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San Juan hotel fire extends trend of violence in labor negotiations

``No me gusto,'' said a maintenance man, a union member, in the lobby of a San Juan hotel. ``I don't like it.'' He had just heard about the arrest of Hector Escudero Aponte on murder, arson, and destruction charges in the Dec. 31 fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel. The inferno took the lives of 96 people, the majority of them Puerto Rican residents.

He mentioned Mr. Escudero Aponte's reported nickname, ``El Tofe,'' derived from the word tough. But the worker, who did not want his name or hotel mentioned, also talked about labor unions. ``We are here, and we are not bad,'' he said as he went back to work.

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The arrest of two members of Local 901 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the suicide of a hotel bartender days before he was to be questioned, has left a bitter feeling among many toward the union. The fire and deaths have raised again the issue of union and management tactics during negotiations and strikes.

While investigators say they have not established a link between the suspects' actions and union leaders, officials say the fire appears to have been set out of frustration over contract negotiations. The fire was set after the Teamsters local voted to reject the hotel's offer, but Teamster officials here say the arrests clear them of any blame, adding that no union officials encouraged the blaze.

Violence in labor-related disputes is not new in this country. Although the majority of contract negotiations is settled without a strike or violence, there is a perception that threats and vandalism are a part of labor-management relations. Management points to harassment on picket lines and sabotage at work. Labor charges that companies use union-busting techniques, which include provocation and vandalism, which they then blame on the unions.

There are few direct statistics on labor-management violence. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms reports that between 1976 and 1985, 11.6 percent of the bombings and incendiary fires investigated were labor-related, set by either organized labor, management, or others. That is compared to 37 percent where revenge was the motive and 30 percent that were vandalism.

But a spokesman points out that these violent acts peaked in 1978, with 117 incidents. In 1985, there were 47 incidents. The number of major strikes has also dropped, according to the Department of Labor. Labor experts attribute much of these to the weakened state of trade unions, which have lost members and ground in wages and benefits during bargaining.

``My guess is that there is less contentiousness because the economic situation is serious enough that employees are reluctant to go out on strike,'' says a Washington observer.

Ben Fischer, head of the Institute of Labor Studies at Carnegie-Mellon University, points out that the picture is much more complex than simply an issue of violence between labor and business.

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``We are in one of the most rapidly changing scenarios in economic structure that the world has ever seen,'' says Mr. Fischer. In order to survive, management tries to become leaner and more efficient.

``Members are dominated by fear,'' says Fischer. ``They ask, `When do they reach me?'''

``What is on the rise is a depression in the unionized segment of the economy,'' says Dan Pollitt, a labor expert from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to having to make contract concessions, workers face a more aggressive, antiunion sentiment. Not only are nonunionized firms fighting to keep unions out, but more unionized businesses are seeking to eliminate their unions. Several strikes last year included picket-line violence, including a Hormel meat-plant strike in Minnesota and a Phelps Dodge strike in Arizona.

Sometimes such actions are plainly just violence, one Washington observer says. ``But by and large union violence is a much more complicated issue.''

Others say some unions do not eschew violence. Federal and local investigations have found corruption and ties to organized crime in some unions.

Reed Larson, president of the National Right to Work Committee, says some people may portray the Dupont fire as a ``black eye'' for the Teamsters. But he contends, the Teamsters actually relish the reputation as a tough, bullying organization.

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