The first witness in the trial of four Boston Teamsters accused of terrorizing the cast and crew of Top Chef on location in 2014 testified today that the show’s host, Padma Lakshmi, was “visibly terrified” after one of the defendants leaned into her car as she attempted to cross their picket line and screamed that “they were going to bash her pretty face in.” Lakshmi is expected to testify later in the week.
Erica Ross, the show’s former co-executive producer, said she also witnessed the defendants – all members of Boston Teamsters Local 25 – showering the cast and crew with racist, homophobic and misogynistic abuse because the producers had refused to hire Teamster drivers. “If you were a woman, they called you a c*nt, and they called everyone scabs,” she said.
Cell phone footage shown in court shows one of the defendants calling a female producer, who was wearing a head scarf, a “towel head.” It also shows one of the defendants taunting the crew: “Are you scabbing today? What are they doing for you?” The same footage, however, also shows Ross taunting one of the Teamsters as tensions mounted, asking him: “Are you shaking?” Ross also said she observed that one of the chefs competing on the show “was talking back” to the Teamsters and “escalating the situation.”
“I had never witnessed anything like that before,” she said. “I was concerned that our crew couldn’t keep their cool.”
At least two local police officers were present throughout the two-hour labor dispute at a restaurant in Milton, a suburb of Boston. And Ross said that when one of the Teamsters placed his hands on a production vehicle as it tried to cross their picket line, “I asked the police, ‘Why is this OK?’ and he said [the Teamsters] know exactly what they can and cannot do.’”
And that’s essentially the question that jurors will be asked to answer: Was this a legal labor action in furtherance of the legitimate goal of getting employers to hire union drivers or an illegal act of extortion that sought, through threats of violence, to force the producers to hire drivers that they did not want or need?
“This is a crime of extortion,” federal prosecutor Laura Kaplan said in her opening argument, describing Lakshmi as having been “paralyzed with fear” during her encounter with the Teamsters on the picket line that day in June 2014. “Top Chef did not need these defendants to drive their trucks. It was a nonunion reality show that had already been filming for nearly a month. The trucks were driven by production assistants.”
She added that the attempted extortion — to force Magical Elves, the show’s production company to relent to the Teamsters “unwanted, unnecessary and superfluous services” – was carried out through “the wrongful threat of force,” and that if the defendants’ “demands were not met, production would be shut down and the crew physically harmed.” She even took issue with calling the union’s action picketing. “This case is not about picketing,” she told the jury. “It was not picketing. They didn’t carry any signs. They didn’t hand out leaflets. They didn’t try to get anyone to sign [representational] cards. Unions have a right to picket, but nonunion employers have a right not to employ them. The union has the right to ask for work, but it cannot threaten to use force to get jobs.”
In their opening arguments, defense attorneys for Michael Ross, John Fidler, Robert Cafarelli and Daniel Redmond argued that this was an entirely legal labor dispute in which no one was harmed and no one was extorted. And all four defendants, they noted, were fully employed at the time of the incident on the movie Black Mass, which then was shooting in Boston, and that the accused were not trying to get jobs for themselves but for their unemployed union brothers and sisters – many of whom were in court today to show their support.
“It’s not unlawful to be mean,” said W. Jamiel Allen, attorney for defendant Redmond. “It’s not unlawful to demonstrate. It’s now unlawful for a union to express economic pressure.”
Said Ross’ attorney Kevin Barron: “Unions have a right to organize and demand things from employers. There was no extortion, no crime, no conspiracy.”
The other defendants’ lawyers continued that line of reasoning.
“The government chose to charge these men with extortion when they were seeking legitimate labor objectives – union wages for union jobs,” argued Carmine Lepore, attorney for Cafarelli, who said the evidence will show that “the production crew was giving it to the Teamsters just as much as the Teamsters were giving it to them.”
Added Fidler’s lawyer Tim O’Connell: “There is no evidence that anyone asked for money or for no-show jobs.”