Labor Dept. Sues Santa Ana Local to Void Election : Litigation: After complaints by dissidents, government alleges violations by Laborers Union leaders and asks for new vote.


Members of a Laborers Union local who lost an election that ended in a brawl may get a new election.

The U.S. Department of Labor has sued the Santa Ana local after some rank-and-file members accused the local's officers of stealing the June election. The government alleges in its lawsuit that union leaders did not mail election notices and ballots to some members and used outside help to win reelection.

It asks that a federal judge order another vote.

The union's lawyer says that, if there are violations of federal labor law, they are trivial and--in one case--unintentional, and do not justify a new election.

The lawsuit means that Marcelino (Matchy) Duarte--who has run the county's oldest Latino union for 15 years--could face another election in the coming months.

The union is a political and economic power in Orange County's large Latino community, and the rebellion at Local 652 has been closely watched there and in local labor circles.

The Laborers' International Union of North America represents mostly relatively unskilled manual laborers who do "pick and shovel" work on construction sites. It also includes maintenance workers and landscapers. For 20 years, the union local has been a springboard to the middle class for Mexican immigrants.

In the June election, the three men who ran against Duarte for the office of business manager together got more votes than he did. But because they split those votes, Duarte, 61, won a sixth three-year term with just a third of the 2,000 votes cast.

Duarte did not return a phone call Tuesday.

But Crispin Perez, one of his election opponents, said, "I feel great" about the Labor Department action.

Perez and the two other challengers accused Duarte and his officers of corruption. With jobs scarce during the recession, they say, Duarte favors supporters when handing out work.

Those supporters, Perez and others say, then vote to keep him in his $107,000-a-year job.

Since the election, Perez said, the revolt has lost steam. But the federal lawsuit may stir it up again, he said.

The suit alleges several very specific violations of federal labor law. It does not address the broader allegations of corruption raised by Duarte's opponents.

A trial date has not been set. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Nov. 1, after the union's top leaders in Washington turned down an appeal by the election's losers.

Such lawsuits are somewhat unusual. Last year, the Labor Department investigated 175 union elections nationally after the losers complained, but it sued in only 24. (An additional 23 were settled before lawsuits were filed.)

During the election campaign this spring, Duarte's supporters used a phone bank at a Westminster community center for the elderly run by a group called Abrazar Inc. The Labor Department contends that the outside help in the election was a violation of labor law.

The union says it paid not only for its own phone calls but for Abrazar's as well during the two months it used the community group's phones.

The second monthly bill--for less than $500--was misplaced for a while, said Julius Mel Reich, the union's lawyer. But the bill was later paid with 6% interest, he said.

Abrazar confirmed that account.

"They more than paid the bill--they overpaid," said Gloria McDonough, the community group's executive director.

"I don't understand this lawsuit," she said. "Maybe the Department of Labor doesn't have a whole lot to do."

As for the union not mailing ballots or notifying members of the election, Reich said, it didn't have valid addresses for some members. Others, he said, weren't eligible to vote anyway for reasons like not having paid dues.

What's more, Reich said, fewer than 100 of the local's 4,000 active and retired members were not notified or mailed ballots.

Because only three of the races for union offices were closer than 100 votes, Reich contends, only those elections are affected. But the Labor Department alleges that the number was larger--and that the union should have tried harder to reach these members.

Meanwhile, the dissidents have hired their own lawyer, Francisca N. Araiza.

They say they, too, will sue Duarte and the union for what they allege are misuse of union funds and favoritism in handing out jobs.

The union denied those allegations during the election campaign and said they were made up by disgruntled members.

When the votes were tallied at the union hall in June, a chair-throwing brawl erupted between the two sides. Police were called several times, but no arrests were made.

Recently, persistent rumors have circulated--even among officers high in the union--that Duarte has tired of the hassles and will retire, perhaps by April.

Reich, the local's lawyer, said he had not heard the rumors and could not comment.

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