Union Busted

It's been nearly four years since a young woman sent by Local 7 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to help organize grocery workers in Alamosa was sexually assaulted by her boss in a room at the Holiday Inn. Two weeks ago the woman, now 24 years old, finally settled a civil lawsuit claiming that Local 7 was at least partially to blame for the assault.

"This has been a very difficult thing for her," says her lawyer, Tom Helms. "She feels a giant sense of relief." (The woman declined a request for an interview.) Helms says that the union agreed to a lump-sum payment of $200,000 to close the case.

The lawsuit, filed in February 1996, focused on the behavior of a longtime organizer and union boardmember named Gilbert Padilla. A grocery worker for three decades, Padilla signed on with the union in 1972, when he was hired by a Safeway store in Alamosa. After working on several organizing campaigns, in 1991 he was elected to one of Local 7's 25 vice-president positions, which make up a group roughly equivalent to a corporation's board of directors.

One of the reasons for Padilla's rise to the top of the union was his active support of his friend, Ernie Duran, who was elected president of Local 7 in 1991. (Duran's term expired in 1994; he did not seek re-election, but stayed on as the union's in-house lawyer. Last fall he ran for president again and won.)

According to a number of current and former members of Local 7, the union was charged with a thick atmosphere of machismo ("An Unholy Union," May 15, 1997). Several women had complained that the men of Local 7 routinely harassed them and overlooked them for promotions. The women also accused the men of habitually fighting among themselves. They added that Duran himself, with a reputation as a brawler, set the tone. "You were always getting threatened to be beat up or killed," a former Local 7 official, Steve Maloney, told Westword last year.

Padilla also had a troubled history. One woman claimed that he tried to pull her into his hotel room during a union training session in Las Vegas. And in 1991 a fellow union boardmember named Cathy Capra alleged that Padilla tried to sexually assault her in a car in Local 7's parking lot.

In fact, Padilla's reputation was so well-known that when it came time to try to unionize City Market grocery-store workers in Alamosa, veteran organizer Linda Nixon allegedly told Local 7's officials not to send him there. "I warned them that I thought he was a time bomb," she said in court filings. Union officers denied ever being warned by Nixon.

Maloney claimed that in early 1994, just before the Alamosa campaign, he overheard Duran, Padilla and another union official talking at the union hall. According to Maloney, one of the men asked Duran to send "some party girls" to Alamosa. Maloney added that he heard Padilla specifically request that a twenty-year-old woman who'd recently been hired by Local 7 be sent to help out on the campaign and that Duran agreed. The three men have denied that the conversation took place. But one month later, the young woman, who had no organizing experience, was dispatched to Alamosa.

Early on the morning of February 18, 1994, after a late night of union meetings at the Holiday Inn lounge, Padilla entered the young woman's room. According to a police report, she claimed that Padilla assaulted her, pushed her onto the bed and raped her.

In June 1995, Padilla pled guilty to third-degree sexual assault. (Helms says that in four affidavits taken in the course of a civil lawsuit filed eight months later, Padilla offered several versions of the night's events, including the claim that the sex was consensual.) He was sentenced to ninety days in jail, 200 hours of community service, three years of probation and participation in a treatment program for sex offenders; in addition, he was ordered to pay $1,450 in restitution to the young woman.

In the civil lawsuit, the woman claimed that Local 7 bore some responsibility for the assault. For starters, she asserted that Local 7's leaders knew of Padilla's past behavior toward women yet never took any action. "They should have done something to keep him from coming into contact with her," says Helms. "There's no way she should have been allowed down there in Alamosa with him."

Moreover, even after union officials knew about Padilla's behavior, the lawsuit claimed, they continued to support him. For instance, after Padilla pled guilty to the assault, Safeway fired him from his job; Local 7 fought for his reinstatement. Union officials said they were bound to support a union member during his grievance; Helms responds that, if anything, they had an obligation not to.

"How in the world could you support this man's behavior, knowing everything you knew about him--in particular, that he'd pled guilty to this crime?" he wonders. Safeway later won the case, and Padilla was let go.

Through their lawyer, David Eason, union officials have declined to comment on the case. But in the civil lawsuit, the defense team challenged the credibility of the young woman. In an affidavit, Duran also denied knowing that Padilla had an unsavory history or that he'd ever agreed to send a "party girl" to Alamosa. "I never said or did anything which would cause harm to [the woman]," the union president wrote. "I always treated her with respect...I never intended for her to be harmed."

Local 7 also argued that if the young woman had a case at all, it should be handled as a workers' compensation matter. After all, the union's lawyers contended, the incident occurred during the course of bona fide union activity.

(Indeed, Colorado courts have agreed that charges of sexual assault in the workplace may be considered workers' comp claims. In March 1983, a young woman on her way to lunch at Martin Marietta was attacked and raped by a janitor. Five years later the Colorado Supreme Court concluded that the attack "arose out of employment" and thus was appropriate to be handled as a workers' comp matter.)

For Local 7, moving the case against Padilla into workers' compensation court would have had a clear advantage. According to Helms, if that had happened, the young woman would have been entitled to far less of an award, even if she had won her case; Helms guesses she stood to gain $30,000 to $40,000 at the most.

But that didn't happen. Two months ago, Local 7 hired new lawyers, who two weeks ago agreed to close the case. Helms says he received the union's check for $200,000 last Friday. He adds that the young woman he represented has quit the union and gone back to school. "She's ready to get on with her life," he says.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer

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