Wednesday, May 20, 2009

JAMES STENGER (fired by TRIMET) gives his side of the incident

What Good Is a Union For?

Union politics and the deals made out of view of the public killed my career and my retirement pension.


Jim Stenger

I was a member of the Amalgamated 757 union in good standing for many years. I was a Trimet employee who had earned several performance and driver safety awards. I was on the verge of retirement. But then the world came crashing down on me over false allegations, unsubstantiated half-truths, and a local media that was thirsty for a hot story. The result? I lost my job. I lost my pension. And I lost my career.

What did the 757 do to help me? Nothing! Here’s my story.

Back in 2004, I was having dinner with a friend, Ken West, at Kauai Island Grill in Portland. I had noticed that the restaurant’s staff was acting rude.

In the words of my witness, Ken West, he said, “I was with Jim Stenger the evening that he had a problem with employees at the Hawaiian restaurant. When we were ordering food, we were treated very rudely by a female taking our order. I wanted to leave at that time because she was being unnecessarily rude and discourteous. Jim wanted to stay. While we were waiting for our food, she was walking around us giving us dirty looks for no reason. We received our food, which was below average in quality. While we were eating our food the lady seemed to have a problem with us and began talking to a young male cook. The lady even went outside on the sidewalk in front of the window we were sitting at. She kept looking at us and making faces at us.”

The restaurant’s staff’s behavior was bizarre. Not wanting to cause a stir, we departed the restaurant peaceably. But I really I wondered what we had done to deserve such bad treatment. So, I turned around and attempted to go back inside to find out what the problem was.

When I got to the door, it was either stuck or locked and I couldn’t open it with my hand. I tried once more with my shoulder and foot and still couldn’t get it open. I turned around to leave and then all of a sudden the door opened and an older woman appeared. I turned around talk with her.

“While Jim and the lady were talking the young male cook came outside and started dancing around with his fists up,” said West. “He took a punch at Jim hitting him in the ear. Jim never retaliated in any way. Jim then got in the car again and the restaurant people looked like they were writing down his car license number. We then left,” West stated.

But, within a couple of hours, a policeman knocked on the door of my apartment and arrested me for intimidation, that is, allegedly making a racial comment in the restaurant. This was unbelievable!

As I stated under sworn testimony in the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon—a case where the intimidation charge against me was dropped—I testified that, “The incident didn’t happen the way my accusers said it happened. The guy assaulted me because I went to make a complaint about rude treatment that we, my friend and I, encountered at this restaurant, which ensued that the guy came out charging at me, assaulting me, and he hit and he punched me in the left ear. I did not retaliate, other than exchange words, but I did not make a racial comment.”

I have never used a racial word towards anyone. I lived in Hawaii for 20 years. My grandchildren are of Hawaiian descent. Even my girlfriend is Micronesian.

But this is only the beginning of my story. The arresting police officer wouldn’t listen to my side of the story. Then a week after the incident, a Channel 6 story was broadcasted and alleged that I made racial comments at the restaurant. The reported never contacted me for the story. The story was based upon hearsay, not solid, professional reporting. They just threw a story out there to stir up attention to boost their ratings, I guess. My bad luck didn’t stop there. Maxine Bernstein, a writer with The Oregonian, wrote an article about me stating that I was seen around Portland, making threats, and that I was seen back at the restaurant. I wasn’t even in the U.S. when she wrote the story; I was on an overseas visit in Asia.

It should be no surprise that once my employer, Trimet, got wind of this incident, I would be called to defend myself. During the investigation, the Trimet station manager never went to the restaurant to take a statement from my accuser. I believe Trimet wanted to fire me and it used the Union to help get rid of me. During a union arbitration hearing, my witness wanted to testify. Then, the worst possible thing happened that could have cleared up this terrible affair: the Union would not let my witness testify. In his own words, my witness, Ken West said: “Later when the transit union had a hearing for Jim, he was out of the country so I attended to tell what I witnessed. I was asked a couple of questions, but not allowed to give any testimony.”

Ultimately, I was given a choice: either resign or file a grievance. I chose the latter. But I knew something was wrong when my shop steward never gave me a heads up when the meetings for the grievance process were coming up. It’s pretty obvious to me now: The executive board members of the union didn’t want to hear any testimony in my defense. Instead of supporting me and helping me solve this problem, the union sided with Trimet and swept the whole matter under the rug. I have requested the transcripts of the union arbitration meeting but they have refused my request.

In the end, I was charged with a misdemeanor, which was thrown out. In the pretrial hearing, I was accused of saying a racial slur. The prosecutor told her side of the story based upon my accuser, who never came to the trial, and I told mine. The judge dropped the charge because there were contradictions in what was actually said on the night of the incident.

This was a “He Said She Said” incident that could not stand up in court.

I paid my union dues for years so the union would come to bat for me when I needed them. But the moral of the story is pretty clear: Union politics and the deals made out of view of the public killed my career and my retirement pension.

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