In a surprising turn of events, Sito Pantoja, a prominent figure in the transportation labor movement, has filed a lawsuit against the International Association of Machinists (IAM), accusing the union of demoting him and his chief of staff for supporting an opposition candidate in a recent union election.
Pantoja, who served as the vice president of transportation for IAM since 2012, claims he was abruptly removed from his position and reassigned to “make-work” apprenticeship research projects in June. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington DC, alleges that this action was a strategic move by the union to silence dissent and hinder oversight of members’ dues and assets.
IAM, boasting a membership of 625,000, including 325,000 active members in various transportation sectors, is now facing legal scrutiny over what Pantoja describes as violations of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. The lawsuit contends that these actions were in response to Pantoja’s outspoken opposition to the incumbent general secretary-treasurer during the 2021 election.
The legal action further claims that Pantoja faced various retaliatory measures, including removal from key leadership positions, replacement on the United Airlines board of directors, and demotion within the International Transportation Federation. Pantoja’s chief of staff, Joe Tiberi, also allegedly faced consequences for disloyalty.
Notably, the union implemented a new mandatory retirement rule at the age of 65, preventing Pantoja from serving beyond his 65th birthday in March 2022, despite his recent election to a four-year term in 2021.
The crux of the issue appears to be Pantoja’s opposition to the re-election of Dora Cervantes as the IAM’s general secretary-treasurer. In 2017, Pantoja had investigated allegations of fund mismanagement against Cervantes, revealing embezzlement of about $100,000. This recent legal action follows Pantoja’s scrutiny of spending by Cervantes and IAM President Bob Martinez.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to restore Pantoja and his staff to their previous positions, demands IAM financial records related to executive overspending, and seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages. The IAM has yet to respond to these allegations.
This internal conflict within one of the largest transportation unions highlights the complexities and challenges faced by labor leaders, as personal and political interests seem to intertwine with the democratic procedures of the organization.