Franchisee claims union intimidation closed pizzeria

Dec. 9, 2002

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A Pizza Hut franchisee is claiming he was forced to close his Buffalo store as a result of strong-arm tactics applied by an official of Laborers Local 91, who is also a state appointee on the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.

According to the Buffalo News, Denver developer Joseph Aragon said he closed his Pizza Hut in the bridge's duty-free building in early September because of a boycott.

Aragon recently testified before a federal grand jury in Buffalo, and his allegations are being investigated by the U.S. attorney's office.

Local 91 officials vehemently denied the allegations and said Aragon is blaming his business' failure on them.

Aragon said Joel Cicero, the director of training for Local 91, was "trying to pressure me into hiring Local 91 laborers to work on a job at the bridge. ... Local 91 made it impossible for me to do business there, and as far as I'm concerned, the bridge commission has backed them all the way."

The Pizza Hut opened in April but closed in September.

Thomas E. Garlock, general manager of the bridge commission, denied any knowledge of a boycott.

"There's no motivation at all for the commission to want his restaurant to be unsuccessful," said Garlock. "In fact, it would be to our financial benefit to see it open and flourishing."

"If we were boycotting that restaurant, I would know about it," said Harley T. Locking, a deputy trustee at Local 91. "I don't know of any boycott. We sure didn't organize one."

During the 2001 construction of the duty-free building, where the Pizza Hut store was located, Argon said union members picketed the store and placed a 15-foot-tall inflatable rat at the work site.

He also claimed he was threatened with labor troubles in September of 2001 during a meeting at the Local 91 office with Cicero and Mark Congi, then-president of the labor group.

He said the two union officials told him they were unhappy he was using non-union construction workers and demanded that he hire "two or three" Local 91 laborers to work on the site each day. Aragon said he felt "very intimidated" because Cicero -- in addition to being a top Local 91 official -- is a state-appointed member of the commission that runs the bridge.

Aragon said he reluctantly hired one Local 91 laborer each day at the work site, even though there was no need for such a worker.

"That laborer was being paid $30 an hour, and to me, it was extortion," Aragon said. "I added it to the cost of the contract."

Aragon, president of ProServe Corp. in Denver, has developed almost 50 Pizza Huts throughout the United States. The U.S. Small Business Administration named him Colorado's small businessperson of the year in 1996.

Topics: Crime

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