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An Unholy Union

A young labor organizer was sexually assaulted by a colleague. Was Local 7 to blame?

In February 1994, the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Local 7, got a second chance.

The previous spring the state's largest labor organization had made a bid to unionize the Alamosa City Market's one hundred or so grocery workers. But Local 7 had lost the 1993 campaign for new members in Colorado's San Luis Valley. The vote had been close, but the effort had been a public-relations disaster.Workers at the grocery store, a Local 7 staffer later reported, had been turned off by organizational meetings that had turned into "drunken orgies." Following one such meeting, at which alcohol supposedly had been freely served to minors, several union representatives jumped into a hot tub. As the clothes came off and people began groping each other, a woman on the deck filmed the event with a video camera.

Word of the party soon leaked out--the woman filming the event later slipped and broke her ankle--and following the unsuccessful vote to unionize, City Market workers indicated the reason they'd cast their ballots against Local 7: The union's behavior had disgusted them. "It made the Local look low-class," one grocery-store worker complained.

But thanks to a UFCW appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, that vote had been overturned, and Local 7 was back in town for a second try. This time things would be different.

They were; they were worse. In the early morning hours of February 18, 1994, a man paid by Local 7 to help organize the Alamosa City Market workers sexually assaulted a young woman sent by Local 7 to help with the campaign. No one disputes that the incident took place. What has become a point of contention is what the two were doing together in the first place.

The man, a 43-year-old Colorado native named Gilbert Padilla, was familiar to many people at Local 7. He'd been in the hot tub in Alamosa the year before. He'd allegedly sexually harassed one woman several years earlier. Another union member insists that she complained about his alleged sexual harassment to union officials, who promised that Padilla would never again be used by Local 7 as an organizer.

Yet a vocal group of current and former members of Local 7, men and women, say the union's leaders have tolerated, and even encouraged, such destructive, macho behavior.

And as the new City Market campaign got under way, there was Padilla again.
The month before, a union official named Steve Maloney later reported, he'd overheard Padilla and a friend ask the president of UFCW Local 7 to send them a "party girl" for the Alamosa campaign. That would explain the young woman's presence at an important organizing effort that promised to be difficult and contentious. Barely past her twentieth birthday, she had no previous experience in union organizing. "She was there for one reason, and one reason only," recalls Linda Coughlin, another former Local 7 staffer. "And that's because she was a cute young thing."

The City Market campaign went badly. The union lost in a landslide its bid to represent the store. And in June 1995 Gilbert Padilla pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting the young woman.

But how much was Local 7 itself to blame?

With approximately 22,000 members in Colorado and Wyoming, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 7, is the largest and most visible labor organization in the state. Although it represents some professionals, such as registered nurses at Kaiser Permanente, and a handful of packing plant workers, the bulk of Local 7's membership serves the public every day as the clerks, checkers, meat-cutters and stockers of Colorado's largest grocery stores--Safeway, King Soopers, City Market and Albertson's.

Last year's bitter and disruptive strike at Denver-area grocery stores proved that Local 7 is still a formidable labor force in Colorado. Yet today the union finds itself in an unusually vulnerable position--particularly with regard to its finances. Although the union's strike fund is adequate, sources say that Local 7's general fund is about dry.

Much of that is due directly to recent labor disputes. A series of prolonged strikes last year cost the labor organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in dues. The 44-day King Soopers/Safeway walkout had barely been settled last summer, for instance, when it was followed almost immediately by another costly work stoppage in Grand Junction.

And both of those actions were preceded by a little-reported but unusually expensive strike in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where twelve union members walked out of the local Albertson's in October 1994. Thanks to a union-provided RV and expense accounts at local eateries, sources say, the strike cost Local 7 more than $1 million before it finally ended in early 1996.

Strikes are the price of a union's business. But in the past few years Local 7 has been forced to pay some extra expenses as well. In 1989, two former workers, Linda Coughlin and Ron Bush, sued the local UFCW. Both had been sacked following a divisive internal political campaign during which they supported the losing candidate for president. Such retribution is a violation of federal law, and in 1991 Coughlin won her lawsuit; Local 7 was assessed more than a half-million dollars in damages. Bush later settled his suit for a reported $80,000, also siphoned from the union's treasury.

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