Millions of workers, in unions and unorganized, have followed the struggle and victory of the reform movement in the Teamsters. The election of Ron Carey as International President and the election of the reform slate to 16 to 19 executive board positions represents a turning point in the history of the Teamsters Union. The task in front of Teamsters now is to turn this powerful union into an instrument that can defend wages and conditions for its members and help transform the entire labor movement.
The election result represented the crystallization of anger of rank and file Teamsters at the erosion of living standards, benefits and working conditions. It was also a rejection of the Old Guard and their policies: the multi-salaried bureaucrats, the corruption, the trampling on the rights of workers in locals, the wholesale misspending of members’ pension funds, the sweetheart deals with the bosses, the rejection of all attempts of the rank and file to have a say in the union.
Some important steps toward rebuilding the trust of members in their union have been taken. The private jets have been sold, and Carey has cut his own pay and benefits. He has replaced a layer of Old Guard officials with new full-time officials who are paid only one salary and who do not have ties with the past methods. He has joined workers on the picket lines, at plant gates, and at their barns – something unheard of in recent years. As a result, Northwest flight attendants decided to stay with the Teamsters. Also, the demands by management for major concessions in the car-haulers contract were defeated in part through mobilizing Teamsters to picket Ryder corporation. In this contract, the first steps were taken in the struggle against double-breasting. The victory of the reform movement has also inspired clerical workers at Boeing to approach the Teamsters to organize.
Workers and opposition movements who seek to change their leadership in other unions have been inspired by the victory of the Teamsters. This year has seen the rise of the New Directions Movement opposition in the UAW. In the Carpenters’ union there was the first contested leadership election in recent memory and oppositions have developed in CWA, SEIU and several other unions. This is a process of growing realization among workers that in order to defend jobs and wages they need to transform their unions. This process will gather strength and speed in the coming period.
Rank and File Must Transform the Teamsters
The anger of workers and their opposition to concessions and the methods of the Old Guard crystallized around the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). It grew in support and strength as discontent with the old leadership developed. It was the existence of TDU that enabled Carey to be successful in his campaign for President. TDU’s 10,000 members were instrumental in combating the bureaucracy’s mobilization around the campaigns of the Old-Guard candidates and giving an organized expression to the anger of rank and file Teamsters.
The task of transforming the Teamsters has only begun. Most of the Locals, Joint Councils and Policy Committees of the regional Conferences are still under the control of the Old Guard. The bulk of the members’ dues goes not to the International, but instead to these local and regional bodies. These bodies must be reclaimed by the rank and file if they are to be effective in fighting the employers. Already there has been an upsurge in new reform campaigns at the local level. The task of rank and file Teamsters is to challenge these leaders by organizing in TDU, and elect members and programs that will defend living standards.
The new leadership of the Teamsters has immediately been confronted with the employers’ offensive. Management has pushed to cut wages and benefits, introduce two-tier contracts and cut pensions and health benefits. At the same time, it has pushed to replace the union drivers with non-union ones. In this situation, the union needs to change its strategy and tactics. The failed policies of the 1970s and 1980s must join the Old Guard on the scrap heap.
Teamsters must oppose government intervention in the affairs of the union. The government is horrified at the prospect of a democratic and militant Teamsters union giving a new direction to the labor movement. Under the consent decree signed by the Old Guard leadership and the government takeover of the union, an independent review board was to be set up with one member to be appointed by the Justice Department, one by the union and the third member to be chosen by the other two members. But, in August the government arbitrarily decided to appoint the third member: William Webster, ex-leader of the CIA and FBI giving the government a two to one majority on this body! Teamsters should note that William Webster is a member of the Board of Directors of Anheuser-Busch, a major employer with whom the union has a contract.
A federal judge has also extended and expanded the government’s right to interfere in the affairs of the union, including its right to attend any meeting and spend union dues – and the right for each investigator to charge the union $385 an hour to do so. This shows that the government plans to meddle even more in the workings of the union and throw up obstacles and delaying tactics. Despite the claims of “protecting democracy,” the smashing of the PACTO union, the ordering of railroad workers back to work and the strengthening of anti-union laws are reminders that the government – and both political parties – are completely committed to weakening unions and defending the interests of the employers.
The reform movement is under threat from the employers, the government and the Old Guard. Despite Carey’s good reputation as a fighter for the rank and file of the union, enormous pressure is being placed on him and other reformers in the union as big business seeks to stifle and crush the development of a strong, militant Teamsters union. The history of the union movement is full of examples of leaders who came into office as fighters, but who cracked under the pressure of the employers. The reason for this is that they had no program or strategy to deal with the problems their members faced. The leadership should mobilize the rank and file to strengthen the union. This can only be done on the basis of a fighting program that can galvanize the members and transform the union from top to bottom and prepare for the battles that lie ahead. This is the decisive task facing TDU and the new leadership of the International; otherwise, they also will be faced with that danger.
1990s – A Period of Crisis
The conditions facing Teamsters and other workers are the most serious in over 50 years. Capitalism is in a period of deepening crisis. This is reflected in the decay of the infrastructure, the huge level of indebtedness and the length of the 1990-92 recession. Living standards have been cut by 19% since 1973, according to the AFL-CIO News. Since George Bush came to power, the economy has grown at its slowest rate under any president since the 1930s. The decline in the US economy over the last 40 years can be seen in the figures below.
Average Annual Rate of Growth of Gross Domestic Product:
1960-73 4.0% per year
Average Annual Productivity Growth:
1960-73 2.2% per year
The decline in the rate of growth in gross national product (GNP) shows how the rate of growth of the economy has slowed since the 1960s. The decline in the annual rate of growth in productivity shows how big business has not invested in new plants and new technology to compete with its rivals. The fact that there was hardly any improvement in these figures between 1979 and 1990 shows how weak the boom of the 1980s was. The situation in the 1990s, with much slower growth than in the 1980s, will make the economic situation even worse.
At present, all the major countries of the world are facing a deepening crisis of capitalism. The economies of Japan and Germany, which have been major engines of growth in the last couple of years, are mired in crises with a slowing rate of growth and the threat of recession. The world economic upswing of the 1950s and 1960s is decisively over, leading to a period of declining production, bankruptcies, plant closures and layoffs.
Management has adapted to these new conditions by directly attacking workers’ wages and the unions. From the time attacks were made on the building trades in the 1970s, during Chryslers’ threatened bankruptcy in 1979, and the firing of the air traffic controllers with the smashing of PACTO in 1981, management has gone on the offensive. Concessions were forced through. Two-tier contracts were introduced, benefits were cut and union-busting companies were hired to help employers weaken unions and to set up non-union operations. All this was organized with the support of their two political parties, the Republicans and Democrats, and backed up by the courts and government agencies.
One of the main weapons big business used was deregulation of trucking, alongside deregulation of other industries. Deregulation of trucking, which was signed into law by President Carter, was supposed to create more competition and more efficiency. Senator Edward Kennedy, a ranking Democrat who campaigned vigorously for the bill, and who masquerades as a friend of labor, called the Motor Carrier Act “a significant victory” in the “ongoing battle to … reform and reduce needless federal government regulation of business … It means less government and interference in industry … and more freedom for individual firms to conduct their business in the way they think best. It’ll mean new opportunities, new jobs.”
It certainly allowed business to operate “in the way they think best.” It led to a proliferation of non-union unregulated companies entering the market to take work away from union companies, which joined existing non-union trucking companies like Federal Express. Also, it has created “new jobs” – non-union, low-paid jobs with no job security and working conditions that are intolerable. While these jobs were created, they in no way compensate for the 150,000 union jobs that were lost. Of the 30 largest trucking companies that existed before deregulation, only 10 now survive. Many of the remaining union companies have made deep inroads into wages and benefits by introducing two-tier contracts that divide the workforce in preparation for lowering all wages in the future.
While in the initial stages deregulation increased competition, the overall direction has been the opposite. There has been an increase in monopolization with the big companies using their advantage to demand cuts in wages and drive out competitors. Before deregulation, the three largest trucking companies accounted for one-third of the revenues of the top 25 companies. Today, the top three – Roadway Express, Consolidated Freightways and Yellow Freight, Inc. – account for one half of all the revenues of the top 25 companies. The big three have undercut other companies by offering only 70% of the full wage and discounts of up to 60% in targeted areas.
A Brookings Institute survey estimated in 1990 the total “savings” from deregulation of trucking and rail freight at $20 billion dollars a year. This is what workers in these industries had to pay in the 1980s for deregulation.
Now workers face a further threat from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Once again, workers are being told it will create hobs and “increase productivity.” However, it will open up US roads to Mexican trucking companies who pay workers in Mexico a fraction of those in the US – often $7 dollars a day. 85% of all trade between Mexico and the United States is carried by truck. NAFTA would allow Mexican truck companies to operate in the US without the need for CDLs and without safety regulations workers have forced companies to accept in the US and Canada. It shows the clear intent of big business to drive wages and conditions down to the level of those paid in Mexico. The way forward for Teamsters is not to campaign to bar Mexican workers from the US. This will only weaken the union’s position, by dividing us from our brothers and sisters in Mexico and weaken our ability to link up with workers and unions in Mexico. It must be remembered that the Teamsters are an international union, representing workers in the US and Canada. The only way to protect wages in the next period is for the Teamsters to launch an organizing drive and link up with unions in Mexico to help raise their wages up to the level of Teamsters in the US and Canada.
Unions Must Lead Struggle to Defend Wages and Conditions
This offensive of the employers was only successful because the leaders of the Teamsters and their unions failed to fight to defend their members. The United Auto Workers gave concessions and the AFL-CIO didn’t organize a national work stoppage to defend the air traffic controllers’ strike.
When employers said concessions were necessary, the union leaders accepted this at face value and repeated it to their members. But once concessions are given, management only comes back for more. Now management routinely organizes strikebreakers to replace striking workers, and the big business courts back them up. The unions have only been weakened by the leadership’s policy of accepting concessions. The labor leadership must launch a campaign to explain to workers how the rich and big business have taken 90% of all the income growth in the 1980s, and how it is time for workers to get their share. This means preparing for a serious struggle. This can only be done by mobilizing members around demands that will inspire them to move into struggle and can gain support from other workers.
In the 1990s, Teamsters will face the greatest attacks on their living standards since the 1930s. US capitalism is now in a long-term decline and forced to attack living standards. At the same time, rank and file Teamsters are now in the best situation in their history to build a strong and fighting union. The mobilization of the rank and file leading to the defeat of the old Guard has given Teamsters a chance to make a fundamental break with the methods of the past. To seize this opportunity, it is necessary to learn the lessons of the Teamsters’ tremendous history, especially in the 1930s.