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Teamster Election Roundtable

The Teamsters Election and the Rank-and-File

Will this year's Teamster election provide an opportunity to change the direction of the union after two decades of leadership under General President James P. Hoffa?

Two rival slates of candidates—Teamsters United and Teamster Power—are largely dominated by former allies of Hoffa and long serving union officers with checkered pasts vying to succeed him.

This is the first election in decades, however, without Hoffa running and while Teamsters United appears to be the best positioned to win the election, it is not entirely clear at the moment what a change in leadership will mean for rank and file Teamsters.

The Teamsters are a large union by today's standards with over 1.3 million members. Though United Parcel Service (UPS) is the largest section of workers represented by the Teamsters, the vast bulk of union members work at local employers and with local contracts.

The pandemic had the initial impact of making large numbers of workers who were previously invisible to the public "essential" to life and the functioning of the economy.

The Teamsters represent many of these essential workers in a myriad of jobs and industries across the U.S. economy.

While the issues of racism and social justice springing from last year's national uprising continue to foster a debate about the role of police in many unions and the role of unions in combating racism. The Teamsters also have a significant law enforcement section like many of the big unions representing public sector workers.

We asked several members and friends of Tempest what they and their co-workers think about the upcoming elections and what it means for them. We welcome contributions from other members of the Teamsters.

Joe Allen:Can you tell us something about yourself and your work situation right now?

Richard Hooker: I am a 22 year Teamster. I am the first ever African American secretary treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters local 623.

Tim Goulet: I’m a member of Teamsters Local 810 in NYC, an amalgamated local representing some 3,000-4,000 workers in the NYC and tri-state (NY, NJ,and CT) area, which includes workers in building maintenance and warehouse, as well as chauffeurs, truck drivers, metalworkers, and other odd occupations. It’s probable that the membership numbers took somewhat of a hit, at least temporarily during the worst period of the covid pandemic, which was very hard on NYC.

I work as a refrigeration engineer in the building maintenance department at NYU. The few hundred coworkers in our bargaining unit maintain and repair the mechanical side of over 40 buildings in lower Manhattan; this includes the plumbing, electrical, air conditioning and ventilation. The latter, in particular, was deemed “essential” by Cuomo and New York State throughout the pandemic, mostly because NYU houses labs that were put to use for vaccine research. It’s a very racially diverse unit, but all-male for the most part.

Many of us contracted the virus at work. The bureaucratic mismanagement and disregard for our health and safety led to a good deal of anger with the university and our bosses, resulting in a steady stream of grievances and sporadic job actions. However, this collective anger has remained localized and hasn’t taken on a political character, where workers think beyond workplace dynamics and our place in the IBT structure. My impression is that this mostly has to do with the fact that our occupational classification falls outside the traditional bounds of the IBT’s industrial orientation in transport. This creates natural boundaries to mobilizing members for greater participation in IBT affairs.

These problems are exacerbated by a great deal of cynicism and apathy toward our own local union leadership. Many of the symptoms of bureaucracy prevalent in our local get sort of generalized by extension to the entire union in the minds of workers. Unfortunately, I think that, on the whole, the condition of working throughout the pandemic has created a ‘hold-the-line’ mentality within the workplace, where the mere ‘struggle to exist’ is predominant. This doesn’t rule out shop struggles, which still occur occasionally around things such as safety and wages, but they’re overly sectional. The hope for better days ahead of us is the psychological trend. Not a rosy picture, I know.

Hank Kennedy: I am a 24 year old graduate of Wayne State University in Detroit, a longtime socialist, and member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. I work at a large UPS facility in the Metro-Detroit area. I have worked as a twilight loader of semi-trucks since last August and I recently started working as a part-time air driver.

David Courtenay-Quirk: I’m currently a package car driver in Atlanta, GA and an active member of Teamsters local 728. Like most drivers around the country, we have been working long hours through the pandemic. We never shut down, never stopped for even a minute. UPS management paid almost no attention to the health concerns and treated it as a money-making bonanza. We had coworkers in our hub die from COVID-19, and management didn’t even bother with a moment of silence.

Now that the summer is here, the heat is almost worse than the pandemic. Two drivers in a metro Atlanta hub died in the same week from heat stroke. Again, the management couldn’t even be bothered to pause for a moment of silence. The cherry on top of all this was when they simply bypassed the union and installed spy-cams in the package car cabs. They claim it is about safety, but the company refuses to install air bags or air conditioning or lower our dispatches so we can all work safely at a reasonable pace.

It is easy to be mad at the company for that, but it’s just as enraging that the Hoffa administration rolled over and allowed them to do it. They are the most pathetic excuse for a union leadership you could imagine. Beyond that, we are having lots of issues with the new lower-tier 22.4 drivers. They are often forced to work 6 days a week, for lower pay, and do not even have the minimal overtime protections regular package car drivers do. And of course the part-timers have it the worst, with the worst pay, and the worst conditions. Their start times change wildly throughout the week, and they are sometimes kept long after their shift supposedly ends. And the part-time managers are insanely abusive. When I worked in the hub, I was convinced that if they were allowed to use whips, they would.

JA: Has the election campaign addressed the issues that you and your co-workers are concerned about?

RH: The campaigns have answered some questions that benefit their respective campaigns but have left a lot to be desired about questions that affect the entirety of the Teamsters organization. Mainly the questions of education, social justice, community development, partnerships with other unions and other non-UPS issues have not been answered.

TG: To be honest, the union election hasn’t weighed heavily on anyone’s minds. This relates to the localist impulse I mentioned above, and part of this has to do with the disillusionment felt about our local leadership, which is sort of grafted onto the international.

But, the opinion of Hoffa Jr. is pretty low. Many of the election issues directly revolve around UPS, which is more germane to a Local 804 here in NY, but, nevertheless, the rise of Amazon and the subsequent threat it poses to UPS endangers the viability of the entire union, and this *does* worry members in my workplace. We would like to see a serious organizing drive at Amazon—but *not only* Amazon. There are millions of unorganized workers in the Teamsters traditional domain that should be organized. But we understand Amazon’s primacy, of course.

My coworkers were very happy to hear about the passage of the pension security provision of Biden’s stimulus package, although my coworkers opinion of Biden on average is much lower than our leadership’s, who now see him as labor’s savior—a dangerous illusion.

But, I would say, overall, the issues that have come up in conversations that members are happy about lately are 1) the pension bailout 2) the commitment (however limited) to organize Amazon, and 3) the resolution passed at convention allowing rank-and-file participation at contract negotiations, which, until now, has mostly been confined to officers and stewards at NYU, and even with the latter, mainly in a consultative capacity.

HK: The O’Brien-Zuckerman (OZ) Slate has spent more time on issues related to UPS that I have seen. The Teamster Power (TP) slate, from the minimal campaigning at our facility, is entirely focused on demonizing OZ as either controlled by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, management, or both. There’s no substantive discussions on current issues with UPS Teamsters such as low part time wages, introduction of multiple tiers through the 22.4 job classifications, or forced overtime. OZ for their part are campaigning very strongly against these failures in the last national contract.

DC: I have been pleased that some issues have been addressed. Sean O’Brien, the head of the “OZ” Teamsters United slate, has point blank stated that getting rid of the horrible 22.4 language is a top priority, along with strengthening excessive overtime language and safety concerns. Of course, most of this comes in the form of vague promises, and the campaign is flooded with nice-sounding platitudes about making the Teamsters strong again or whatever. Crap like that doesn’t impress me. Words are cheap.

On the other hand, Steve Vairma and the Hoffa-endorsed “Teamster Power” slate have openly stated that they stand by the 22.4 language. More worrisome is that they have made a promise to “end the influence of outside groups,” which is old-guard Teamster code for “we will attack Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and any other rank-and-file group that opposes us.” Anyone interested in genuine reform of the Teamsters needs to understand who these scumbags really are.

But there are a lot more issues. The Teamsters have allowed concession after concession for at least 40 years, with only one brief win in 1997. If we want to undo even some of that, we’ll have to do a lot more than simply elect a new slate of union bureaucrats, and be ready to go beyond what we did in the ’97 strike.

JA: Many Teamsters voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, how do you think this impacts building a union committed to fighting racism?

RH: The Teamsters organization has a systemic problem with race, just as the rest of America. The Teamsters are 65-70% black & brown. The leadership does not reflect our membership. There is no racial representation. That’s why out of over 400 union locals, only 22 of them have an African American leader. That’s only 18%. The Teamsters can’t fight racism because it has no racial representation from the leadership. How many minorities do we have on each of the top candidates’ local unions leadership team?

TG: It’s obviously very unsettling, and has revealed just how deep the racist and right-wing rot goes in the Teamsters Union. This presents a huge hurdle that exists between the reactionary, and very vocal minority in the union—who make their backward thinking known on some of the membership pages on social media—and the majority non-white composition of the union.

Member education is obviously useful and necessary, but short of collective action in the workplace, I’m not sure how such backward ideas can be effectively challenged and overcome, and the worst elements driven out altogether. Striking out in an independent political direction based on working-class politics would also go a long way in beating back reactionary thinking in our union.

HK: My inside steward is a die-hard Trump supporter and continues wearing pro-Trump apparel to this day. He is also pretty much useless as far as being a steward is concerned since he makes no efforts to file grievances or sign new members into the union. I’ve been approached several times by members of various races and sexual orientations asking if the OZ leadership would get rid of this steward. It’s clear to me that the union cannot function as either anti-racist or even as an effective union with people like this as the face of the union.

DC: Sure lots of Teamsters voted for Trump. But I’d be willing to bet that more UPS Teamsters voted for Biden, even in the South. A lot of the focus at UPS is on the drivers because we’re the most visible in the community, and the drivers are disproportionately white men. But we’re not the majority of Teamsters and not the majority of UPSers. But I’d also be willing to bet that more UPS Teamsters didn’t bother to vote, than voted for either Trump or Biden. In that respect, Teamsters are a reflection of what’s going on in America. But I’ll never forget that the first thing the Hoffa leadership did when Trump won the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote badly, was to congratulate Trump and say how excited they were to work with him on his infrastructure plans. It wasn’t surprising—Hoffa had recently openly encouraged Obama to send in troops to clear the Standing Rock protests, and his knee-jerk racism was well-known. But it still felt like a pivotal moment that helped legitimize Trump in the eyes of many Teamsters.

But unions are not monoliths, even under someone like Hoffa. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, the Teamsters put out some decent statements on racism and police accountability. These were nothing revolutionary or even radical—they lagged behind even tepid statements by the Democrats. But they helped give anti-racists an opening to discuss more systemic issues. It may seem like a small thing, but it was actually incredibly helpful that the Teamsters put out a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt with the Teamsters logo prominently displayed. I wear it routinely—especially when there’s been an incident of police brutality. It always starts some really good conversations with drivers and loaders in the mornings before we leave the hub. (Plus, it absolutely terrifies management; they tend to leave me alone on the days I wear it.) Once, someone asked what “structural racism” meant in this context. I was able to point to UPS: it’s a diverse company, but that diversity isn’t equal. The bottom rung of part-timers is disproportionately Black and Latino and women. And the higher you go, the whiter and more male you get. The racism at UPS goes beyond a racist manager here and there—it’s a part of the structure of the company itself.

And that’s how I think we’ll build a militant, anti-racist union: member to member, through rank-and-file networks. It won’t be easy, but I don’t think there are any shortcuts.

Having said that, we of course can’t stop with just anti-racism. All oppressions are linked, even if they manifest in different ways. Every slaveholder was a rapist. Trump wasn’t just a racist, he was also a proud misogynist. And every UPS manager and stockholder benefits from the fact that women are disproportionately trapped in the low-wage, part-time jobs at UPS because they are usually the ones who are expected to be home when the kids get home from school.

We won’t build a militant, fighting union until we relearn the real meaning of solidarity: an injury to one is an injury to all. This goes well beyond the petty differences between Trump and Biden, Republicans and Democrats, who both benefit from and help perpetuate the bubbling cauldron of abuse and exploitation that we call the American workplace.

1977 UPS Strike, Local 89, Louisville, KY; photo: UPSURGE rank and file magazine

JA: Are people hopeful about changing the direction of the union with the current crop of candidates?

RH: The majority of members are not hopeful that things will change. That is because of the decades of perpetuation of the “Hoffa Ideology” from a lot of the top candidates. An arsonist burning down the foundation & structure of this organization for over a decade,  is now saying “I’m the best candidate for fire chief.”

TG: From the conversations and informal meetings we’ve had about the upcoming election in my workplace, I would say my impressions are that it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, there is a pretty widespread sentiment that reform is needed all along the line in the labor movement, including the Teamsters. This gives the Teamsters United (TU) slate some immediate attractiveness. I suspect they will get the majority of votes. On the other hand, Hoffa Jr’s name recognition still gives anyone he taps as a successor a little bit of cache, particularly among the less involved Teamster. The key for TU will be turning out votes, something that really wasn’t accomplished five years ago.

I’m doing my best to help make sure ballots are returned among my coworkers. In 2016, I volunteered for TU and phone banked and sold raffles. To be honest, I’ve had a hard time squaring such an effort for a person of Sean O’Brien’s type this go-around—someone who only yesterday was doing Hoffa’s dirtiest work, intimidating reformers, interfering in elections, racism and misogyny, etc.

But, all-in-all, I think a changing of the guard is always a good thing. It opens up possible cracks in the apparatus that progressive forces can utilize. Hopefully O’Brien has really changed and seen the light, and has been dragged along in the groundswell of member indignation, particularly at UPS. Only time will tell.

HK: From my campaigning at UPS hubs throughout Metro-Detroit, I’ve seen that nobody is looking for any changes from the TP slate which has Hoffa’s endorsement. Several times I’ve been asked by UPS Teamsters who Hoffa has endorsed and when I said he had endorsed the other slate, they said in that case they’d be voting for OZ.

DC: People are fed up with Hoffa and the current contract, that’s for sure. But I’m not sure there’s widespread knowledge—outside the core group that shows up to monthly local meetings and pays attention on social media—of either slate. Neither slate has built a real grassroots, rank-and-file campaign. Instead, it appears that both opted for a strategy of getting the support and endorsements of different local leaderships, and calling it a day. Maybe that will change in the coming months, but I doubt it.

JA: What will bring about the changes you’re looking for after the election?

RH: The only thing that will bring change after the election is participation from our membership. No matter who wins, if the members are not engaged, if we don’t get them to participate, we all lose. It’s the memberships union not the leadership. We have to get our members to see that.

TG: Ultimately, I think all the problems besetting the union cannot be reversed in a major way short of a serious activation of the membership. Collective action is the strongest tool we have for resisting our bosses, overcoming backwards ideas, unifying our forces, and ultimately, going on the offensive. This is going to take a revival of the strike weapon all along the line. Reform efforts from the top of the union have had positive effects, such as with Ron Carey and the 1997 UPS Strike, but such eventualities have been few and far between, and their effects at best, transient.

The influx of masses of new members should also be seen as a primary goal. Tens of thousands of new Teamsters strategically placed in the logistics industry could be just what the Teamsters need to wake a sleeping giant from its slumber. Amazon is a great place to start. Both slates running for the top posts in the union have vowed to take Amazon organizing seriously. Let’s hope that is true.

HK: I think it will take more grassroots involvement than has currently been expressed. A lot of Teamsters on the ground are unaware that there’s an election going on until you talk to them. Member involvement has to change if we’re going to build the union into a fighting force that can take on these multinational corporations.

DC: As I mentioned, I really think the only way forward for the Teamsters, and the labor movement generally, is for the rank-and-file to organize itself, without waiting for salvation from above. If the Teamsters United slate wins, then I think we’re in for some interesting times, because there are some serious reformers with great track records on that slate, even if it’s headed by someone who was a long-time Hoffa ally, and they’ve raised expectations for what is possible. But that won’t be a magic bullet. The pressures—from UPS, the corporate press, the political establishment, and the threat of legal injunctions—will be immense. Standing up to that will take an organized rank-and-file that can exert its own power and pressure, and won’t accept any more concessions. On the other hand, if the Teamster Power slate wins, it’ll just be more of the same slow ride to hell. In that case, it will also take an organized rank-and-file that can exert its own power and pressure, and won’t accept any more concessions.

In both cases, our job is the same. Reformers should be for reform, and militants should be for militancy, no matter who heads up the union.

Featured image credit: Progressive Magazine. Modified by Tempest.

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Joe Allen View All

Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.