A battle over the future of the Teamsters

November 14, 2016

Results in the election for top officers of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters will start coming in this week. Tim Goulet, a shop steward in Teamsters Local 810 in New York City, describes the challenge mounted by the reform slate Teamsters United.

I RING the doorbell and am buzzed through into an old, unassuming building in Brooklyn. Labor activists are on the phone or engaged in one-on-one chatter. The mood is serious but jovial, with an underlying anxiousness that permeates the room.

The building, home to various union reform caucuses and labor activist organizations in New York City, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Labor Notes and the Association for Union Democracy (ADU), is also the nerve center of Teamsters United, a reform slate running against James P. Hoffa Jr. and the old guard in the election for officers in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT).

The Teamsters United raffles went quickly in my workplace, where there is a healthy distrust of Hoffa and his bureaucracy. Today, I'm at the election headquarters to phone bank and speak to as many rank-and-filers as time will allow.

The first thing I learn is that there is not a whole lot of enthusiasm for Hoffa and his administration. Lots of major issues are facing the union, and there are no easy answers for fixing them.

Rank-and-file Teamsters stand with reform presidential candidate Fred Zuckerman (center)
Rank-and-file Teamsters stand with reform presidential candidate Fred Zuckerman (center) (Teamsters United)

Hoffa has been at the head of the union for 17 years, during which time there has been a hemorrhaging of membership in the union's traditional industrial base of transportation and logistics, a systematic pattern of concessionary bargaining and corruption, and a pension crisis that puts the retirement of hundreds of thousands of Teamsters at risk.

The Teamsters members don't feel that they can afford more concessions and cuts, and this has translated into a lot of anger and cynicism. If past gains can't be protected, then why do their leaders deserve to be in office?

The question is how to motivate this discontent into action. That has been one of the main tasks facing Teamsters United in this election.

Disturbingly enough, many members didn't even know an election was happening. This is partly the byproduct of a passive rank and file, but also a reflection of Hoffa's strategy, which is to keep members misinformed and in the dark. The two are related.

Low voter turnout in the union election will work in Hoffa's favor. In 2011, he was elected with the support of only 10 percent of Teamsters members--some 80 percent of the rank and file didn't even cast a vote. In order for Teamsters United to win, this passivity has to be transformed.

At a minimum, this will involve lots of conversations with fellow workers--and lots and lots of phone calls like today in Brooklyn.

Some people had to be talked through the actual ballot process. Some had already voted for Hoffa, likely out of name recognition, but were quickly convinced to change their vote, even if that meant mailing in a second ballot--which is permissible under the guidelines, since the last ballot received is counted.

Very few people were open Hoffa supporters. When they were, the conversations were characteristically abrupt.

THE TEAMSTERS United slate includes a handful of respected union leaders. Fred Zuckerman, running for general president, is the leader of Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, which represents 8,000 workers at UPS's air hub, otherwise known as "Worldport."

Zuckerman gained renown in the Teamsters when he helped mobilize labor in his home state to defeat right-to-work legislation two years ago. He has also earned the respect of many rank-and-filers at UPS by opposing concessions in the national contract negotiated in 2013, and by temporarily staving off cuts to the 400,000-member Central States Pension Fund.

Also at Teamster United headquarters when I was there were Tim Sylvester and Sandy Pope, both running on the slate as well.

Sylvester is former president of New York's Local 804--home to reformer Ron Carey, who was elected general president in the first membership election in the Teamsters, and who led led the victorious 1997 strike at UPS. Local 804 also gained national prominence two years ago when 250 package car drivers walked out in a wildcat in Queens to protest an unfair firing. When all those who walked out were fired as well, Local 804 ran a campaign that got the discharges reversed.

Sandy Pope, a fellow member of mine in Local 810 in Long Island City, is a longtime member of TDU and the first woman to run for general president of the IBT in 2011.

Among the problems with the Hoffa leadership, corruption is at the top of the list. There are numerous cases of criminal activity and malfeasance to point to.

The election supervisor has just ruled that officials in Minnesota's Local 120 were instructing stewards and business agents to use union resources to campaign for Hoffa and his running mate Ken Hall.

Hall, the Teamsters General Secretary-Treasurer, is currently among a slew of officials under investigation for corruption, including an obstruction charge for allegedly withholding thousands of subpoenaed e-mails relating to the Minnesota case.

Sound familiar? Like most of the labor movement, Hoffa and Co. were supporters of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, who they spent tens of thousands campaigning for. If the union has anything positive to show for it, it is well hidden from the membership.

Another big shot and Hoffa crony currently under investigation for corruption is Rome Aloise, an IBT vice president. Charges include racketeering, election interference, negotiating sham contracts and accepting gifts from employers. In a remarkable case of irony, Hoffa is labeling the efforts of union investigator Joseph E. diGenova "baseless" and "politically motivated." Yet Hoffa appointed him to his post!

Another major issue on the minds of many rank-and-file Teamsters is the current pension fund crisis. Nearly 400,00 members are faced with crippling cuts in benefits.

Deregulation of the trucking industry and the massive growth of nonunion workers in this sector, along with the 2008 financial meltdown, are all underlying factors to the crisis. But it is also true that Hoffa's actions added fuel to the fire.

In 2007, Hoffa let UPS pull out of the Central States Pension Fund. The 45,000 full-timers at UPS contributed hundreds of millions to the fund. UPS was legally required to pay $6 billion in return for pulling out, but in 2008, the fund--with Goldman Sachs in charge of managing it--lost 35 percent of the money.

A possible deal to "save" the pensions could cut retirement benefits by up to 50 to 70 percent. Hoffa blames the pension problem solely on the 2008 economic crisis, in order to convey the idea that fixing it is beyond anyone's control.

ONE THING all activists in the Teamsters can agree on is that Hoffa has to go. A Teamsters United victory would be a welcome step forward for the union and the broader labor movement. But a new leadership will be faced with some enormous challenges out of the gate.

With 250,000 members, UPS is the biggest Teamsters employer. Next year, the contract will be up for negotiation again. Will the Teamsters be able to stem the tide of concessions to this corporate giant, which shows astronomical profits from quarter to quarter?

With the rise of Amazon as a logistics giant in its own right, we are witnessing the growth of a larger and larger pool of nonunion workers in the industry. Any leadership that is serious about leveraging the power of labor will have to turn off the financial spigot to the Democratic Party and divert the money into a serious organizing drive of new workers in industry. The failure to make such an effort would have serious consequences.

The IBT was as the peak of its power when it organized 400,000 truckers under the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA) in the era of pattern bargaining across industry. This not only gave the Teamsters the power to set the terms of wages, benefits and working conditions, but the ability to shut down significant centers of industry in the U.S with one work stoppage.

None of the problems facing the IBT can be accomplished without a mobilized rank and file, and the current election is the greatest testimony to that. If Teamsters United isn't able to activate enough votes to win, how can we stand up to corporate power or organize new workers?

These are the tasks that Teamsters United faces if it wins. And if it loses, the need for a rank-and-file insurgency is no less crucial.

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