By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
It's not a common goal, or even a popular one these days, but to Eugene Duran it was real: He wanted to be a labor lawyer. And for seven years he was, negotiating higher wages and fighting against unfair firings for Teamsters Local 435.
Last year the labor lawyer and the labor union parted company and were soon caught up in a dispute over pensions and severance pay. Even when the disagreement blossomed into a lawsuit, however, Duran says he bore no grudge against the labor union--that is, until a pipe bomb blew up his car.
"I have no proof it's the Teamsters," Duran acknowledges. "It's just that the timing is extremely unusual." The bomb blew out the back window of his 1987 Ford Taurus late on June 23--one day after a rancorous legal conference with the Teamsters.
Steve Vairma, Local 435's president, says he has "heard about" the explosion but knows no details. He says the union and its members "absolutely did not" have anything to do with the bombing. And he suggests that Duran is trying to use the incident to gain advantage in the pending legal battle. "Gene knows how to do things with the press. He did that for us for years," Vairma says.
With his background, Duran, who grew up in Trinidad and is now 35 years old, could only have become a country singer or a labor lawyer. His father was the third-generation Duran to work in western Colorado's coal mines. Gene, who also spent summers working underground, still carries vivid memories of angry labor disputes in the 1960s.
"During the time my dad was off because of the strike, we were cleaning bars to make ends meet," he recalls. He graduated from the University of Colorado's law school in 1985 and immediately went to work for a firm that represented the United Mine Workers in their fight against Wyoming Fuel Corp.
Still, when Duran heard about the opening for an in-house counsel at Teamsters Local 435, he jumped. He arrived for work in January 1987.
With about 4,500 members, not only is 435 the largest Teamsters local in Colorado, it is the second-largest in the Rocky Mountain region. About 2,000 of its members work for United Parcel Service.
In contrast to the well-publicized reputation of the union for rough play (Jimmy Hoffa was a Teamster until 1975, when he disappeared), Duran says the local was well-run and relatively free of internal strife until late 1993.
That's when the secretary/treasurer (the union's top position) clashed with the president, who also happened to be the union's business agent for UPS. The president subsequently was fired, setting members even more on edge. Add to that a divisive--and thus far unsuccessful--attempt to merge Local 435 with another Teamsters local last year, and the atmosphere at the labor union quickly became charged.
Duran says his life got particularly uncomfortable when he was named to replace the fired UPS business agent. "I was essentially thrown to the wolves," he recalls. "I could've been the savior of the labor movement and they still would have hated me."
Vairma concedes that the local has had its share of problems. But he questions Duran's version of why he left the Teamsters. "He left on good terms," the president says. As evidence, he pulls a copy of Duran's April 4, 1994, letter of resignation. In it, the lawyer assures 435's officers that "the trials and tribulations of Local 435 are not the reason I'm leaving."
If Duran hoped that his resignation would mark the end of his troubles, he was mistaken. His first surprise came when he tried to collect money he thought was due for his long service to the union. "I expected the executive board to award me severance pay," he says. "I mean, they're a labor organization, right?"
In fact, the executive board did agree to pay Duran $7,000 in severance. But in a membership vote, the UPS-heavy local decided to award Duran severance only for the time he was a dues-paying union member. Since he'd officially joined the Teamsters when he became business agent several months earlier, the sum was next to nothing.
Duran decided to fight. "I gave seven years to them, and they screwed me because they thought they owned me," he says.
Since then the dispute has become increasingly complex. In June 1994 Duran filed a complaint with the state labor board, arguing that he'd been discriminated against because he wasn't a union member. Two weeks ago the board determined that the membership had denied Duran his severance not because of his non-union status but because they were unhappy with his services and because they thought his two weeks' notice of resignation left the local in the lurch.
Meanwhile, this past March the Teamsters filed a lawsuit against Duran. The union charged that he owed them $32,000 in pension contributions. Duran quickly countersued, contending he owed them nothing and reiterating that the local was stiffing him on his severance pay.
The case has dragged out in typically lethargic court fashion, but the battle has become increasingly bitter. Three weeks ago the two parties met for what was to be a conference to discuss a possible settlement.