May 24, 2012

Support union activist and Chicano leader Carlos Montes

By Paul Krehbiel

Supporters of Carlos Montes, a long-time labor union activist and Chicano leader, are organizing for a large solidarity turnout May 15 at Los Angeles County Superior Court when Montes goes on trial for four politically motivated felony charges.

Support for Montes is growing. Over 40 people rallied outside the court on April 26 holding banners and signs on the sidewalk, and chanted, “Drop the charges now” while distributing leaflets to passersby. Montes was in court that day in a pre-trial hearing. Supporters, including a number of union members, went inside and occupied an entire section of public seating in a dramatic display of solidarity.

Despite compelling arguments by Montes’ lawyer, Jorge Gonzalez, Judge Lomeli ruled the case would go to trial. Montes’ supporters urged a strong showing at the Court, at 210 W. Temple Ave. in Los Angeles at 8:00 am, beginning May 15 to May 22, and continuing throughout the trial. On May 15, Montes and his supporters will hold another rally outside, and then go to Department 100 where a courtroom will be assigned for the trial.

Montes and his supporters say he was framed on bogus charges regarding alleged violation of gun ownership laws in an effort to stop his organizing workers and unions in the US, solidarity with workers in other countries, advancing Latino rights, opposing the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other progressive causes. Montes has a long history of labor and union activities. He was a member of the Carpenters union, Steelworkers union, and a staff member of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 660 (now Local 721).

Montes was initially charged with six felonies. But on March 27, he won an important victory when two of the charges were dropped. Conviction on the remaining four charges could bring him 12 years in prison. His defense committee demands that the other four charges be dropped as well.

Tied to 42-year old case

The charges stem from an incident in 1969 at East Los Angeles Community College when Montes was among students who were on strike demanding Chicano, Black and women’s studies programs. Los Angeles County Sheriff deputies were sent in to quell the strike. During confrontations where students were assaulted and arrested, Montes was identified by authorities as a student leader and was singled out for arrest while driving home after the protest. He was framed on assault of a Peace Officer for allegedly throwing an empty soda can at an officer — a charge that would likely have been a misdemeanor if brought against a white student.

Montes and attorney Gonzalez point out that Montes’ case was sentenced four decades ago as a misdemeanor. Montes was put on probation then, consistent with a misdemeanor sentence, served his probation, and moved on with his life.

With only a minor misdemeanor on his record, Montes later sought to purchase firearms at a local sporting goods store. He went through all the legally required background checks, which came up clean, and was permitted to make the purchases. Convicted felons cannot purchase or possess firearms in California. If Montes was a convicted felon he would have been prevented from purchasing a firearm.

Forty-two years later, at 5:00 am on May 17, 2011, Montes was awoken by the sound of his front door be bashed in by over 15 heavily armed Sherriff Swat Team deputies and FBI agents who handcuffed and arrested him and ransacked his home, taking files, personal papers and his computer. The FBI attempted to ask him questions about his political affiliations. Montes refused to answer. He was then charged with the six counts of firearm violations. No charges have been filed for his political activities, which Montes says are legal.

Attorney Gonzalez filed a motion in court April 26 claiming that Montes has been singled out for prosecution for his legally protected political activities in violation of a law that prohibits selective enforcement of laws. Gonzalez pointed out that an estimated 30,000 convicted felons in California have firearms and have not been prosecuted. The judge denied the motion and set trail for May 15.

Kwazi Nkrumah, a former union organizer with SEIU Local 660 and an organizer with Occupy LA and Occupy the Hood, said at an earlier rally, “It is not just Carlos Montes who is under attack. It is all of us. That is why we have to come out here to show the FBI that they cannot beat our solidarity.” Others agree.

Trying to Silence Activists

“The charges against Carlos Montes are clearly politically motivated,” said Keenan Sheedy, the vice-chair of the SEIU Local 721 Bargaining Policy Committee for county workers, who is speaking on his own behalf and not representing the union committee. “This is a case of the state using overwhelming military-style force to intimidate the working-class, its leaders, and the larger community. They’re trying to silence activists at a time when the corporate empire is in crisis and there is growing opposition to the cut-backs being imposed on workers and society by big business and banks.” The union’s Bargaining Policy Committee represents 55,000-members of Local 721. Carlos Montes worked for SEIU Local 660/721 as a union representative.

Sheedy, who has 40 years service with the County and SEIU, has attended support rallies for Montes. Sheedy was also the former co-chair of a very active 80-person Stewards Council at LAC+USC Medical Center, the largest public hospital complex in Los Angeles where Montes worked as a union representative. Montes also with stewards at other facilities and garnered much support among many local shop-floor union leaders.

One is George McKinney. He is a union steward at SEIU Local 721, and was so angry when he heard about the charges against Carlos that he immediately joined the defense committee. “Carlos is extremely devoted to the cause of human rights. He helped me get involved in progressive political activity years ago. So, I wanted to help. We have regular committee meetings, give talks about his case to different groups, and distribute leaflets to educate people and build support for Carlos.” That work is paying off.

Carlos Montes has received support from the 325,000 member California Teachers Association, San Francisco Labor Council, United Teachers of Los Angeles, State Association of Mexican American Educators, UAW-UCLA, Southern California Immigration Coalition, United National Anti-war Coalition, and Milwaukee Students for a Democratic Society, and many other groups.

Julio Rodriguez, a Registered Nurse and another union steward at Local 721, is also active in the community and Montes’ defense efforts. Rodriquez called the charges against Montes “a witch-hunt.” Also, a local poet, Rodriguez has read his poetry for fund raising events for Carlos’ defense. “Carlos is a local hero,” he said.
Carlos Montes is a hero for many in the Los Angeles area. He first captured local and national attention as one of the key organizers of the historic Chicano student walk-outs at Los Angeles high schools in 1968 to protest discrimination. Those mass walk-outs won many improvements for Chicano students throughout Los Angeles and beyond.

His union worked has also won him high praise. When Montes worked as a union representative for SEIU Local 660, he built the union’s Latino Caucus into a powerful and influential force that created strong relationships with community organizations and causes.

Dorlah Lawrence is a Registered Nurse union steward at SEIU Local 721 with 18 years service in the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (DHS). She said Montes worked hard to address the needs of members at her facility – “winning back-pay for workers who routinely missed breaks,” as well as “building important union-community coalitions around issues like education, housing, and immigrant rights. Carlos has been a hard working, law abiding, tax-paying citizen for the past 40 years,” she said. “The charges against him are an injustice and a waste of tax-payers money.”

International Labor Solidarity

Recently, Montes has been supportive of the current union organizing campaign among 10,000 Los Angeles car wash workers — overwhelmingly Latino immigrant workers. Montes has also been active for decades in the massive immigrant rights movement that brought 1 million immigrants into the streets of Los Angeles in 2006 to protest a draconian anti-immigrant bill in Congress then. He is also a leader with the Southern California Immigration Coalition and its campaign to stop the Los Angeles Police Department’s policy of impounding the cars of immigrants for 30 days. Most of these immigrants are working-class Latino’s who need their cars to get to work. There are over 4 million Latinos in Los Angeles County.

Montes has also been heavily involved in anti-war work. He is the leader of Latino’s Against War, and has done much to speak out and organize against the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was among many anti-war activists who organized demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota to protest then President Bush’s wars in the Middle East.

After the convention, 23 protest organizers living in the mid-west had their homes raided by FBI agents and heavily armed police and they were given subpoenas to appear before a Federal Grand Jury to answer questions about their anti-war and international solidarity work. Carlos Montes’ name was on the search warrant.

The FBI seems particularly interested in the international labor solidarity work of all 24 activists. Montes has been to Colombia, where workers and unions are severely repressed, and he has spoken out against these abuses – including strongly denouncing the anti-labor “Plan Colombia,” when he returned to the United States.

While in Colombia, Montes met with workers employed at a Coca-Cola bottling plant who have been trying to organize a union for years to overcome poverty-level pay and lack of benefits. In retaliation, Colombian union organizers have suffered the greatest repression of any country in recent years. Montes learned that eight union leaders and activists at Coke were killed by right-wing, pro-business paramilitaries between 1990 and 2002, and many other union activists were beaten, tortured, kidnapped, and fired. In the US, the United Steelworkers Union – Montes’ old union, where he is today an associate member, is leading an international campaign and boycott to stop the killing and brutal treatment of Colombian trade unionists. The campaign is called “Stop Killer Coke.”

Combine this with Montes’ political belief that the economic and political power of big corporations and banks should be stopped and turned over to workers and the community, and it is understandable to see why corporate power wants to silence Carlos Montes. But the flimsiness of the charges and possibility of being sent to prison for 12 years is startling. This looks like a new level in the increasing repression of the growing labor and social justice movements, and must be stopped.

Carlos Montes and I worked together for a number of years as union representatives at LAC+USC Medical Center, the largest public hospital complex in Los Angeles County. I knew Carlos as a hard-working union activist, committed to social justice for our members and all working people. I never saw him advocate breaking a law, or advocate or use violence. He is a calm, level-headed influence in tense situations, and always upholds principles of fairness, equality and justice. The attack on Carlos Montes is an attack on the entire working-class, and an attack on the civil liberties of everyone. It should sound alarm bells against the right-wing direction our country is heading, and spur people to demand that all charges be dropped against Carlos Montes, and an end to political and union repression.

The Los Angeles Committee Against FBI Repression is asking people to write letters of solidarity and send donations to the committee ( or call 626-532-7164.

Paul Krehbiel was the chief negotiator for 5,000 Registered Nurses employed at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services in the mid-2000s, members of Service Employees International Union, and worked together with Carlos Montes as fellow union representatives.