Teamsters skate on celebrity extortion charge

There was a disappointing end to a trial in Boston yesterday which combined the worlds of celebrity reality television and labor unions. At issue was the show Top Chef and its star, Padma Lakshmi. While filming an episode a few years ago, Lakshmi learned what happens if you hire your own crew to take care of some of the heavy lifting and you don’t cut the local labor union in on the action. The strong-arm tactics used by the teamsters were detailed in the trial, but in the end a jury found that they were within the limits of the law and the judge let them off with a warning. (Associated Press)

Four Teamsters were acquitted Tuesday of threatening “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi and using strong-arm tactics to try to extort jobs from a nonunion company filming the reality TV show in the Boston area.

A federal jury found the men not guilty of attempted extortion and conspiracy to extort after about 20 hours of deliberations.

Lakshmi testified that she was “terrified” when one of the men confronted her outside a restaurant where the series filmed in 2014.

Going through the sequence of events which took place during the incident in question you quickly find a scenario that could have come straight out of an episode of The Sopranos. In fact, it’s such a stereotypical scene that it would be laughable were it not so threatening to the plaintiff. After stopping Lakshmi’s car with a blockade that was holding up production, one of them allegedly leaned into the window and literally said, ‘Oh, lookie here, what a pretty face … what a shame about that pretty face.’

That’s only a slightly remixed version of, pretty face ya got there. Be a real shame if anything happened to it.

Since nobody wound up committing an actual physical assault, I suppose you might try to excuse the lack of legal action. But the Teamsters weren’t on trial for assault. This was attempted extortion using the threat of violence. If both the jury and the judge agreed that the thugs had done precisely what was described, how was that not an attempt at extortion?

During the period that this incident took place in 2014, another group of Boston Teamsters actually were convicted of extortion, having put the squeeze on a number of other local businesses. It’s odd that this obvious continuation of that pattern didn’t also result in a conviction. And this isn’t just a Boston phenomenon, nor one which has gone away. Just last month the head of a Teamsters local in Chicago with close ties to Rahm Emanuel was indicted on charges of extorting $100,000 from a local business. The patterns are a bit too much to ignore here.

In an ideal world, the unions would need to ensure that they were offering the employer the most qualified workers at a reasonable price, thereby being able to compete with whatever drivers the production company wound up hiring. But in reality, they demand inflated wages and benefits for low skill assignments and try to use the threat of union retaliation to force the production company into using union drivers. And at least in Boston this year, it appears that they can still get away with it.

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David Strom 2:31 PM on October 04, 2022