New Teamsters Leadership Will Face Important Tests

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After decisively winning the Teamsters national leadership election last October, the OZ-Teamsters United slate took office at the Teamsters Union on Tuesday March 22. The new leadership finally evicted the conservative ‘Teamster Power’ Hoffa Jr. regime that had pushed through concessionary contracts at UPS and the bankrupting of the central states pension fund over the mass opposition of working Teamsters union members. In a final demonstration of petty bureaucratic grace, Hoffa’s administration stonewalled the new leadership’s transition team, refusing to brief them on ongoing work and denying them access to the union office until the last minute. 

Last October’s Teamsters election was held in the midst of a historic strike wave, a major feature of which was bureaucratic union leaderships coming under fire from rank and file workers for not putting up a sufficient fight. In this context, a new leadership was elected in the Teamsters for the first time in over 20 years. For only the second time in its history, an establishment-backed slate lost to a reform caucus. Sean O’Brien’s leadership team comes into power at a challenging time for the Teamsters and the U.S. Labor Movement as a whole. Important Teamsters contracts, including the key UPS contract, will be bargained in 2022 and 2023. 

The results of last year’s strike wave are mixed, with some wins, some losses, and many unions just holding their ground. Workers at Nabisco, Kellogg’s, and John Deere demonstrated their willingness to fight for better pay, benefits, and conditions but came up against the limits of the “one day longer” strike strategy. There is an exciting wave of organizing happening in the coffee industry, led by the union drive at Starbucks, at the same time millions of workers have joined the great resignation.

The Sean O’Brien/Fred Zuckerman slate succeeded in winning two-thirds of the vote promising a “…Team dedicated to rebuilding the Teamsters as a militant fighting union from bottom to top.” With rank and file members of unions across the country demanding a more militant leadership that is not tied to the failed strategy of business unionism, this election is a significant development, and it is seen by many as a victory for the labor movement. A reinvigorated, dynamic, fighting Teamsters can set the tone for struggle in 2022 and inspire a new generation of working class fighters.  

Ron Carey and the 1997 UPS Strike

In 1992, Ron Carey, a reform candidate backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), was elected President of the Teamsters. Like Sean O’Brien, the key issue for Carey was the concessionary 1990 UPS contract. Carey promised to fight corruption. Once in office he made several important internal reforms and helped to reverse decades of declining membership and unstable union finances. TDU, a reform caucus founded in the 1970s by rank and file Teamsters, many of them socialists, played a significant role in Carey’s victory.

The 1997 nationwide strike at UPS was Carey’s crowning achievement. Starting over a year before the strike, the Teamsters organized an internal mass mobilization campaign to prepare workers not only to strike but to strike effectively and shut UPS down hard. They also built an effective grassroots campaign to win wider public support for the strike, with a Gallup poll showing 55% of respondents supporting the union. The mass wave of public support brought enough political pressure on President Clinton to prevent him from invoking Taft-Hartley to end the strike. UPS executives were caught unaware, not expecting the union to be prepared to strike. 

The effectiveness of the strike cost UPS $600 million over two weeks and scored several major concessions from the bosses: starting pay would be increased for the first time in 15 years, 10,000 part time jobs would be converted into full time jobs, benefits for workers were increased, and UPS backed down on its attempts to convert the multi-employer union pension plan into a company pension plan. 

In response to the UPS strike and the anti corruption reforms, old guard union officials rallied around James Hoffa Jr, who had narrowly lost a heated 1996 election to Carey. Hoffa and the old guard turned to the federal government to help them seize control of the union. Despite decades of ignoring corruption at the highest levels of the union, the federal government, at Hoffa’s request, launched a corruption investigation into Carey who had made a critical mistake in relying on Democratic Party consultants to help his 1996 union election campaign. While correctly attempting to mobilize the broader Teamsters membership to support the strike at UPS, Carey failed to mobilize members in response to this attack from the federal government. Even though he was eventually found not guilty, Carey was undemocratically removed from office and expelled from the union for life. The corrupt old guard was back in control. 

2018 UPS Contract and the Betrayal of the Hoffa Leadership

With the Hoffa leadership back in power, the next twenty years in the Teamsters were marked by a string of concessionary contracts that dramatically drove down the living standards of workers. Hoffa was far more concerned with maintaining his power base by defending the privileges and perks of corrupt local leadership than he was about aggressively defending his members against the neoliberal, big business offensive against unions and the wider working class.

But time catches up with all of us, and anger and frustration were building in the workplace against UPS management and a union leadership that was increasingly out of touch with the membership. In 2018, over 90% of Teamsters members at UPS voted to authorize a strike, if necessary, in the negotiation of a new contract. Among the many issues that rank and file members wanted addressed were: an end to two-tier contracts, low wages, and control of bargained work by members. Despite a mandate to aggressively negotiate a strong contract, the Teamsters leadership gave further concessions to a UPS making record profits. 

The contract kept the hated two-tier system, designed to undercut the bargaining power of workers, and only raised starting pay to keep pace with non-union employers like Amazon and FedEx. The demand for a starting rate of $15 an hour was not seriously taken up, despite already being a compromise. When presented with such a terrible contract, despite a campaign of pressure and fearmongering from the leadership to approve it, 54% of members voted “No” on the contract. In spite of this, Hoffa Jr. used a constitutional mechanism, the “two-thirds rule”, to undemocratically impose the contract anyway

For many rank and file Teamsters, this betrayal was a final proof that Hoffa Jr. and the rest of the union leadership were more aligned with UPS executives than with their own members. In response, rank-and-file activists began to gear up for the June 2021 Teamsters convention and ultimately won many important victories, including an end to the two-thirds rule and a stipulation that all Bargaining Committees must include rank-and-file members and not just union leadership or staffers. These wins boosted Teamsters United’s momentum going into the October 2021 national leadership election. 

Victory of Teamsters United

In a dramatic change from the 2016 elections, the Hoffa-backed Teamster Power slate led by Steve Vairma lost by a historic 2-1 margin to the Teamsters United slate led by Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman and endorsed by TDU, a clear indictment of the Hoffa leadership. 

One of the key reasons for this result was low turnout from locals that have traditionally been strongholds for Hoffa and the Teamster Power bureaucracy. The Hoffa-backed Teamster Power slate lost nearly 20,000 votes in comparison to 2016, while the Teamsters United slate saw its total votes increase by around 12,000. Ultimately, this result shows a collapse of support for the old guard of the union bureaucracy, with many Teamsters members voting more against Hoffa than for O’Brien. 

A key source of anger was the mishandling and imminent bankruptcy of the Central States Pension Fund, which millions of Teamsters members rely on or will rely on soon. Declining membership, decades of corruption and skimming as well as gambling the pension fund on the stock market had created a disastrous situation where millions of Teamsters members were on the verge of losing their pension, previously expected to go bankrupt by 2025. In the 11th hour, as the Teamster bureaucracy looked likely to lose the election, the Democratic Party stepped in to to bailout the pension fund to the tune of billions of dollars. This temporary stay of execution was done not out of any genuine support for Teamster retirees, but as a last-ditch effort to save the Hoffa bureaucracy from defeat. Teamster members in the Central States, long a Hoffa stronghold, saw through this last-minute measure, which solved none of the structural issues imperiling the pension fund nor addressed Hoffa’s decades of mishandling the fund. 

However, a weakness of the win is shown by the fact that the overall turnout for the vote was only 14%, demonstrating skepticism among members that O’Brien can deliver. The drop in turnout and collapse of support in Hoffa strongholds shows that while the failed strategies of the business unionists have lost significant support, many rank and file Teamsters do not see a clear alternative to the previous leadership.  

In the leadup to the elections, both sides pointed to the need to organize workers at Amazon. O’Brien promised a return to a more aggressive approach that has been a strength of Teamster organizing in earlier decades, but militancy alone is not enough to take on a goliath of capitalism like Amazon. The failure of organizing drives at Amazon so far have not come from a lack of enthusiasm from organizers or a lack of desire to unionize by Amazon workers, but from labor leaders relying on a failed strategy of business unionism.

We Need a Fighting Union Leadership

The failure of the Teamsters leadership to negotiate a strong contract at UPS is also a significant barrier to organizing at Amazon. While there are many benefits that UPS workers have, such as healthcare benefits and representation on the job, their wages are often less than the starting pay at places like Amazon and FedEx, both of which are non-union.  If the Teamsters hope to effectively make the case to these workers that forming a union is worth the risks to their employment, they will have to see a concrete benefit, something that remains difficult while starting pay at UPS remains low. Bold and specific demands around wages are needed to have any hope of unionizing workplaces like Amazon as well as generally across the board for organizing drives to be successful.  

Even before taking office the new leadership faced a key test, with UPS cutting pay in response to the supposed end of the Covid 19 pandemic. Market Rate Adjustments (MRAs) had been implemented as UPS attempted to fill a labor shortage across the country and retain workers through the COVID pandemic. In many places wages were raised significantly, in some places approaching a living wage. UPS, while still making record profits, has claimed they need to reduce what they call temporary wage increases to remain profitable. In response many locals have held rallies and started petition drives to fight back against wage cuts. 

While this fightback is a positive step, there hasn’t been a strong national response from the new leadership. O’Brien has shown he is not shy about taking his opinions to the media. A fighting public statement could give confidence to local leaderships to push back against UPS in the workplace. In this early battle, while not holding the reins of power, O’Brien has failed to push strongly and publicly for the militant approach he has promised to return to, showing that there will still be a need for the rank and file to pressure him into taking a more militant approach. 

Winning a Fighting Union

Any successful labor struggle under capitalism requires an understanding of the nature of the system – that the capitalist class and the working class are in conflict. The capitalist class will concede nothing to shame or moralizing, only to a direct threat to their profits. 

To truly threaten the profits of the capitalist class requires not just the interruption of production but a broadening of struggles to include other workplaces and the local community. Socialist Alternative has said that the greatest obstacle to workers organizing now is the conservative labor leadership. While the election of Sean O’Brien is a shift from the longstanding Teamsters bureaucracy, he does not represent a fundamental change in outlook.

A key flaw in the outlook of most union leaders today is the idea that there is only so much that can be won and only so much money to go around. For decades labor leaders have negotiated concessionary contracts and sold them to the rank and file on the basis that they are the best that can be hoped for. With corporations making record profits, including the unfathomable amounts made by companies like Amazon, there is no reason for the labor movement to accept subpar contracts that fail to provide a living wage.  

If a militant labor movement is to be rebuilt, workers will need to see unions as something worth fighting for. While a small section of workers will be convinced of the need for unions by vague notions of dignity in the workplace or through simply seeing unions as a moral good, most of the working class will not be motivated to fight on this basis. Rebuilding a militant labor movement will require mass working class participation, which can only be built through bold and clear demands that motivate working class people to join the struggle by the millions. 

This militancy, and willingness to go head-to-head with the bosses, was a core reason for the successes of the American labor movement in making gains for working people prior to the 1960s, and even non-radicals saw the usefulness of this approach. John Lewis, for example, was a conservative labor bureaucrat and not a radical socialist but he is credited with founding the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) because he saw the effectiveness of the militant organizing approach of the socialists of the time and was willing to use that effectiveness to oversee a labor movement that challenged the bosses in the 1930s. Lewis was also responding to pressure from below, he knew that the union officialdom had to get out ahead of the escalating class conflict or risk losing control – and their jobs. One of the most notable examples from this period was the 1934 Teamsters’ Strike in Minneapolis which showed how a militant class battle waged by socialists could be effective in winning significant concessions from the bosses.. 

Two years into a global pandemic, workers (union and non-union alike) are showing they are fed up with low wages and poor working conditions, with the autumn of 2021 seeing workers in a number of workplaces going on strike to demand better pay and better conditions. There is a real mood to fight, and the Teamsters can play a central role in focusing that mood into new organizing and winning real gains for all workers. 

Sean O’Brien is still far from a John Lewis and is not and never has been a radical, but if he bends in ways that Hoffa and Vairma were unwilling to, if he supports instead of blocks rank and file organizing at UPS, and launches a serious campaign to organize Amazon, then he can play a positive role in rebuilding a fighting labor movement. We cannot rule out that Sean O’Brien could be pushed by events to play a role similar to Lewis in building out the broader labor movement.

Ultimately though, it will be up to the rank and file of the Teamsters to push the union in a new and effective direction and for socialist and radical labor activists to push the labor movement as a whole in a direction that not only wins significant immediate gains for the working class but challenges the rule of the capitalist class over society.

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