The highest ranking Teamsters official in New England is facing possible disciplinary action for comments he made at a union election rally in Rhode Island.
Sean O'Brien, the powerful vice president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a top lieutenant to labor president James Hoffa, is facing possible suspension from the union for stating members should be "punished" if they elected someone other than those he supported in a Rhode Island labor election.
According to findings of the Independent Review Board (IRB) – an organization that investigates union corruption – O'Brien was speaking at a rally for Local 251 Secretary-Treasurer Joseph Bairos in East Providence when he said he would have a "major problem" with those who voted against Bairos.
"I've got news for you, anybody who takes on my friend, Joe Bairos and his team, or Local 251, they've got a major problem," O'Brien said according to a transcript in the IRB letter. "They'll never be our friends. They need to be punished."
The comments were posted in a YouTube video, according to the IRB letter. They have since been removed.
As Vice President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and President of the Local 25 in Boston, O'Brien made more than $207,000 in 2012, according to the IRB. The board found his powerful position in the union gives him the power "to retaliate against these political opponents."
David Levin is an organizer with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and supports the opposition movement inside Local 251. During a phone call from his New York office, he called the ruling "significant."
"The fact that a grassroots movement in Rhode Island has shaken the Teamster power structure not only in New England but across the country is a good story for underdogs who believe in union democracy," Levin said. "It's illegal to threaten members for exercising their right to run for union office."
Levin supplied the letter from the IRB to WPRI.com. He said recommendations by the board are almost always followed by the unions.
O'Brien will likely be suspended by the Teamsters for his comments, which could impact his chances for reelection as vice president, according to Levin. He said Hoffa has 90 days to decide on what to do and the IRB has to sign off on any decision.
Bairos is being challenged by Matt Taibi for the position of Secretary-Treasurer, which is the top position within the local. The election began on October 9th through mail-in ballots. They will be counted on October 30.
The Local 251 represents more than 2,500 workers. Rhode Island Hospital employs the largest amount of workers in the union.
The Teamsters were founded in 1903 and have 1.4 million members at 1,900 local affiliates throughout the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, according to the union’s website.
O’Brien has not returned a call for comment but in the IRB letter he told investigators the comments were “a poor choice of words.”
The IRB was formed after a 1989 federal court decision in a Teamsters case. It investigates and takes action on “any allegations of corruption” according to a description on the Teamsters’ website.
The three-member panel is made up of an appointee from the Attorney General of the United States, the Teamsters and a third party mutually agreed upon by the government and the union.