their families.
Photo for Oped: Teamsters strike is a defense of Rhode Island jobs

Published on October 4, 2021
By Julius Ferraro

Seven drivers in North Kingstown have now been on strike for 20 weeks. Over one year ago (September 22nd) seven drivers at Johnson Brothers of Rhode Island, Inc, along with some warehouse employees, voted to join Teamsters local 251. Eight months later, with bosses refusing to negotiate anything except for the most pitiable of pay increases, the drivers went on strike. How did it get to this point, and why isn’t it getting more local media coverage?

Organizing the drivers

Johnson Brothers of Rhode Island, Inc is one of three major liquor distributors in the state. It’s the local arm of Johnson Brothers, which has locations in 21 states.

Drivers at the other two major distributors are already within Teamsters Local 251, and the contrast in working conditions is a perfect illustration of why unions are so important. Johnson Brothers pays drivers as little as $15/hr, provides healthcare with deductibles as high as $20,500, and, instead of a pension, a 401k that workers cannot afford to contribute into because of their low pay. Base pay at the other distributors is around $25/hr, with pension and fully paid healthcare.

Alex Pelaez had been with Johnson Brothers for eighteen years. He decided to approach the Teamsters, he said, when the company shortened the work week. “When COVID happened,” Pelaez told me, “the company decided to cut back to a four-day workweek. We had to do five days’ work in four days,” a task Pelaez described as “horrible.”

The changes would affect both workers’ quality of life and pocketbooks. “Drivers at other companies are guaranteed a 40-hour workweek,” Pelaez explained. “The thought of doing four-day weeks for the rest of my life was unimaginable.”

Using a well-worn capitalist playbook, Johnson Brothers exploited and broadened already-existing divides between drivers and other workers. They also tried to buy off individual drivers with pay increases, but they failed: in the end, all seven drivers voted for the union, and the union was certified.

The strike.

Anyone with any experience organizing knows that Capital will deploy all of its resources to make every win feel like a failure. Johnson Brothers has delayed contract negotiations with the new union, refusing anything except for a five-cent improvement on their usual raises.

“The company is very cheap,” explained Pelaez. “They make billions every year and they do that by cutting costs everywhere. You only have to look at our wages and the trucks that we drive to see that.”

So 17 weeks ago the drivers chose to strike. Johnson Brothers hired scabs, shipping in poorly-paid replacement drivers on short contracts out of states as far away as California, intentionally stealing jobs from Rhode Islanders. The Teamsters responded by mobilizing all their forces in Rhode Island to picket and banner with the strikers, provide them with union strike benefits, and getting them work driving for other companies during the strike so they can feed their families.

What’s next?

It’s possible that the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) will step in. According to the Teamsters, they have multiple unfair labor practice suits against Johnson Brothers, for everything from improperly filming strikers to unlawfully paying for police presence at strikes.

There has been shockingly little media or political response to this strike. Perhaps this is because there are only seven strikers; perhaps it is because most of those drivers (six of the seven) are people of color. Aside from a previous article on Uprise RI, there were pieces in the Tribune of the People and the Warwick Beacon. State Representative David Morales also put out a press release on September 13 in support of the strike.

According to Teamsters Strategic Campaigner Tom Curtin, the road to success is showing that the drivers won’t give in: “The longest strike Johnson Brothers has seen was 13 weeks in Minnesota. I think they thought they could force the drivers back to work, but now they’re seeing that we aren’t giving up.”

This might seem like a lot of angst over just seven workers, but there’s a reason why Johnson Brothers is going to such trouble to avoid negotiating. Similarly, there’s a reason why the Teamsters Local has spent so much time and money supporting these workers.

“They came to us to organize,” says Curtin, “and they voted to join us, and so we’re gonna fight with them until the end. We don’t care if it’s seven members or 700. it’s the right thing to do. right is right. Believe me, these guys know that other unions may not have taken this kind of tact with this type of fight for this small a group.”

He adds: “Here’s the thing: other workers are gonna see this. The Teamsters put up this kind of fight for seven guys? That’s the kind of union I want to join. And other employers will see it too.”

How can you support?

Building a more robust, militant, and ultimately powerful Left in America will not happen without growing union strength. Quality of life and pay for working-class and poor Americans will not improve without increasing union membership. As a member of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America, I believe in all of these goals. Our Labor and Medicare for All working groups have been organizing Rhode Islanders to stand with the Teamsters every week for the last two months, and our members have served over a hundred hours on the picket line.

The most important things you can do to support are withhold your money from Johnson Brothers and stand on the line with the strikers.  All the info you need is here, on the Local’s website. Picket lines are up 24 hours per day at Johnson Brothers, 120 Moscrip Ave in North Kingstown, or if you contact me at julius@provdsa.org, I can get you information on when big groups of DSAers are standing with the Teamsters.

Photo copyright Teamsters Local 251

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