FBI and Police Investigating Austin Local for Racketeering, Death Threats

Int’l Bhd. of Elec. Workers Local 520 in Austin, Tex. are under investigation as a result of its intense representation battle that has produced a slew of charges of unfair labor practices, an arrest, and allegations of death threats, libel, racketeering, and slander. At issue is a $6.5 million City of Austin contract awarded to a nonunion firm, Titus Elec. Contracting. The local has tried pickets, a corporate campaign and formal complaints accusing Titus of violating federal labor law. Titus, which launched the publicity skirmish, has called police to the picket lines at least twice, resulting in a trespassing arrest, and has accused union supporters of phoning in death threats.

Now, the FBI is investigating whether racketeering laws have been violated, and Austin police are looking into the alleged death threats and have provided extra security. Titus say the union is resorting to old-fashioned racketeering tactics designed to intimidate them into signing a union contract and wrap them up in a costly game of whose legal war chest is bigger. The level of acrimony is reportedly unusual in Tex., where union-related confrontations are rare. Randy Jennings, the director of the Independent Elec. Contractors Ass’n, said the allegations of death threats bring a new dimension to the fight. “They usually just intimidate you,” he said. “They win by getting you to use up your resources defending yourself.”

Titus co-owner Titus Runyan said “I’ve got no problem hiring union people,” he said. “I employ some now. They really do have things to offer, but not if this Jimmy Hoffa-style stuff is what you get with it.” Runyan said each unfair labor practice claims costs him about $6,000 to defend whether it has merit or not. Because the Nat’l Labor Relations Bd. must investigate any claim filed by a worker, Runyan said, the local union can tie up a company’s financial and managerial resources by filing an unlimited number of charges.

The lone arrest in the case was that of Johnny Sanders, charged with criminal trespassing after a Feb. 13 demonstration. Sanders said he was on public property, but Titus employees said he was  getting too close to the door. The receptionist said he was photographed being menacing, and was dragging his finger across his throat in a threatening manner. “I was scratching my throat because I recently switched from a manual to an electric razor,” Sanders said.

Two days later, Runyan said, a caller using profanity told him, “You want to file charges on us, you better get a bulletproof vest. You’re going to stop a bullet.” That night, an anonymous caller told a 911 operator that there was a dead man lying in Titus’ parking lot. When authorities arrived, they found only security guard Ray Alcatar — alive and well — who said a car had been driving back and forth in front of the business for some time before the call was made.

One union member, Terry Gould, said the recent events have made him question his allegiance to the union. He said that when he went to work at Titus, his union asked him to break the company’s rules in order to get reprimanded or fired. Doing so would enable the union to file more charges against Titus. Gould said he refused and was threatened with expulsion from the union. “They wanted me to get myself fired, and then file a lawsuit,” Gould said. “I don’t think that’s right. I always thought that being union meant we were all Americans, and we could choose what we wanted to do. But this kind of thing isn’t right. That’s not the kind of union I thought I was a part of.” [Austin Am. Statesman 3/15/02]