Putting a dent in the Hoffa machine

November 22, 2016

A UPS worker reports on a near-victory for the Teamsters United slate running against James P. Hoffa and what it means for making the union stronger.

IN A race for leading posts in the Teamsters union that went down to the wire, the Teamsters United slate led by Local 89 President Fred Zuckerman was barely defeated by the longtime incumbent General President James P. Hoffa.

Zuckerman's local in Louisville, Kentucky, represents UPS's biggest hub, Worldport. He was one of the few local leaders to stand up and organize a successful "no" vote against the concessionary contract negotiated by the Hoffa administration in 2013.

Instead of feeling despondent about the narrow defeat, those who campaigned and supported Teamsters United can hold their heads high. Hoffa, instead of looking strong, has come out of this election weaker than when he went in.

The results of the mail-in ballot were released on November 17, with Zuckerman receiving 96,377 votes to Hoffa's 102,401 votes. Early reports of vote returns put Zuckerman barely ahead, raising the hopes of reformers. But the final results from the West Coast and Canada gave Hoffa his 6,000-vote edge.

Campaigning for Fred Zuckerman and the Teamsters United slate
Campaigning for Fred Zuckerman and the Teamsters United slate (Teamsters United)

There are 1.4 million Teamsters in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada. This was the lowest voter turnout since we started directly electing the general president and International officers of the Teamsters in the early 1990s.

In contrast to this close direct election, the 2016 Teamsters Convention this summer in Las Vegas was a carnival of reaction on the part of Hoffa delegates. They yelled obscenities and refused to listen to the reform Teamsters United slate candidates and delegates when they were speaking.

Videos of their undemocratic actions were posted on social media. If you only looked at what happened at the convention, you might think that Hoffa and his pals would easily win the election in November. Instead, Teamsters United very nearly won.

Hoffa lost in the Central States and Southern regions. He will now have to deal with six vice presidents from the Teamsters United slate that won their elections.

Some of the general president's long-term cronies were also defeated. John Coli, a longtime Hoffa supporter and Central States vice president, was beaten. He is an enemy of a more democratic and militant union, besides being under corruption charges.

Ken Hall, Hoffa's number two, is under federal charges, as is a list of Hoffa's close associates. Also, Hall negotiated the concessionary UPS contract that angered many UPS Teamsters.

HOFFA WAS elected general president in 1998 and has won re-election every five years since. The Hoffa years have seen the union's strength decline, with concessionary contracts being the norm.

Over the last few years, members have voted down their contracts, but Hoffa and his team either got them to vote again and again until they accepted the concessions or imposed the contract on the membership by using undemocratic language in the Teamsters Constitution.

The Teamsters union is in turmoil on many fronts. The Central States Pension Plan is in trouble as are other Teamsters pension plans. Mismanagement of these plans by Hoffa and his supporters greatly contributed to the hardships facing Teamsters retirees and those planning to retire in the future.

At the same time, UPS, the largest employer of Teamsters, has been making massive profits and expanding. But UPS workers have been forced to accept concessions in wages, health care, pensions and the constant disregard of the contract.

Nonunion subcontractors have been working year-round in violation of contract language that only allows them to work during peak season in November and December. Instead of hiring more full-time drivers and creating tens of thousands of new inside full-time jobs, UPS relies on older drivers working long hours of overtime and mostly young part-timers struggling for a start pay of $10 an hour in a brutalizing fast-pace environment of loading and unloading packages.

Most new hires only last a few months, and the company replaces them with a new crop of workers in an ever-revolving door workplace. In many cities, the minimum wage is higher than the part-time start pay in the UPS-Teamsters contract.

Many, if not most, locals follow Hoffa's example and do not enforce the contract in a robust manner. Local union officials don't try to involve rank-and-file members and encourage them to be active in the union. In many places, the union structure is weak. We do not have enough elected stewards to represent the membership and help train new members in their rights.

When I first started out, a steward would come up to you when you made it through your probationary period, give you a contract and explain your rights as a member of the union. New workers were motivated to take an interest in the union. Now, many younger workers have no idea what the union is and have never seen a contract.

Some understandably upset Teamsters United supporters are blaming the membership for the low voter turnout. This is looking at the situation upside down. The membership is weak because our local leadership has no desire to have them active at the workplace.

Violations of the contract happen regularly, but there's no coordinated response by business agents or stewards to organize mass grievance campaigns, much less more militant activity to stop these abuses.

We can build on the strength of the Teamsters United campaign and get the union members that some officials call "apathetic" involved in the daily fights over contract violations as well as elections.

OVER THE four-day period leading up to November 17, the vote count was updated hourly, and at my workplace, we were constantly checking our phones for the results. It was as intense as the World Series.

Hoffa squeaked out a victory in the last hours of the count. Unfortunately, since the Canadian Teamsters vote was counted last and at a time when Teamsters United was otherwise winning, some Teamsters are blaming our Canadian members for the loss.

Teamsters United decided not to run candidates in Canada, and the Canadian vote was overwhelmingly for Hoffa as it has been in recent elections. We need to change that in the future, but let's not forget the Eastern Region and the Western Region also gave Hoffa a majority.

We need to unite across borders. Our companies like UPS are international. Management has no problem with borders, and neither should we.

Even so, many rank-and-file members across the country were galvanized in the UPS Vote No movement on the last contract. The reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union played a major role in this campaign. Some of the activity was channeled into Teamsters United.

On a recent conference call, Zuckerman explained that Teamsters United isn't giving up the fight and that this is a long-term struggle. We have put a big dent in the Hoffa machine. Although we didn't win the top office, we now have representation on the national level.

Zuckerman also commented that we can win local union elections. The old guard that Hoffa represents has proven itself to be weak, corrupt and ineffectual. Even old-guard strongholds are no longer guaranteed to vote for Hoffa. The Chicago-area Teamsters Local 710, once one of the strongest Hoffa locals, went for Teamsters United this election.

This election might be over, but the fight to take back our union is ongoing. The UPS contract expires on July 31, 2018.

The Teamsters union needs to organize warehouse workers and drivers in the ever-expanding logistics industry. Hoffa has proven to be a friend of management. We need our union to be changed not only at the top, but from the bottom up. The UPS Vote No Movement and Teamsters United are moving in the direction we need to go.

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