Rhode Island: Johnson Brothers Truck Drivers Strike amid Repression, Police Harassment

By Arthur Boukman

In the longest such union action occurring in Rhode Island this year, truck drivers at Johnson Brothers of Rhode Island, an alcohol distributor based in North Kingston, have been on strike for over 16 weeks. The workers have continued their strike in the face of repression from the company, which is backed by the capitalist State’s police forces, as well as harassment from scab workers and police alike.

The strike began on May 26 after Johnson Brothers refused to give the drivers, who are all Black and Latino, increased wages and healthcare benefits. The truck drivers’ current contract makes them the lowest-paid long-haul truckers in the state—they make only $15 an hour with no pension and a $20,300 deductible on their health insurance. At Centrix and Mclaughlin, two Rhode Island distributors also represented by the Teamsters, drivers make $25 an hour with a pension and union health insurance paid for by the company.

Matt Maini, an officer of Local 251, told Tribune, “Everything they [Johnson Brothers] have done, up until this point, has been to not get a contract. They don’t want a union shop.” When the truck drivers began organizing last year, the company moved to have five personnel added to the bargaining unit. “Corporations do that to dilute the vote and weaken the bargaining unit,” Maini explained. “Those managers [added to the bargaining unit] are white and make $81,000 a year working inside the warehouse.”

Since negotiations began last September, Local 251 has filed 22 unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Johnson Brothers for their bad faith and regressive bargaining. When the strike started this May, management reduced negotiations with the drivers from biweekly meetings to monthly meetings.

Johnson Brothers has hired scab drivers to work for $50 an hour while also covering their lodging and meals. One driver described the tensions between the striking drivers and the scab drivers to Tribune: “On the first day of the strike, … one of the [scabs] actually bumped a person.” This same driver also described specific animosity between the strikers and scab drivers from Rhode Island: “The local scabs, … they know what’s going on and they choose to work here, to work our jobs. They’re the cockiest.”

For the first two weeks of the strike, Johnson Brothers paid North Kingston police officers $90 an hour to man a 48-hour shift standing guard against the picket line. Local 251 filed a complaint with the Rhode Island attorney general for this because companies in the state cannot legally pay police officers to be at their picket lines.

Though the police shift on the picket line has ended, this has not stopped North Kingston officers from harassing the truck drivers. Matt Maini told Tribune about an incident at a rally held recently: “We had a rally of 200 people. … One Black [Teamster] was standing next to me. The cops drove up and singled him out, said ‘You: get off the street’—even though he was on the grass, … literally walked by 20 people, all white, standing in the street and went straight to [him].”

Robert Medeiros, one of the strike captains for the Teamsters, told Tribune that the police treat them “like we have no rights at all. We can’t picket. We can’t cross the street. For every little thing they come down and it’s, ‘If you do this, you’re gonna get arrested.’ They never talk to us. … They sit in [the Johnson Brothers] parking lot, they eyeball us, they stare us down.”

Maini described the harassment from police frankly, saying: “They’re racist. They’ve made racist comments…they’ve made comments about our BLM flag, about how they don’t want that in their town, and how they want us to pack up and leave.”

In spite of the repression, the Johnson Brothers truck drivers have continued their strike and have gone beyond picketing at the Johnson Brothers front office. They have called for a boycott on all the alcohol brands they deliver, including Gallo wine, Carlo Rossi wine, Barefoot wine, and High Noon seltzer. The drivers have also begun picketing restaurants and liquor stores still accepting orders from the company. Businesses like Marty’s Liquor in Warwick and Chili’s restaurants across the state have already agreed to stop ordering from Johnson Brothers’ due to the drivers’ pickets. Local residents have also sided with the drivers, posting their support for the strike on social media.

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