Saturday, March 11, 2006

Teamsters Say Dubai's Goodbye Doesn't Solve U.S. Port Security Issues

Americans and leaders in Congress shouldn’t fall for the White House spin that Dubai Port World’s bowing out of major U.S. port operations solves our security issues. We must remain vigilant.

“Thousands of Teamsters from across the country stood up to protest this outrageous deal and we were finally heard,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “But we will not rest now, because our ports remain a national security nightmare.”

The Teamsters Union believes that U.S. ports should have the same security standards as those governing American airports in this post-September 11 era. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) requires companies providing security operations to airports be owned and controlled by U.S. citizens. We should not wait for another terrorist attack to adopt these requirements.

The security gaps from unchecked containers, inadequate fences and too few Coast Guard cutters patrolling our harbors need to be addressed, as well as port trucking operations. The current system relies on hundreds of contractors and small motor carriers, making it nearly impossible track who is going in and out of ports. Under these conditions, no one takes real responsibility for properly checking and training drivers. They are forced to work long hours for little pay. The solution is for drivers to work as employees of companies that are carefully screened and regulated by port authorities. This would ensure security requirements are met.

"Americans should be just as concerned about who has access to our ports as we are about who is running the port," Hoffa said.

Recent reports by ABC News and The New York Times, citing the findings of a yet unreleased Homeland Security Department investigation into the New York and New Jersey ports, confirm that port trucking operations are a major security gap. The articles reported that the DHS investigation found:

Background checks were not conducted for most drivers given licenses at the New York and New Jersey ports

About half of 9,000 truckers checked had criminal records

Many truck drivers had been convicted of homicide, assault, weapons charges, sex offenses, arson, drug dealing, identity theft and cargo theft

About 500 held bogus driver’s licenses, leaving officials unsure of their real identities
The DHS investigation of driver screening concluded there are "serious port security concerns and possible security gaps exposing vulnerabilities” that could be capitalized upon by terrorist organizations.

"The only way to ensure the security of our ports is to pass comprehensive port security legislation that deals with all the weaknesses of the system -- not just one part of a chain with many weak links," Hoffa said.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

YRC recognized by Fortune as most admired

YRC Worldwide, FedEx, Union Pacific, and United Parcel Service were recognized as some of America’s Most Admired Companies, according to Fortune Magazine.

Selections were based on various attributes of reputation, including innovation, employee talent, and quality of products and services, among others.

FedEx and UPS came in second and third, respectively in the top 20 companies, while YRC and Union Pacific were ranked number one in the trucking and railroad industries.

Those leading their respective industries were as follows:

Expeditors International of Washington, Transportation and Logistics
YRC Worldwide, Trucking
UPS, Delivery
Union Pacific, Railroads

Justice proves elusive for slain labor leader's kin

Francisco Soto wasn't surprised when he got the call from his sister in El Salvador: The people charged with assassinating his brother in late 2004 had been set free.

But if not they, then who?

Fifteen months after masked gunmen ambushed the Cliffside Park Teamster outside his mother's house in El Salvador, the murder of Gilberto Soto remains a whodunit rife with political overtones.

Soto's mother-in-law and one of the men she was accused of hiring to kill him have been freed by a tribunal after a three-day trial. The world's largest labor union has hired a renowned Central American investigator to track down his killer, and Soto's family in Hudson County maintains hope that justice is still possible.

"To be honest with you, since the beginning we always had doubts about the way this was handled," Francisco Soto said. "Now we are still in the same situation. It's back to zero."

Soto was not merely a visitor returning to his native country to celebrate his 50th birthday with family. He was also on an important mission for the Teamsters, arriving for meetings with long-suffering port workers in a historically labor-unfriendly nation.

"My brother was creating a lot of problems," Francisco Soto said.

Teamster leaders believe Soto's efforts to organize port drivers in Central America ultimately led to his killing. It's a bold statement, but not one without ample historical precedent.

The Teamsters have accused U.S. officials of tiptoeing around the investigation to avoid disrupting Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) negotiations. The pact, opposed by labor unions, is intended to eliminate trade, investment and business barriers between the United States and El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in much the same way NAFTA did for the United States, Canada and Mexico.

On Wednesday, El Salvador became the first Central American nation to join CAFTA. The murder of a U.S. citizen working to organize port workers wouldn't have helped the pact.

"I think it would have affected it in a way where it could have been a significant blow," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. "The killing of a U.S. citizen if it was because he was a union organizer? Yes."

Within days of the shooting on Nov. 5, 2004, Teamsters representatives and a delegation of U.S. politicians went to El Salvador. They wanted to look into what seemed the real possibility that Soto was targeted because of his union activities.

Salvadoran police had been quietly probing the killing before making a startling announcement: Soto's 59-year-old mother-in-law orchestrated the hit because Soto had mistreated her daughter. They paraded their suspects in front of reporters, proclaiming the case "solved."

Three weeks later, the ombudswoman in the Salvadoran Office for the Defense of Human Rights issued a scathing critique, claiming the suspects were tortured. The government denied the allegations.

"These events lead us to presume that this was a publicity stunt," Alamanni de Carrillo wrote. "The theory that the union activities of Jose Gilberto Soto may have been the motive for the homicide was never investigated by police or prosecution authorities in charge of the case."

The tactics, she said, were eerily reminiscent of those used for decades by Salvadoran death squads. A union or political leader would be assassinated, police would quickly arrest innocent people, and then, once the publicity died down about a year or so later, they would be released.

"That is something with the history of El Salvador, the killing of labor leaders, people fighting for workers," said Francisco Soto, of North Carolina. "That country has been bad if you go back to the 1980s before the civil war. You don't see the news here. It has to be someone like my brother for you to hear about it here."

Prosecutors called 23 witnesses during the trial, which began Feb. 15 before a three-judge tribunal. A verdict was reached three days later.

Late that afternoon, as Soto family members watched from a small gallery, Zelaya de Ortiz and alleged gunman Santos Sanchez Ayala were ordered freed because the government had failed to produce enough evidence and witnesses had contradicted each other. The third defendant, Herbert Joel Gomez, however, was convicted of supplying the murder weapon.

"If they had nothing to do with it, then I am happy for them," Francisco Soto said. "Sometimes in El Salvador, they put people in prison that had nothing to do with the crime for which they were accused.

"I hope someday we'll find out what really happened. I can't be upset with the government letting these people go," he said.

Relatives in El Salvador kept Francisco Soto updated on the proceedings. It was a tense week for family members, who had resigned themselves to the possible outcome.

"Police made all these accusations that never seemed believable," Yolanda Soto said. "They said they had all this evidence against them that was never believable."

The proof allegedly included audiotapes of the defendants discussing the murder, but Soto said these were never admitted as evidence. In addition, police waited days to lift fingerprints from a bicycle they said was used in the killing.

Police also said they had evidence that Gilberto Soto's estranged wife called her mother after the murder, but they offered no evidence to support the claim.

"For me, there was never an investigation the way it should have been done," Yolanda Soto said. "They made mistakes -- a lot of mistakes -- from the very beginning."

Gilberto Soto had come from El Salvador as an uneducated teenager in 1975, learned five languages and became a leader admired by other immigrant workers. He joined the Teamsters and later became president of Local 11 in Haledon, a business agent for Local 723 in Montville and an organizer of truck drivers at ports from Elizabeth to Boston.

He arrived in El Salvador on Oct. 30, 2004, looking forward to spending a week with family before a series of meetings with union leaders from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. He left a letter with another sister that included a list of people to call should something happen to him.

After the defendants were released, Teamsters President James Hoffa blasted the Salvadoran government for engaging in a witch hunt, a coverup and an "unconscionable" rush to judgment in Soto's killing.

"The behavior of the Salvadoran government officials in this case appears to be an attempt to cover up or deflect attention from the instigators of this heinous crime or perhaps to avoid prosecuting parties who were determined to keep unions from establishing a foothold in El Salvador's Acajutla port," Hoffa said in a statement.

The Teamsters have hired Leonel Gomez, a high-profile Salvadoran investigator, to probe Soto's murder. A political fixture in El Salvador since the 1970s, Gomez has investigated some of the most notorious assassinations during 12 years of civil war. He nearly single-handedly solved the killings of six Jesuit priests in 1989 and has aided U.S. congressional probes of military abuses in his country.

Now the Soto family hopes he can do what government investigators failed to.

An independent investigator should have been on the case more than a year ago, said Francisco Soto, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., twice to meet with members of Congress and Teamster leaders. Instead, he said, the Teamsters dragged their feet.

"I went to them and said, 'Please help me,' " he said. "It took me a year to convince them. The right time to do this was before CAFTA was approved."

Teamster officials didn't respond to a request for an interview with Hoffa. Nor did they provide answers to a list of e-mailed questions.

U.S. Embassy officials in El Salvador insist the right people were tried in the case. They also said the ombudswoman's torture claims were later discredited.

"I'm obviously concerned because we have conflicts here," Menendez said. "We have the ombudswoman who claims these were trumped-up charges. The embassy feels the trial was appropriate and the Teamsters are concerned there was a coverup."

Menendez stopped short of calling for another investigation. He said U.S. officials need to reach out to officials in El Salvador, the U.S. State Department and groups such as Amnesty International.

"I think it's not simply wait-and-see but also asking all the right questions," he said.

Trade pacts and unions aside, Yolanda Soto just wants to know who killed her brother.

"What we want, what we need and are looking for is justice," she said. "I don't care who killed him. We just want that person brought to justice, because my brother was not a criminal and his death should not remain unpunished. We just want a reason why. I don't think that's a lot to ask for."

Frank Clemente, Former Director of Congress Watch, Joins New Labor Federation to Build an America that Works for Everyone

Change to Win labor federation executive director Greg Tarpinian today announced that Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress since 1996, has joined the staff of Change to Win as its issues campaign director. In that capacity, Clemente will help build long-range campaigns on health care reform, retirement security, and other key issues of concern to working families.

At Public Citizen, Clemente served as chief strategist for multi-faceted legislative campaigns on campaign finance and lobbying reform, health care issues, regulatory safety issues, and tort "reform." Under his leadership, Public Citizen developed a major investigative research capacity and produced more than 100 investigative and policy reports.

Among Clemente's previous jobs, he served as senior policy advisor to the U.S. House Government Reform Committee (formerly the Committee on Government Operations) under chairman John Conyers, Jr., and as issues director for the 1988 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson. He is also the editor of Keep Hope Alive: Jesse Jackson's 1988 Presidential Campaign, a 256-page book of speeches, position papers and political analysis.

Tarpinian said, "We are excited to have someone of Frank's experience and commitment to social and economic justice. He brings tremendous capacity to help achieve our goals of renewing hope, opportunity, and prosperity for American workers and their families."

Change to Win, a federation of unions representing nearly six million workers, Change to Win affiliates include the Laborers' International Union of North America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, UNITE HERE, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, and the United Farm Workers.