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Top Airline Labor Leader Sues His Union, Saying He Lost His Job For Speaking Out On An Election

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 19, 2021

A top leader of the transportation labor movement has sued his union, alleging that it demoted him and his chief of staff because he supported an opposition candidate for secretary/treasurer in a union election.

Sito Pantoja, who had been vice president of transportation for the International Association of Machinists since 2012, sued the IAM and eight of its top officers, including President Bob Martinez, on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington DC.

In June, Pantoja was “summarily and arbitrarily removed” by Martinez, with the approval of defendant members of the executive council, and reassigned to “make-work” apprenticeship research projects, the suit alleges. The union intended “to remove dissenters from the leadership,” discourage oversight of members’ dues money and assets and “to chill the exercise of free speech rights by IAM members.”

IAM is the top transportation union. Its 325,000 active members include nearly 100,000 who work for airlines, railroads, Boeing and other transportation companies.

The suit seeks an injunction restoring Pantoja and his staff to their previous positions. It also seeks IAM financial records related to union executives’ overspending of union funds and it asks for unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

IAM did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

The suit accuses the union of two counts of violations against the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which protects labor unions’ democratic procedures. and of imposing a mandatory retirement for an elected position.

“Because Pantoja spoke out against the corruption of the incumbent general secretary treasurer and supported her opponent” in a 2021 election, the union implemented a series of retaliatory measures early in 2021, the suit said.

As retaliation, the union removed Pantoja from transportation department leadership; replaced him as its designated member on the United Airlines board of directors; stripped him of his vice presidency of the London-based International Transportation Federation, an international federation of unions, and “demoted and reassigned his chief of staff (Joe Tiberi) for alleged disloyalty.”

Additionally, on June 1, “Pantoja was further punished for exercising his right of free speech by being assigned to his home (and) forbidden to return to his or any other office in IAM headquarters without prior permission.”  

In January, IAM threatened to shut down its transportation department Washington, D.C. office in the AFL-CIO building. That move was halted when the Locals 141 and 142, the two top transportation locals, agreed to pay the rent.

On June 17, the IAM executive council adopted a new mandatory age 65 retirement rule, preventing Pantoja from serving in office past his 65th birthday on March 28, 2022, even though he had been elected to a four-year term in 2021, the suit said.

Retaliation followed Pantoja’s opposition to the re-election of Dora Cervantes as the IAM’s general secretary treasurer. Cervantes was re-elected in May, winning about 5,000 votes, defeating challenger Ian Anderman’s, who received about 3,000 votes. Anderman has filed a protest with the Department of Labor.

Following the election, Martinez sent Pantoja a letter saying that the majority of the executive committee decided that it no longer trusted him and that he should immediately leave the IAM headquarters. “Since he announced his opposition to Cervantes, Pantoja has been ostracized and excluded from all executive council meetings,” the suit said.

In 2017, Pantoja investigated a charge that Cervantes covered up her sister’s theft of union funds at a time when her sister was president of Houston Local 2198, which represents United fleet service workers.  His investigation found that local officials including Cervantes’ sister had embezzled about $100,000.  Eventually the local was placed under supervision and the U.S. Department of Labor also investigated.

In a report, DOL said it found “overpayment (inflated) salaries, unauthorized reimbursements, personal meals without proof of union activity, overpayment of lost time, unauthorized lost time, double payments, per diem overpayment and missing receipts. The actions of these officers resulted in a shortage to Local Lodge 2198 totaling $101,307.03.”

Recently, Pantoja has investigated spending by Cervantes and Martinez, the suit said: Cervantes subsequently reimbursed about $6,000 for a leased vehicle, it said.

Pantoja has been an IAM member since 1977, when he was hired as an aircraft mechanic by Trans World Airlines in New York. He rose to become transportation department chief of staff in 2005. Later, as general vice president, he oversaw about 150 contracts at railroads and airlines including American, Southwest, United, Amtrak, and the national freight railroads.

 “His abilities in negotiations led to many industry leading contracts which were overwhelmingly ratified,” the suit said. “Martinez and the named defendants took these steps based entirely upon their own personal political self-interests, and not because of any nonperformance or neglect of duties by Pantoja.”


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