Judge's Reversal Renews Pain Of A Picket-line Shooting

Posted: December 04, 1988

One bullet hit Ron Gajkowski in the eye. Another sliced open Bob Schipske's nose. A third hit Bill Abate in the neck.

The shots were fired on Jan. 25, 1980, at a 3M Co. plant in Bristol Township, Bucks County, where members of Teamsters Union Local 107 were on strike. A union steward gave a gun to a drunken striker with instructions to shoot out the lights of the plant guardhouse. He missed.

Nearly nine years later, the grief and strife set off by that grotesque mistake still have not subsided.

Ron Gajkowski, himself a union member, was blinded in one eye. Bill Abate, a 3M security guard, was disabled for life. Bob Schipske, another striker, was the luckiest of the three. He escaped with only a superficial wound.

A Bucks County jury in 1984 held the union responsible for the shooting and awarded $1.3 million to the three victims.

The state Supreme Court upheld the verdict in 1987, but a year later, after labor organizations all across Pennsylvania protested, it did a highly unusual turnabout. Justice Nicholas P. Papadakos switched his position on a 4-3 vote on the case, nullifying the jury verdict and saving Local 107 from likely

financial ruin.

That Sept. 28 court decision, which Papadakos has refused to discuss, has left the shooting victims and their families with no compensation after eight years of litigation, and a bitter resentment for the high court.

"I lost a lot of faith in the judicial system," said Gajkowski. "I have a hatred in me because of this."

"The legal system - that's been an eye opener, to see how it really works," said Schipske. "We've gone eight years and what have we got? We've got (nothing)."

A month before Papadakos made his ruling, Abate died of causes unrelated to the shooting, still hoping that someday he or his family would receive his share of the $1.3 million verdict.

"The court system stinks as far as I'm concerned," said his son, Bill Abate Jr. "You go before a jury and it don't mean nothing."

But the shooting victims, while having the most obvious grievances, are not the only ones who are embittered, or whose lives were turned on end by the shooting and the notable legal battle that followed it.

As the machinery of the court system has slowly done its work, everyone - the victims, the individuals blamed for the shooting, and the union itself - has paid a price.

Teamsters 107 was thrust into a struggle for survival that is estimated to have cost its 4,500 members more than $400,000 in legal expenses. Last year, the union filed for bankruptcy under the weight of the $1.3 million verdict against it. Its attorneys said the union, if forced to pay, might be forced to disband.

Only one man, Robert Ballinger, was prosecuted and convicted for the shooting. He and two others, William Crossan and Robert Kendig, lost their jobs at the 3M plant as a result of the shooting. Blamed for the violence by Local 107, they dropped out of the union as well. The tragedy has had a devastating impact on the personal lives of Ballinger and Crossan. The men who were shot had been their friends.

"Nobody's a winner," said Local 107 president Joseph Cimino Jr. "I've been living with this thing in my gut and my heart every day since that time. . . . It was probably the most devastating thing that happened to me in 17 years as an officer of the union."

Having finally emerged victorious from the long court fight, Cimino said, ''I haven't celebrated and I have no intention of celebrating."

*

Until Jan. 25, 1980, it had been a quiet strike. There had been no violence, no unruly picket lines. About 500 production and maintenance workers at the huge 3M tape-manufacturing plant in Bristol had been walking the lines for 10 weeks.

Thanksgiving had passed. Christmas had passed. New Year's had passed. Now it was late in January, and still there was no prospect of a settlement. The strikers were cold and broke and frustrated.

The record of what happened that night when lawlessness suddenly took command has been reconstructed in detail in court records.

To bring pressure on 3M to come to terms, the Teamsters had begun putting picket lines at 3M facilities around the country in support of the strikers at the Bristol plant.

'IT'S GETTING HOT'

Early on Jan. 25, 1980, Cimino told a 3M official in a telephone conversation: "It has been peaceful for 10 weeks. It is getting hot now. They are uptight. We have got to get management's attention."

In the afternoon, the chief union steward at the 3M plant, Crossan, and another steward, Kendig, left the picket line and went drinking at a nearby bar, the Tullytown Tank. Several hours later, they returned to the line and continued to drink, along with other pickets.

About 5:30 p.m., Kendig hurled a beer bottle toward the plant guardhouse. Several other strikers joined in, throwing rocks and bottles.

One missile smashed through a guardhouse window, prompting security officers to call police.

A striker named Henry Mason, an electronics repairman, was astonished at his co-workers.

Mason would later testify:

Normally, these people weren't rock-throwing vigilantes like that. It seems like they got caught up in it and just started getting rowdy.

Sometime after the bottle-throwing incident, Kendig began flashing a revolver. At one point, he gave the gun to Crossan and suggested that he shoot out the lights at the guardhouse.

I can't do it, Crossan said, and gave the gun back.

At 7:55 p.m. Ron Gajkowski and Bob Schipske, both longtime maintenance mechanics at 3M, arrived for strike duty. They found the picket line much different from normal.

More than 30 pickets - three times as many as usual - were milling around. Many from earlier shifts had stayed into the evening, drinking beer.

Shortly after arriving, Gajkowski and Schipske began breaking up wooden skids for firewood. Security guard Bill Abate, a longtime friend of many of the strikers, had set out the skids for the strikers to burn to keep warm.

SHOWING THE GUN

At 8:30 p.m., as Gajkowski and Abate worked, Kendig was a little distance away, behind a trailer, showing his gun to Robert Ballinger, a 3M maintenance mechanic.

Ballinger had been drinking since early afternoon. In the eruption of rock and bottle throwing, he had been hit in the head by an errant bottle. Though

cut and bleeding, he had refused assistance. Well before 8:30, he appeared to fellow strikers to be drunk. Ballinger would testify that Kendig handed him the gun, saying:

Here, try this.

Moments later, Gajkowski, crouching over a wooden skid, heard something hit a barrel near him. He thought someone had thrown something. He turned to look.

The next thing I know I felt something like thunder inside of my head. . . . I grabbed my face and felt something just spewing out of me and I felt something, and I pushed it back, and I wasn't sure what it was.

A .22 caliber bullet had torn out his left eye. Gajkowski went down on his knees screaming.

Another bullet cut open Schipske's nose.

It slashed across my nose and across my eyelashes. . . . My eyelashes on my left eye were singed away.

Schipske fell to the ground.

Standing in the guardhouse, Abate saw both men fall. In the next instant, a bullet ripped into his neck. Gasping for breath, Abate yelled to another guard to sound an alarm.

At 8:35, Bristol Township police Officer Stephen Whiteman received a radio report of a shooting at the plant. When he arrived, he found the wounded men down and bleeding. He called for medical assistance. Ambulances began arriving at 8:45.

'I DID IT'

Then Whiteman began interviewing the other strikers. A man walked up to him and began to speak falteringly.

I want to turn myself in. I did it.

It was Bob Ballinger.

Later that night, Ballinger told Bristol Township Cpl. James Swope that he had been trying to shoot out the lights above the guardhouse.

When he heard about the shooting sometime after 11 p.m., Joe Cimino rushed to the picket line.

"I just couldn't believe what happened," Cimino said. "Why was the big question. Why? Why?"

Four years later, there was a civil trial at Bucks County Courthouse to try to answer that question.

The trial stemmed from a 1980 lawsuit by Gajkowski, Schipske and Abate contending that union officials had created the unruly atmosphere on the picket line that led to the shooting.

Gregory T. Magarity, attorney for the victims, accused union officials of ''outrageous conduct" by allowing alcohol and firearms on the picket line.

Cimino insisted that neither he nor any of Local 107's officers had sanctioned the violence.

The union blamed Ballinger, Crossan and Kendig for the shooting. In newsletters, it decried their conduct and labeled them "three mad men."

The trial was held in February and March 1984.

When Ballinger took the stand, his former co-workers and friends were astounded. He seemed to have aged 20 years.

"He was a total wreck, that guy," recalled Schipske. "When I saw him I couldn't believe my eyes."

Ballinger had pleaded guilty to assault and weapons offenses in 1980 and had been sentenced to five years on probation. He had been dismissed from his job at 3M, where he had worked for 28 years.

But in his testimony, Ballinger stunned everyone by shakily denying, despite his prior admissions, that he had fired the shots that had hit his friends.

These people I worked with for years were hurt and hurt bad. I didn't know what happened. . . . I never fired the pistol.

Kendig, who was not charged in connection with the shooting, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when he was called to testify. Kendig never was charged. Nor was Crossan. Both men did lose their jobs at 3M.

To this day, Crossan, 42, and Ballinger, 59, say their lives remain deeply affected by the tragedy.

"I feel I've already paid a big part of my life for what happened," said Crossan. "I knew the shooting victims personally. They were friends of mine . . . I went through four years of hell every day. Every single day."

"It's been a nightmare," said Ballinger. "Things have been terrible for me as far as feelings."

Kendig, 59, through an attorney, declined comment.

The jury heard emotional testimony from the victims about the impact on their lives.

Abate, then 62, had never returned to work. The bullet had entered his throat and lodged in his chest. Repeated operations had not relieved residual pain and side-effects of the wound.

It hurt him to drink cold drinks. When he ate, he had to "push" the food down when he swallowed. Cold weather took his breath away. The smell of cigarette smoke or hairspray made him cough and choke. He had been forced to give up ballroom dancing, an activity he and his wife of 43 years had loved. He could sleep only sitting up. Time and again, he had gone back to his doctor for corrective surgery.

My life was ruined from the injury. . . . I don't sleep two hours a night. Sometimes three. I have to get up. Pain all the time.

Gajkowski, 31 at the time of the trial, remembered the moment when a priest administered last rites to him after he was taken to the emergency room at Lower Bucks County Hospital.

I thought I was going to die. I thought, you know, please God, give me strength to make it through this night.

Gajkowski had been fitted for a false eye. But it constantly irritated him. More than three dozen times, he had made trips to Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. The false eye had been replaced three times.

Gajkowski eventually returned to work at 3M, but his injury remained a festering obsession: Why had it happened? Who was responsible? Who was going to pay for what had happened?

He talked about it, harped on it, constantly.

He drank himself into a stupor every night. He yelled at his wife and his kids. His marriage came close to collapse.

The least seriously injured of the three had been Schipske. The graze wound on his nose had required four stitches to close, and he had been able to walk out of the hospital the same night.

Even so, the bullet had come very, very close. A fraction of an inch, and Schipske, 36 at time of trial, might have been dead.

The pain that came through in all the victims' testimony made it clear to the attorneys on both sides which way the case was going.

The Teamsters offered a $250,000 settlement while the jury was in deliberations. Magarity rejected it.

On March 7, 1984, the jury returned its $1.3 million verdict. Having heard graphic accounts of the drinking and gun-toting by the union stewards, it found that the union had "actually authorized or ratified . . . the unlawful acts which caused the injuries."

The award provided $652,460 for Gajkowski and his wife, $640,700 for Abate and his wife, and $12,000 for Schipske.

UNION APPEALS

The union immediately appealed. Its attorney, Thomas W. Jennings, argued that state and federal laws protected Local 107 from being held liable without absolute proof that the union had authorized the violence.

A Bucks County panel of judges upheld the verdict. State Superior Court later reversed it.

Then the state Supreme Court, in August 1987, reinstated the verdict by a 4-3 vote, declaring in the majority opinion: "This record shows clear proof of Local 107's participation in the sorrowful events of Jan. 25, 1980, a participation for which it should be condemned and held accountable to those injured."

When that decision came down, attorneys for Local 107 immediately asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the case. The court refused.

That refusal normally would mark the end of the litigation. The court's rules permit only one request for reconsideration of any case. Theoretically, the $1.3 million judgment, with accumulated interest, had become final.

A week after the court refused to rehear the case, Teamsters Local 107 filed for bankruptcy.

Union attorneys then once again requested a rehearing. Joining them as ''friends of the court" were some of the most powerful labor organizations in Pennsylvania, including the state AFL-CIO, the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters and the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council.

Without explanation, the Supreme Court granted the second request for reconsideration on Nov. 18, 1987.

One justice, John P. Flaherty, dissented and later noted tersely that he viewed the rehearing as "highly irregular and without precedent."

CHANGE OF HEART

What had occurred - though it was not to become known until several months later - was that Justice Papadakos, who previously had voted with the court majority to uphold the jury award, had, by his own description, "awakened" to the possibility that he might have made a mistake.

When the court convened to rehear the case in April, the fiery Magarity, in a rare departure from the normal deference attorneys display before the Supreme Court, criticized the court for violating its own rule in rehearing the case.

Magarity demanded to know why the court was "having this hearing at all."

Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr., who supported the union position, responded that the question was "not subject to argument at this point."

In a heated exchange, Magarity asked Nix how he could explain to his clients that the "rules are not being followed and there is no explanation. . . . It's a mystery to me."

"It's a mystery to me," Nix replied, "that you insist on arguing beyond the bounds the court set down."

The courtroom was full of high-ranking union officials.

It was clear to Ron Gajkowski, watching with his one good eye, that the tide had turned.

"I knew right then and there that we were sunk," Gajkowski said.

Five months later, on Sept. 28, the Supreme Court issued a new 4-3 opinion reversing its earlier decision. The ruling freed Local 107 from liability for the shooting, enabling it to begin to emerge from bankruptcy.

The opinion was written by Papadakos, who, by changing his position,

singlehandedly reversed the outcome of the case.

Although Papadakos previously had taken the view that Local 107 had been responsible for the violence, he now held that the union "never authorized or condoned the shootings."

The court's initial ruling, Papadakos wrote, had been a "blatant error."

NO COMMENT

When asked recently what had prompted his change of mind, Papadakos declined to comment.

"I don't discuss anything," the justice said. "Our opinions speak for themselves."

Jennings, the union attorney, said he believed Local 107's action in filing for bankruptcy and its persistence in petitioning the Supreme Court for reconsideration were the factors that had swayed Papadakos.

"What you had was one very conscientious justice who realized he had made an error," said Jennings. "There's nothing revolutionary about the new decision. It is totally consistent with existing law."

Magarity vehemently disagrees. By virtue of Papadakos' action, Magarity contends, the Supreme Court has set a precedent that will cast all its future decisions in uncertainty.

Magarity has asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the case one more time.

If that fails, he plans to appeal to U.S. District Court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Whatever the legal merits of the case, the shooting victims and their

families believe that Papadakos bowed to pressure from organized labor.

"Three guys from Bristol aren't much of an opponent compared to the political pressure that the Teamsters can wield," said Schipske. "We're pretty insignificant, I guess."

Gajkowski and his wife, Fran, are so dispirited by the outcome that they are planning to move away - somewhere out of state.

"We're looking for a fresh start," said Fran Gajkowski. "We just don't feel like we're thriving here. It's almost painful to stay."

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