Jim Santangelo, the president of Teamsters Joint Council 42, was putting
his union’s dispute with Coca-Cola’s bottlers into perspective Sunday morning.

“They were ready to fuck us, but we shoved it right up their ass!” Santangelo told the L.A. Weekly during a cigarette break outside Local 896’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. After months of contract talks, the Teamsters had struck Coke’s L.A.-area plants on May 23. Santangelo, easily recognized by his tailored suit and mane of silver hair, had just finished appealing to the local’s membership, which is made up mostly of bottlers and some warehouse workers, to accept the contract that three other Coke locals of drivers had voted for.

“You hate them like we hate them!” he had assured a packed meeting inside.

“Why are we giving in then?” someone shouted back.

The meeting, scheduled to begin at 7 a.m., didn’t roll until 8 and was held partly to distribute strike pay and partly to have 896 vote again on the five-year contract that had been ratified by the three other Teamsters locals Thursday. That contract had seemed like a win-win for the 1,650 Teamsters employed by Coke. The company had caved in and dropped its offer of an 80-cent hourly raise, of which 70 cents would go to cover health-care costs; it replaced it with an 85-cent raise, with only 45 cents going to health care. As an incentive to sign, the company had even offered to pay wages for Memorial Day, although the union had been on strike for a week leading up to the holiday.

But in a reportedly emotional ratification session held last Thursday in Buena Park, Local 896 balked against the recommendations of Santangelo and other leaders. This immediately posed big problems for the union. Besides holding up the contract and a return to work, it meant that the three ratifying locals could no longer set up picket lines or follow nonunion trucks to supermarket destinations and set up lines there as well. That would now be entirely up to 896 — even though word had it that 896 was having trouble getting its rank and file (regarded as younger and angrier than their colleagues) to hit the bricks for $200-a-week strike pay.

If Coke was displeased, 896’s Thursday rebellion was not taken kindly by other Teamsters.

“It was a good offer, and the company gave in [on] everything,” strike captain Jim Andric said Friday in a phone interview. He attributed 896’s recalcitrance to a power struggle in the local between its leadership and shop stewards.

“The company bent over backwards for us,” Andric said. “Guys were talking about crossing 896 lines. Even longtime 896 members were shocked. But you have a lot of young guys there who live at home, drive Escalades and Suburbans. They want to work when they feel like it.”

On Sunday morning, 896’s parking structure did indeed have a number of Suburbans, Land Cruisers, Navigators and Expeditions parked in it, though quite a lot of Hondas, too. In and around the adjacent high-rise, which also houses the United Teachers of L.A. union, knots of people, mostly men, gathered to talk. There were Teamsters too young to have been around during the 2002 Coke walkout and old-timers who remembered how the union had struck S.E. Rykoff back in ’73 after getting everything they wanted in their contract — just because they hated the company so much.

“I’m not from 896,” said one Teamster as he entered the building. He was there to try to convince the bottlers to ratify, although his encounters with individuals near the parking structure had not been successful.

Throughout the morning, angry, expletive-peppered exchanges erupted inside the crowded meeting hall, which was off-limits to media. A steady procession of individuals temporarily left the hall, some to smoke, others to talk among themselves.

“This is bullshit!” was a recurring line, although a sense of resignation eventually settled in.

The announcement of the vote, at 11 a.m., was almost anticlimactic. “It passed bigtime, bro,” Local 896 secretary-treasurer Rene Medrano said happily, acknowledging that there had been dissension in his unit. The local’s members drifted out of the hall to the parking structure, where a few tailgate parties began as ranchera music blared, men whooped and horns blew. They would be back at work tomorrow.

“We fight with this fucking company every day,” Santangelo said. “They give these
workers no respect, no dignity. It’s a fight, a fight, a fight.”

LA Weekly