Who Murdered Gilberto Soto?




A

s
evening fell on November 5, Gilberto Soto received a call on his
cell phone at his mother’s home in a working-class neighborhood
of Usulutan, El Salvador. Unable to understand the caller, Soto
stepped out of the door to get better reception. In the street outside
three men lay in wait. According to witnesses, they ran up to Soto
and shot him in the back and then fled in a car and bicycle as he
lay bleeding on the pavement. Soto was taken to a local clinic where
he died shortly afterwards. 


Soto’s
death was no ordinary assassination. He’d left his home in
1975 and was later a supporter in exile of the FMLN, El Salvador’s
left-wing movement that carried out an armed guerrilla war during
the 1980s. But this was not the likely reason why three thugs pumped
bullets into him as he stood on his mother’s doorstep. It is
much more likely that his murder was connected to a new international
campaign to organize trucking workers—from the docks of Elizabeth,
New Jersey, where Soto had been working, to those of Central America,
where he met his end. 


Soto
had returned to his native country just days before. His visit to
his family was a brief prelude to a series of meetings he’d
set up before leaving the United States. In calls to El Salvador,
Nicaragua, and Honduras, Soto had sought to contact harbor drivers
who ferry huge shipping containers to and from the ships in port. 


This
was an extension of his work for the Teamsters Union in the U.S.
For the last four years Soto and other Teamster organizers have
sought to build ties with U.S. drivers who do the same work, often
for the same shipping companies that employ their coworkers in Central
America. 


Chuck
Mack, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7 in northern California
and director of the union’s port division, notes there was
nothing in Soto’s history that provides a motive for his murder.
“The fact that he was not robbed, the fact that he was talking
to workers in the area about their conditions of employment, the
fact that he was a Teamster organizer talking to workers in that
country, seems to be the motive,” he charges. “There’s
no proof or evidence that the companies are behind the assassination,
yet. But we will be sending a delegation of our own to El Salvador
to develop our own facts and assessment.” 


Meanwhile,
IBT President James Hoffa and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney met
with the Salvadoran ambassador to the U.S., Rene Leon, to demand
a full-scale investigation. The Teamsters, joined by the International
Longshore and Warehouse Union and the International Longshoremens
Association, offered a reward of $75,000 for the apprehension of
the people responsible. 


In
El Salvador port drivers have a long history of fighting the Danish
corporation that has resisted the organizing efforts of truckers
around the world more than any other—the Maersk Corporation.
Three years ago, 100 drivers for Bridge International Transport
were fired when they tried to win a union contract and their organization
was destroyed. Bridge is owned by Maersk and hires the drivers who
deliver the containers to the company’s container ships as
they sit at the dock. 

T

he terminations
made big political waves in El Salvador. The fired unionists approached
the International Transport Federation, an umbrella group for transport
unions around the world. The ITF brought some of the Salvadorans
to Denmark, to put their case before the Danish Transport and General
Workers Union. Maersk has its world headquarters in Copenhagen and
corporate representatives, forced to respond to the exposure of
the firings in the press of their own home country, called the drivers
thugs and terrorists. But Maersk did admit that the manager of its
Salvadoran trucking facility was no longer employed there. The workers,
however, remained fired. 


When
Soto began making calls to El Salvador three years later, asking
non-governmental organizations to search out the fired workers and
set up meetings with them, he was unearthing a piece of that history.
And when he made more calls looking for Maersk workers in Honduras
and Nicaragua as well, it might easily have set off alarm bells,
at least in the local offices of Bridge International Transport,
and perhaps even in Copenhagen. 


In
late November, the Teamsters turned down an offer by A.P. Moller,
the parent company of Maersk, to investigate Soto’s murder.
“This murder investigation is best left to the Salvadoran authorities
who have indicated their willingness to accept assistance from U.S.
intelligence and law enforcement agencies. If the Salvadoran police
engage in a cover-up, we will seek the assistance of human rights
organizations with a track record of integrity and independence,”
Mack said in a Teamster press statement. 


The
Teamsters then sent a 10-person delegation, including Congressperson
Linda Sanchez (D-CA), to El Salvador to meet with government officials.
Sanchez is one of 72 members of Congress who signed a letter to
Secretary of State Colin Powell, asking him to make U.S. resources
available to the Salvadoran government’s investigation. 


On
December 3, however, Salvadoran police suddenly announced the arrest
of Soto’s mother-in-law, accused her of hiring the three assassins
and attributed the murder to a family quarrel. When she was paraded
before a press conference with three men, including two members
of a notorious street gang, Rosa Elba Ortiz claimed in tears that
she was innocent. “I don’t know those men,” she said. 


Her
arrest was denounced by El Salvador’s Ombudsperson, Beatrice
de Carrillo, in a press conference on December 6. De Carrillo accused
the national police’s Organized Crime Unit, led by Rodolfo
Delgado Montes, of seizing control of the case from the local prosecutor
in Usulutan. Two supposed witnesses, she said, had “been handcuffed,
hooded, taken to solitary places,” and “threatened with
violations of various kinds.” Elba Ortiz was also “strongly
coerced and interrogated.” 


Additional
doubt was cast on the case against Elba Ortiz, who authorities say
was motivated by a desire to collect on a life insurance policy
supposedly benefiting her daughter, Soto’s wife. According
to John Slatery, director of the Teamsters benefits department,
Soto’s beneficiaries are his son and two daughters. 


The
accusations against Soto’s own family will not still the calls
for an independent investigation into his death and any connections
it may have to his work organizing harbor truck drivers. 


In
its campaign to help the 100 fired Salvadoran truckers, the International
Transport Federation organized meetings with Maersk employees from
many countries. At one meeting, Teamster leaders Mack and Ron Carver
heard about the price paid in Central America by those who oppose
the Danish conglomerate. It rang a bell, sounding much like actions
taken by the company against its U.S. workers when they try to organize. 


Hundreds
of drivers do the same labor in U.S. ports as the fired Salvadorans
did in Central America, ferrying huge shipping containers to and
from Maersk vessels. These workers, however, aren’t employed
directly by Maersk or its subsidiaries. Instead, drivers own their
own trucks, at least in theory. Actually, they’re heavily indebted
to banks and finance companies, which loan them money to purchase
their rigs. Drivers have to pay all the costs of operating them—diesel
fuel, insurance, parking charges—everything. By the time bills
are paid, the average take-home earning for a harbor trucker is
$8-9 an hour, making them the lowest-paid big-rig drivers in the
United States. They make up a huge group of 50-55,000 people nationally—some
12,000 work in the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach alone, with about
3,100 in Oakland, 1,800 in Portland, and 2,800 in Tacoma/Seattle,
according to Bob Lanshay, Teamsters port organizer. 


Every
morning, harbor truckers bid for the right to pick up a container
from Maersk subsidiaries like Pacific Rim Transport International,
HUDD, or Bridge International Transport. If the dispatcher gives
them the load, they then wait for hours in front of a terminal to
pick it up or drop it off. Dozens of rigs in huge lines, their motors
idling, stretch for miles in front of the gates to the docks before
they open every morning, in ports from coast to coast. By day’s
end, most drivers have put in as many as 16-18 hours. 


Because
they’re owner-operators, these workers have no rights under
much of U.S. labor law, including the right to overtime pay. They’re
not covered by wage and hour protection since they supposedly work
for themselves. They have Workers Compensation Insurance to cover
workplace injuries only if they buy their own policy, an expense
most can’t afford. 


Most
important, the National Labor Relations Board says they’re
not workers at all and therefore aren’t covered by the laws
that protect the right to form unions. In fact, the Federal government
says that if drivers even try to agree with each other on a price
to charge the shipping companies for carrying a container, they’re
in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed originally to
restrain monopoly corporations. The fines and jail time they might
incur by violating the Act would break any self-employed truck driver. 


Soto
was not a harbor driver, although in ports like Los Angeles hundreds
of his fellow countrymen are. Instead, when he arrived in the U.S.
in 1975, he got work as a garbage collector, a waiter and cook,
and a factory worker—nothing like his career as a bank teller
in El Salvador. Finally he landed a job in a factory where the Teamsters
Union had a contract. He became a shop steward, and then was elected
president of Local 11, the first Latino to head a Teamster local
in New Jersey. He later went to work as an organizer for Hospital
and Healthcare Employees Local 1199, returning to the Teamsters
as a business agent, and then international organizer, four years
ago. In the meantime, he put himself through community college,
and then earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. 


Soto
joined the group of Teamsters organizers helping port drivers around
the country as they began to organize a national network, despite
enormous legal obstacles. For the last decade, without the right
to form unions or bargain, drivers have nevertheless organized associations,
and tried to get the shipping companies to deal with them. These
efforts have escalated as oil companies began raising the price
of diesel fuel to unheard-of levels, cutting deeply into drivers’
income, during the first Administration of oil-friendly President
George Bush. 


Maersk
soon became notorious for punishing workers who helped organize
these protests. In 2000, in Oakland, California, Naim Sharifi, an
Afghan university graduate, began petitioning for price adjustments
to compensate for fuel costs. Sharifi, who died three months ago,
called himself “one of the top drivers” for Maersk’s
PRTI. The company rejected the workers’ petition, and eventually
the drivers organized a brief work stoppage.  


In
September of that year, the Teamsters organized a rally in the port
to protest the bad conditions, and Sharifi spoke for the drivers.
As he did so, PRTI officials looked on, an act that would constitute
illegal surveillance if the workers had rights under the National
Labor Relations Act. “The next day they called me into the
office and cancelled my contract,” Sharifi remembered. “They
said, ‘We don’t have to give you a reason. We don’t
need a reason.’” 


When
the ITF planned a series of 20 nationwide rallies highlighting Sharifi’s
termination the following year, a Maersk attorney called the group’s
head in London, David Cockroft, and told him Sharifi was being investigated
by the FBI as a possible terrorist. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks
that year, Middle Eastern and south Asian immigrants were targets
of FBI sweeps in general. Nevertheless, some wonder how Sharifi,
who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, made it onto the Federal
list of subversives. 


Sharifi
wasn’t unique. Frank Misterka was denied work by BIT in Baltimore
for participating in protests the same year. Gene Suggs in Nashville
helped organize a work stoppage in 2000 over high fuel costs and
low pay. When it was over, BIT blacklisted Suggs and other active
participants. In Houston, workers tried to get a “bill of rights”
from the port authority, but when they put Teamsters’ bumper
stickers on their rigs, they were told, “Take off the Teamster
sticker, or take off the BIT placard.” In Hampton Roads, Virginia,
BIT terminated the contract for Robert King and HUDD, another Maersk
subsidiary, cancelled that of Paul Barnum for the same crime of
organizing. 


The
worst retaliation came in Miami. There workers organized a 2004
stoppage at the same time as drivers in Oakland, Charleston, and
other ports. In Oakland, the Port got an injunction that forced
them back to work after eight days and filed a lawsuit against the
personal assets of three individual truckers who had stepped forward
as spokespersons, for damages arising from the action. The Teamsters
and the ILWU provided legal support for the three truckers, and
put political pressure on the port and City of Oakland resulting
in withdrawal of the suit. 


In
Miami, Maersk and the Port of Miami filed a lawsuit against the
truckers once the workers were driving their rigs again. Maersk
lawyers argued that workers had “held meetings and communicated
with each other” and “passed out flyers,” thus violating
anti-trust laws. They demanded immediate action from the courts
because the truckers were “small and independent businesses
without substantial financial resources to pay damages…even if
their tractors and other assets were seized.” The suit is still
pending, but the parties have gone into mediation to  resolve
it. 


Last
fall the union asked Cornell University professor Lance Campa to
document the abuses in a report on human rights violations by Maersk.
Campa’s investigation found that, despite anti-trust law, workers
“had rights under international human rights law of association,
of self-organization, of free expression and other means to try
to achieve their goals.” Maersk, he concluded, was violating
accepted international human rights standards. 


Some
observers call Maersk a company with a split personality, since
not all its workforce suffer the same conditions or labor under
the same anti-labor policies. About 100 drivers in Oakland and 50-60
in Seattle work directly for the company, under a Teamster Union
contract the company inherited when it bought SeaLand’s trucking
operation. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union negotiates
with Maersk as part of multi-employer group, the Pacific Maritime
Association. In Denmark, as well as Europe generally, the company
enjoys a benevolent reputation. There, unions have established rights
and conditions for port drivers far in excess of those in the U.S.,
Central America, or other parts of the world. But according to one
union observer, “The company may have good relations with organized
workers, but it wants to keep its non-union workers non-union.” 


Helping
the port drivers organize marks a change in the approach towards
organizing in the Teamsters, especially in an international context.
Over the last few years, the union concentrated on trying to prevent
the entrance of Mexican truckers into the U.S., fearing that employers
would pit them against more highly-paid U.S. drivers. In Mexico
this was often viewed as a campaign against the truckers themselves.
By contrast, Soto’s efforts in El Salvador were intended to
help a similar group to organize in cooperation with U.S. workers
in the same industry, even working for the same employer.  


“We’ve
recognized with these multinational corporations that we cannot
deal with them effectively even nationally,” Mack explains.
“We have to develop a program that is international. We’re
not on the verge of organizing drivers in El Salvador, Central America,
or other parts of the world. But we’re attempting to work with
workers in those countries, to share information, provide help,
and get their ideas and perspectives. How do we deal with these
multibillion-dollar, multinational corporations? How do we end the
exploitation of these drivers? It’s a worldwide problem.” 


Soto’s
job was helping a group of workers with no rights against a company
with a long track record of opposing any of their efforts to organize.
Bob Lanshay calls him “a great guy, someone who didn’t
have any enemies.”  


Well,
not exactly. Someone was threatened enough to murder him.





David Bacon is
a freelance writer and photographer. His photos in this article are
from a port truckers’ strike in California, 2004.