Fight Erupts After Union Vote


June 20, 1993

FIGHTING MAD: Violence that including chair throwing breaks out Saturday in Santa Ana after the election for leadership of the Laborers International Union local. Opponents of the winner plan to protest the results to the National Labor Relations Board.

LABOR: 'Matchy' Duarte gets a sixth three-year term, but his foes plan to appeal the election results.

SANTA ANA-A bitter union election struggle ended Saturday in a bloody brawl, but Marcelino "Matchy" Duarte - longtime boss of the Laborers International Union, Local 652-emerged with his leadership intact.

Duarte, 61, garnered just 34.9 percent of 2,066 votes cast. But angry union rank-and-file members-predominantly Mexican-American construction workers whose jobs and benefits are disappearing amid the recession- divided their votes among four candidates.

Duarte's leading opponent, foreman Crispin Perez, immediately vowed to appeal the results to the National Labor Relations Board. Perez backers alleged before the vote was final that 138 union members-nearly equal to Duarte's margin of victory- failed to receive ballots.

Duarte declined to comment.

Immediately after his victory, which brings with it a sixth three year term, Duarte was hoisted onto the shoulders of his cheering supporters and ushered out of the union hall at 1532 E. Chestnut Street as violence erupted.

Scattered fistfights, which had threatened to break out all day, quickly intensified into a chair-swinging melee that left one Duarte supporter, Rudy Ruvalcava, 32, splattered with his own blood.

Perez's backers alleged that eight deceased union members were mailed ballots, though election judges offered assurances that none were cast.

"In the past dead people have voted. Today we haven't run into any," said Ralph Flores, 40, who ran on Perez 's electoral slate and finished second in the race for union president. That positon is largely ceremonial. Nearly absolute power is vested in Duarte's position as union business manager. Duarte directs regotiatrions with contractors, oversees job assignments, and, in the 15 years of his stewardship, has controlled $38.2 million in union membership dues.

Critics say Duarte squandered the union's wealth in prosperous times, leaving its treasury nearly depleted in recent lean years.

During the voting, Ruvalcava had jeered the opposing electoral factions, saying, "If they really wanted Matchy out, they would have gotten one slate together. But they all want the same position."

And Perez, 55, noted: "We all know what needs to be done. We're all losing."

Former Duarte aide Luis Holguin, 52, who in April broke with his boss after a 15-year relationship and ran a close third, said beforehand, "I'm hoping if Matchy wins he'll open up his eyes that we want things to change around here."

Local 652 is one of Orange County's oldest and largest labor unions. Last year largely Hispanic drywall workers initiated organizing efforts in their part of the construction industry, but those efforts were unrelated to Saturday's activities.

During the campaign, Duarte pledged that he would cut his $103,140 salary by 15 percent bringing it to pre-recession levels. But that doesn't address related allegations by his union foes of absenteeism and excess at a time when about 540 active union members are out of work.

Duarte, who arranged Saturday for a mariachi band to play "El Rey" ("The King") even before the election results were known, is alleged by union foes to spend increasing amounts of time away from the union hall at his second home in Cabo San Lucas.

Meanwhile, many rank-and-file members, facing long-term dislocation from the work force, identify themselves by their by their page number on a lengthy job- wait list.

"Anybody who goes against the system doesn't work," said David Hernandez, 59,who in 1978 was ousted as the union's leader by Duarte. Hernandez now is unemployed and on page 23 of a 30-page waiting list. Each page lists about 18 names.

"In the past, the system doesn't work," dead people have voted. Today we haven't run into any." RALPH FLORES

Opponents of Duarte say he has maintained his power base by developing strong loyalty among young, new members who are willing to accept lowerpaying jobs. He also maintains a disciplined political organization that has withstood its stiffest test.

And, it seems, Duarte still relishes a good fight.

At a union meeting in January, one of his frequent hecklers, Sergio Estrada, 51, passed out fliers depicting the union boss with green eyes and dollar-signs through the pupils. Duarte, after demanding to see the flier, invited one of Estrada's more vocal supporters to a fistfight at the podium.

"And the man threw haymakers like he should have been fighting for our rights," Estrada recalls, "but he was missing by a mile. "

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