Truck, Stop

Car chases, cell phones, and a smelly Super Soaker: This is not your father's picket line

At 9:00 a.m. the men who have first shift on the picket line at Overnite Transportation Company's Blaine terminal are standing in a semicircle, keeping their backs to the wind. It's freezing, but no one has yet started the daily fire in the rusted-out trash can by the woodpile. The topic, between puffs of smoke and shivers, is kids. Most of the guys agree that the only tattoo their offspring will wear is the one made by dad's shoeprint on their butt if they come home with body art.

As the conversation moves on to how not to be an ogre while prohibiting your ninth-grade daughter from wearing platform shoes to school, there's a shout from near the front gate: "Hey, what have we got here?" All heads turn toward the terminal, where a massive blue truck is slowly making its way toward a yellow line painted on the pavement. The vehicle stops--as it must, according to one of the many injunctions the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Overnite have filed against each other in the course of the five-month strike.

A security guard videotapes the scene as four strikers walk in front of the truck carrying picket signs, yelling "Scab!" and "How does it feel to take food out of good families' mouths?" and pretty much every epithet they can think of (though they make a point of avoiding anything racially or sexually tinged). The driver stares dead ahead, without looking at his former co-workers.

Joe Viska was an Overnite driver for two years; now he's entering his sixth month on the picket line
Daniel Corrigan
Joe Viska was an Overnite driver for two years; now he's entering his sixth month on the picket line

Another truck approaches and the men scatter, shouting about who will follow which truck. Two of them, Gregg Cagle and Tom Bonelli, call dibs on the first one and make a run for Bonelli's beat-up Chevy van. The strikers, members of Teamsters Local 120, will tail the driver and set up a mini-picket line at each stop. The tactic is a comparatively new one in the labor movement, says David Cameron, a spokesman for the union's national headquarters in Washington, D.C. Teamsters have been using the method, known as "ambulatory picketing," at many of Overnite's 165 locations across the nation. Cameron says the pickets are designed to pressure customers into switching to other carriers, hurting Overnite's bottom line and forcing the company to the bargaining table after years of stalled contract talks.

As the van leaves the parking lot, Bonelli is at the wheel while Cagle rides shotgun, holding a pair of binoculars in his lap. Another injunction stipulates that they must stay at least 100 feet back at all times. Even from this distance the company's slogan, written on the back of the vehicle in big white letters, is easy to make out: "OUR PEOPLE MAKE THE DIFFERENCE."

Bonelli and Cagle follow the truck on a few quick deliveries in St. Paul. At an office park a few minutes east of downtown St. Paul, the pair spots a familiar blue car. "The company has people follow us sometimes," Bonelli explains. "They're hoping to catch us breaking some kind of rule." Cagle peers through the binoculars and calls out the license number as Bonelli compares it with a crumpled list he keeps in his pocket: Yep, it's a company man. The blue car slips around the side of the building and parks, facing the van. The driver stays inside, watching the strikers watch the truck.

Cagle is on his cell phone with the men who have been following the other truck. That driver is making a delivery to Home Depot in Eden Prairie, where, according to the picket crew, three union drivers from other companies have already left without delivering their freight. They won't cross the picket line, Bonelli points out. Some may return later, but the Teamsters insist delays like this have been enough to cause a number of area customers to drop Overnite. The strikers won't give names of specific businesses that may have switched carriers; several Home Depot shipping managers contacted for this story said they have not noticed any problems. Officials at Bed Bath and Beyond, a home-products store that also uses Overnite, did not return City Pages' phone calls for this story.

Laurie Beasley, a spokeswoman for Richmond, Virginia-based Overnite, says the company's performance hasn't suffered as a result of the strike. "Despite the Teamsters' best efforts," she maintains, "we've got a 98 percent on-time service rate right now." The company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Corp., reported a $13 million loss in 1999 compared with a $16 million profit the previous year.

Beasley says the decline does not mean that the strike is hurting Overnite's performance: Rather, she explains, the company has incurred an enormous strike-related security tab. "We were spending about a million dollars a week," she notes, "but now that's dropped to about $500,000." She adds that the number of strikers has declined nationally, "except for Blaine, where they have an unusually high number of people out. But then, union membership is always higher in the Midwest." Contract negotiations between Overnite and the Teamsters are scheduled for April 4-6. Overnite is also pursuing a lawsuit in Virginia state court, charging the Teamsters with extortion and seeking $5.2 million in damages.



"Shit, he made the light," Tom Bonelli yells, slamming on the brakes as the Overnite truck disappears into traffic on Lexington Avenue. Even Cagle's binoculars can't pick up the blue behemoth. "We'll find him anyway," Cagle shrugs. "He always ends up at Minnehaha Lanes around 11 o'clock." Sure enough, at ten minutes after 11, there's the truck taking up several spaces in the near-empty parking lot of the Midway-area bowling alley. Figuring the driver is having lunch inside, Bonelli and Cagle head for the Great Dragon Buffet next door.

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