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Building Teamster Power?

Joint Council 25 in Chicago is stuck in the past

The Teamsters say they are going in a new progressive direction in the U.S. labor movement, yet, Joe Allen explains, there is little evidence of that in the role they are playing in Chicago’s current municipal elections.

With a few weeks to go in Chicago’s municipal election, union endorsements of candidates for Mayor and the City Council continue to roll in. It is expected, however, that there will be many run-off elections in April because candidates will not achieve the fifty percent necessary for an outright victory on February 28.

The Teamsters play a major role in Chicago’s elections. While the new Teamster leadership in Washington, D.C says they are taking the union in a new progressive direction in the U.S. labor movement, there is little evidence of that in the role they are playing in Chicago’s current municipal elections.

Terry Hancock, the President of the Teamsters Joint Council 25 (JC 25) sits on the executive board of the CFL. The largest Teamster locals in JC 25—Teamsters 705 and 710—are not represented on the JC board. It is dominated by smaller local unions. Terry Hancock’s checkered past didn’t stop him from fancying himself a successor to James P. Hoffa, Jr. The Joint Council leadership is mostly made up of opponents of the eventual winners of the 2021 Teamsters election,Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman. One such opponent is Debra Simmons-Peterson, the president of the long declining Local 743. She ran on the same slate with the hapless Steve Vairma, Hoffa’s chosen successor.

Now, I’ll be the first to say Chicago is a strange perch from which to examine Teamster politics. It has always been a bastion of the conservative old guard, if not, outright mobbed-up Teamster leaders. JC 25, the governing body for the 100,000-plus Teamsters in the greater Chicago area, is highly unrepresentative and politically backward. Up until a few years ago, JC 25 was led by John Coli, who went to prison for extortion. Coli’s father was a major Chicago Outfit figure. Even today James Glimco sits on the seven-member JC25 governing board. His grandfather was Joey Glimco, a frightening figure in Chicago Mob history, although there is no evidence of mob ties with the younger Glimco.

Alt Text: A list of all Teamsters Joint Council 25 political endorsements for 2023.
Teamsters Joint Council 25 endorsements poster. 

Teamsters JC 25 largely endorses incumbents for reelection, never seeking to rock the boat. But many of them are the worst aldermen on the city council. Here are a few examples:

Matt O’Shea, Nick Sposato, and James Gardiner represent some of the worst backlash politics in Chicago. Large concentrations of cops, firefighters, and other mostly white city workers reside in their wards on the far Northwest and Southwest sides of the city. O’Shea gained media attention a few years ago, when it was revealed that disgraced alderman Danny Solis was wearing a wire for the Feds. O’Shea declared, “Where I come from, if you wore a wire, someone’s gonna kick your ass.” Sposato described himself as a “rightie” and openly supports Trump while being a fanatical red-baiter. Gardiner’s racism and misogyny are well known, and he has targeted critics in his ward for harassment.

In one of the few cases where the Teamsters JC 25 is supporting a rival to an incumbent, it reveals what their priorities are. In Chicago’s 25th Ward, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Byron Sigcho Lopez faces challenger Aida Flores, who, as I have written recently, “is fronting for real estate interests, anti-teacher union foundations, and waste management companies.” The Teamsters JC 25 endorsed Flores. I can’t help but think that this is revenge for Byron, who voted no on the boondoggle Casino project. He was the only candidate endorsed by DSA to vote against it.

In the newly-created 34th Ward in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, the Teamsters JC 25 endorsed Bill Conway for Alderman. Conway ran an unsuccessful campaign against State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has garnered the wrath of the old criminal justice establishment by her ongoing release of the falsely convicted and support for criminal justice reform. Conway’s campaign against Foxx, according to Block Club Chicago, was “bankrolled, in part, with $10.5 million in contributions from his father William Conway, a billionaire co-founder of The Carlyle Group.”

If we are looking for a change in the political direction of the union, Teamsters 705 is the place you would think you’d find it. Teamsters 705 is led by Juan Campos. He ran on the O’Brien-Zuckerman Teamsters United Slate and is an International Vice-President and Director of the Tanker Division. I knew Juan in my days in 705, and he was never by any means a Hoffa guy. Throughout his years as Secretary-Treasurer, he was always viewed suspiciously by the old guard Teamsters. He also has a friendly relationship with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). However, Teamsters Local 705 endorsed Jesus “Chuy” García for Mayor.

A yellow poster with text in blue reading “Teamsters Local 705 Endorses Chuy García for Mayor” around a photograph of a smiling Chuy García.
Teamsters poster endorsing Chuy García for Mayor. Image by David Bernt via Twitter.

García, popularly referred to as “Chuy,” has always been a favorite of the old liberal-left crowd with his political roots going back to the first Harold Washington campaign. Mayor Richard Daley, Jr. targeted him for defeat in 1998. He made a comeback a decade later. In 2015, he forced then-sitting Mayor Rahm Emmanuel into an unprecedented run-off that year. He eventually lost but garnered a lot of support from the more progressive unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) despite promising to hire more cops, which contradicted the many bold political positions taken by the union on race and policing.

In 2018, García made a huge political blunder when he declined to run for mayor and instead took a seat in congress formerly held by Luis Gutierrez. After Gutierrez announced that he was retiring, he engineered a dirty deal to keep García out of the mayor’s race to protect Rahm. Rahm soon afterward announced that he wasn’t running and García’s best chance for becoming mayor slipped away. He still could pull it off this year, but right now, he doesn’t seem to have sparked what he did in 2015.

For the last four years, García has largely stewed in his juices as a low seniority, 66- year old congressperson. He faced the prospect of being politically irrelevant once the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. In the most important vote he ever cast in congress, García voted to stop a potential national rail strike last fall along with the Democratic Party majority. It was a huge defeat for the rail union, including two that are affiliated with the Teamsters: Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWE) and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET).

Teamsters 705’s endorsement of García demonstrated, once again ,that Democratic leaders that attack unions pay no political price at election time. Unfortunately, three rail unions, including the BMWE, have also endorsed Chuy García for mayor, which is even more frustrating. Yet, this is the end result of a long line of capitulations to the Biden administration. The Teamsters welcomed presidential intervention in rail negotiations and endorsed the tentative and unpopular contract agreement.

Poster reading, in white text on blue, “Samie Martinez, Community, Leadership, Service for 33rd Ward Alderman, Endorsement Alert.” Text is flanked by red stars. A photo of Samie Martinez on a railroad track is next to a Teamsters Local 705 badge.
Image courtesy of Joe Allen.

Meanwhile, Samie Martinez claims the endorsement of Teamsters 705 in his race against DSA member Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez in the 33rd Ward race. (The endorsement is not listed on the Teamster 705 website.) Rodriguez-Sanchez won a close race against the sitting Alderman Debbie Mell in 2019, the latest in the line of Mells who were barons of the old Chicago Democratic machine. Martinez has many unsavory political connections. He also boasts the endorsement of the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA), which has opposed any progressive legislation for restaurant workers. Teamsters 705 finds itself in strange and disappointing company with this one.

The Teamsters are really stuck in the past by rewarding candidates, like Chuy Garcia, who’ve undermined their members while serving in Congress and some of the worst people sitting on the city council. It’s time for change in the political strategy of the union but that won’t come from the current leadership Joint Council 25, there needs to be sweeping change that can only come from the rank and file.

Featured Image credit: Nevena Pilipović-Wengler.

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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.