S.F. Bay-Area Local Punishes Whistle-Blower; Now in Court

Gustave Link never set out to be a troublemaker.  An apprentice welder and a union man, he was trying to raise worker safety issues at one of the nation’s largest ongoing engineering projects, the rebuilding of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  The existing 4.5 mile-long structure, opened in 1936, is scheduled for demolition next summer, a decision driven heavily by the Bay Area’s destructive 1989 earthquake.  The structure slated to replace the bridge, the New East Span, is the source of Link’s current predicament.  He and his former union, Pile Drivers Local 34, an affiliate of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, are squaring off in federal court. 


The saga began about a year ago when Link, 38, called the FBI’s public-corruption hotline to talk about hazardous onsite conditions.  He’d talked about this with the prime contractor, KFM Joint Venture, and his union.  His main concerns were worker exposure to manganese and other welding fumes, hot and cramped working conditions, and a lack of a collective-bargaining agreement.  The FBI, not Link, brought up what turned out to be the hot-button issue of bridge safety problems triggered by welding deficiencies.  About this time, a team of reporters from the Oakland Tribune requested information from the California Department of Transportation (“Caltrans”) about potentially faulty welds.  As part of their story, the reporters revealed that 15 current and former welders had complained about potential flaws in workmanship.  Soon enough, the FBI had launched its own investigation.  The inquiry allegedly revealed KFM paid bonuses to workers to speed up their work and to cover up faulty welds.  After the story was published, the FBI subpoenaed Caltrans records and began questioning bridge managers, for a time delaying construction. 


Pile Drivers Local 34 officials, according to court papers, already having anticipated project delays, singled out Link for retaliation.  They dismissed him from the union under the pretext of his “absences” from apprenticeship training classes.  Link, who has a medically-certified heart condition, alleged that Local 34 President David Rhodes physically threatened him in front of dozens of witnesses at a January 27, 2005 union meeting.  Link in turn sued several local officials on various grounds, including violation of free speech, concealment of information, and breach of fiduciary duty.  He also filed a complaint against Carpenters Union President Doug McCarron for malicious conduct, and Local 34’s law firm, the Alameda, Calif.-based Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld, and one of its attorneys, Sandra Benson, for professional misconduct.


It’s more than of passing interest that the firm, an aggressive union advocate, formerly had gone under the name Van Bourg, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld.  Founding partner Victor Van Bourg for much of the 1990s had helped then-Iron Workers International President Jake West illegally disguise at least $1.5 million in restaurant and entertainment expenses as union-related.  To avoid prosecution, the firm in 2003 agreed to remove the late Mr. Van Bourg’s name from its masthead.  If past is prologue, this is one court battle that could get ugly.  (U.S. District Court, 1/20; other sources).