A big step for Teamster reform

December 18, 2009

Former Teamsters Local 804 member Danny Katch looks at the significance of the reformers' victory in the union's recent election.

THE TEAMSTER reform movement took a step forward earlier this month when members of the New York City-based Local 804 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters voted for Tim Sylvester and the 804 Members United slate.

The new reform team, which defeated the incumbent leadership of Howard Redmond by a more than 2-to-1 margin, won the election by pledging to increase member involvement and take a more confrontational approach with the local's main employer, UPS. "The membership was ready for change," said Ken Reiman, a member of the new executive board and leader in Teamsters for a Democratic Union. "They told us this at every gate we hit."

The reformers' victory in New York has national significance. Local 804 is one of the largest locals of UPS workers, and the change in local leadership could increase pressure on IBT President James Hoffa to stand stronger against company demands for concessions.

Local 804 also has a symbolic importance for the Teamsters and the entire labor movement. It was the home local of Ron Carey, the reformer who in the 1990s defeated the corrupt old guard to become Teamsters general president and lead a victorious national strike against UPS in 1997. "Reform is back in Local 804," said Reiman. "The legacy of Ron Carey is back. His picture will once again adorn the union hall."

Tim Sylvester (left, facing camera), the newly elected president of Teamsters Local 804, with a group of UPS drivers
Tim Sylvester (left, facing camera), the newly elected president of Teamsters Local 804, with a group of UPS drivers (804 Members United Slate)

Carey was one of the most progressive union presidents of the past 30 years, and he paid the price. After the strike, Hoffa collaborated with employers, congressional Republicans and a government board that oversees the Teamsters to have Carey removed from office for alleged corruption. Carey was eventually acquitted in federal court on such charges. But Carey's old allies in Local 804 stabbed him--and the Teamsters reform movement--in the back by aligning with Hoffa.

For those who knew Ron Carey--including this writer--the victory of 804 Members United comes with a touch of regret that Carey, who passed away last year, didn't get to see the turnaround in his old local.

The reformers' victory can be traced back two years, when Local 804 members rejected by a 3-to-1 margin the national UPS contract and the Local 804 supplement, which included major concessions on pensions. To sell the deal, local leaders argued that voting down the contact would permanently damage the pension fund. Instead, UPS restored the old pension offer, the Redmond leadership was discredited, and the reformers who organized the "no" vote won a good deal of respect.

The next spring, 804 Members United built on their momentum with a successful campaign to change the local's bylaws to require that members be given more regular information about contract negotiations and the state of the local's pension and health care funds. The bylaws campaign, which collected 2,000 members' signatures, deepened the reformers' base of support and showed workers that they could organize to change their union.

NOW THAT Sylvester's team has won, the real challenge begins. Although UPS made more than $500 million in profits in the third quarter, the company is using the recession as an excuse to squeeze workers at every opportunity.

This is nothing new for a company widely admired in the business press for pioneering a 21st century version of Taylorism--a combination of technologically advanced tracking systems and relentless managerial techniques to squeeze every possible ounce of production out of workers. At the same time, UPS has shifted its operations over the last 30 years to replace many of its full-time jobs with low-paid part-time positions.

The 1997 strike led by Carey challenged UPS's plans. Rallying around the slogan, "part-time America won't work," the strike won widespread popular support and forced the company to commit to creating 10,000 full-time positions by combining part-time shifts. Under the Hoffa administration, however, the union has allowed UPS to avoid its obligation to create thousands more of these jobs.

In Local 804, the new leadership has gotten off to a good start by cutting their salaries by $35,000 and putting that money toward member education programs. There are also plans to dramatically step up the executive board's presence in UPS facilities and start a Local 804 "university," where members will learn union history and contract enforcement.

By continuing the organizing work they did to get elected, the new team in Local 804 can help get the Teamsters back to being a fighting union.

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