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Teamsters On Trial In 'Top Chef' Extortion Case

BOSTON (CBS) -- Tuesday marked the first day of the federal extortion trial of four Teamsters accused of intimidating the staff and crew of the show 'Top Chef' while it filmed in Boston.

The reality show's 12th season premiered in October of 2014--but prior to that, the Teamsters learned that the show was filming locally without using any union members from Local 25.

The headquarters of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston. (WBZ-TV)

Four of the Teamsters are accused of using physical violence and threats, as well as racial and homophobic slurs toward Top Chef crew members and even host Padma Lakshmi, allegedly trying to intimidate them into hiring union labor.

Prosecutors told the jury that the Teamsters arrived at Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton while the show was filming there and that several of them tried to force their way into the entrance.

The Teamsters have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to extort, as well as to aiding and abetting.

Counsel for all four defendants focused on what they called "real jobs"--with one defense attorney telling the court it's not unlawful for a union to express lawful economic pressure.

The defense calls it a picket, a demonstration--where the Top Chef production crew "was giving it to the Teamsters just as much as they were giving it to them." The defense also said that police gave the pickets their parameters and that the four men didn't go beyond the limits.

According to one of the Teamsters' attorneys, the men wanted to be hired, he told the jury, and they wanted to be hired on their terms.

Jurors will now have to answer whether their behavior was extortion or business as usual.

A fifth Teamster pleaded guilty last year and has been sentenced to two years of probation and six months of house arrest.

Mark Harrington
Former Teamsters official Mark Harrington (WBZ-TV)

That man, Mark Harrington, told a judge he was simply trying to secure jobs for union members.

Testimony is expected to be heard from some of the celebrities who took part in the series, as well as Lakshmi.

The four men were working on the film Black Mass at the time. They say they were not looking for work for themselves, but were at the time advocating for their union brothers and sisters.

An attorney for one of the defendants said he is looking forward to contesting the allegations during the trial.

WBZ NewsRadio 1030's Kim Tunnicliffe reports

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