Truck, Stop

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

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.

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.

"Well, how's the food?" Bonelli says with an awkward smile as he spots the driver at a table by the window. "Good," the man replies, forcing an equally tense grin. When the driver gets up to leave a few minutes later, Cagle and Bonelli don't budge. Normally they'd head after him, but today they want to finish a meal sitting down. They can guess his next stop anyway; they used to run these routes, and hope to do so again. Bonelli has driven for Overnite since 1983, Cagle since 1988.

"I like the company in a lot of ways," Bonelli says, "and these guys are my friends. After all this, we're closer than we ever were." Of the 56 drivers, loading-dock workers and mechanics who walked out of the Blaine terminal on October 25 when the Teamsters called the nationwide strike, 16 are still out. Many still visit the strike line, but say they've had to take jobs elsewhere because they couldn't get by on $145 a week in strike pay, even with help from the Teamster-run food shelf. A few men, says Cagle, who is also the union steward for Local 120, just decided to retire.

After five years of organizing, Teamsters say, they represent more than 3,000 workers at 37 of Overnite's terminals. The company is challenging the validity of some of the pro-union votes in court, arguing that only 1,800 workers at 22 terminals are represented by the union. Whatever the number of locals, none of them has been able to secure a contract with Overnite: The Blaine crew voted for the union in 1994 and has been without a contract since. The union at Chicago's Bedford Park terminal has been trying to negotiate a deal for 17 years.

Marlan Osthus, regional attorney for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), says Teamsters nationwide have filed more than 1,000 charges against Overnite with the board. While many have been rejected, Osthus says there have been a number of rulings in the union's favor. In July 1998, for example, an NLRB judge ruled that Overnite had violated federal labor laws by curtailing overtime pay for union workers who refused to sign a waiver allowing the firm to pay them a flat rate. The company has appealed the decision. Last summer Overnite paid out $1.6 million to workers who, according to the NLRB, were denied raises for nearly two years because they had voted in favor of a union. That case had been on appeal since 1996.

The stakes are high in the Overnite battle, says Peter Rachleff, a professor specializing in labor history at St. Paul's Macalester College. "Companies and workers are watching to see whether it is possible to vote in a union and get a contract at one of the country's most vehemently anti-union companies. This is the Teamsters' biggest fight since they won the 1997 United Parcel Service strike, and they need to win it because unions are a shrinking island and they can't continue to protect their workers if there is no movement forward."

Cagle and Bonelli agree that much rides on the outcome of the strike. If the Teamsters lose, says Bonelli, "we can't go back to Overnite because we'd be fired as soon as we walked in the door." After years of accumulating seniority, neither man wants to start over at a new carrier doing dock duty and working odd hours to gain a position as a driver.

Cagle acknowledges, "Sometimes you're just out there thinking, 'What the hell am I doing?' I know my boy, he's ten, has suffered tremendously. I can see it in his eyes. We haven't been ice fishing or to a game, and when I get home I can't do anything else sometimes." He looks over at Bonelli, who nods in agreement: "My wife has this thing that she says: 'How long can you go on playing cowboys and Indians?' And, honestly, if we hadn't gotten the check from the union last week, I would have had to go out and get another job in the next couple of weeks." Each striker received an additional check in mid-March after members of Local 120 voted to kick in a little extra money for the picketers. "The money really helps," Cagle says. "But what we really need is for the strike to be over so we can have our relationships back."  

Back at the terminal, men are taking turns warming up inside a big, brown ice-fishing house donated by a fellow Teamster. It's near dusk and there will probably be only a truck or two for the rest of the night, but strikers remain on the picket line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. "At Christmastime we strung up a bunch of Christmas lights," says Joe Viska, who had driven for Overnite for less than two years when the strike started. "It was really pretty. We ran them off of a generator. We really haven't lost our sense of humor in all of this." Inside the camper-size plywood house are a little stove for heating up coffee or soup, a propane-powered heater, and the kind of debris that piles up when men camp out for long periods--food wrappers, ashtrays, clothing, and blankets. The whole place smells like cigarette smoke mixed with scalded coffee and dirty socks. A couple of guys rummage through boxes of barely expired baked goods, donated by sympathizers. A white-frosted birthday cake keeps getting the once-over before going back into the box.

Cagle leans back in a plastic lawn chair yawning, arms stretched over his head. "See there," he says pointing to a spot underneath one of the makeshift beds, "that's a Super Soaker filled with fox piss." He pauses for effect before adding: "It's a hunting scent that one of the guys brought in." He leans forward, smiling. "The next time I see that bunch of teenagers that always drives by yelling and throwing rocks at us, they're gonna get it."

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