Part 3

Attacks on Teamsters

For Teamsters, the period of the last 15 years has been a continuous assault on wages, job security, benefits and conditions: wage freezes; wage cuts; the introduction of two-tier contracts, probationary periods and productivity deals; wholesale introduction of double-breasting and all that goes with it; the erosion of the 8-hour day; and the demand for co-payments for health benefits are just some of the cuts they have faced.

The offensive of the employers was only successful because the past corrupt Teamsters’ leadership followed a policy of cooperating with management rather than fighting for the interests of the rank and file. Practically all the gains of the past were given up by the Old Guard leadership with hardly a struggle. At the same time, rather than organize new members, the Teamster leadership orchestrated raids on other unions, and signed contracts that hurt other workers. The pension funds of the union were plundered as bribes and corruption became the method of the union to gain favors.

The number of workers covered by the National Master Freight Agreement declined from 500,000 in the 1970s to about 200,000- today. The membership of the union fell from 2.2 million in 1978 to approximately 1.5 million at the present time. This reflected the total inability of the Old Guard leadership to deal with the conditions of the 1980s and ’90s. At the same time, their corruption has allowed the big-business press to smear hard-working Teamsters with images of the mob and gangsters and invited government interference in the affairs of the union.

Opposition Grows

In this situation, opposition to the policies of the leadership developed. Rank-and-file Teamsters led a wildcat strike against Fitzsimmons’ attempts to negotiate concessions in the 1970 National Master Freight Agreement. As a result of this strike, a significant wage gain was won. It was out of this strike that the union’s first short-lived national rank-and-file movement began.

In 1976, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) was formed. This gave rank-and-file Teamsters an organization to coordinate their struggles against concessionary contracts and to make their union more accountable to its members. TDU had been created at this time because of its members. TDU had been created at this time because of the fear of members that the national leadership would sell them out in the 1976 Master Freight Agreement negotiations. The pressure of TDU was instrumental in forcing Fitzsimmons to call the first national Teamster strike in 1976. This led to most concessions being defeated. TDU was strengthened by merging with the other major national Teamster reform group, PROD, in 1979.

A major victory was won in 1983 when Presser’s attempt to put a concessionary rider on the National Master Freight Contract was defeated. The rider would have created a two-tier system, threatening a wage cut between 18% and 35%. The consequences would have been devastating. An eruption of anger from the rank and file alongside an all-out campaign by TDU led to its rejection by 94,086 votes t o13,082. It was a stunning defeat for the Teamsters Leadership and gave the reform movement a sense of its power. Members saw that the leadership was losing its grip on the union and prepared the way for the growth of the opposition movement in the union.

In August 1987, 53% of members rejected the UPS contract, and in May 1988, 64% of freight workers rejected their contract. Despite this, the union declared these contracts passed due to the two-thirds rule. As a result of the anger of workers at this ruling and a court action started by Ron Carey, the leadership was forced to change the rules to allow a 50% vote for the ratification of all future contracts. However, Teamsters should be warned that if less than 50% of workers fail to vote during a ratification vote, then the two-thirds rule still applies. This is one of the many changes that must be made at the next Teamsters’ Convention. In a further defeat for the leadership, in July 1988, 72% of car haulers rejected their contract.

At the same time, members went on to the picket lines to defend their living standards. One of the most important strikes was the heroic struggle by cannery workers in Watsonville, California, where management attempted to reduce their low wages from $6.66 to $4.25 an hour. This militant strike was organized mainly by Latina women. After being out on strike for one and a half years, these workers managed to keep their jobs and gain a raise in wages. This strike drew support from workers across the country. With the threat of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the horizon, Teamsters should note that many of these Watsonville workers now face the loss of their jobs as their employers have plans to move production to Mexico.

The government sought to take advantage of the weakened situation in the Teamsters union by filing a lawsuit to take control of the running of the union. However, the rank and file opposed the government takeover of the union and, instead, raised the demand for the right to clean out their corrupt leaders themselves. The TDU built pressure for direct elections of the International President and Executive Board leadership of the union as a way for workers to solve their own problems. The incumbent Executive Board, fearful that they would go to jail, signed a consent decree with the government. Under this agreement, the government dropped its lawsuit against the union and accepted direct election of national leadership by the rank and file. At the same time, the government was given the power to oversee the operations of the future and showing the results of legal entanglements with the government in the labor movement.

The anger of members at the Old Guard and their failed policies led to the sweeping victory of the Ron Carey/TDU slate in the election of 1992. It is a sign of the mistaken view of big business that their attempts to throttle the most powerful union in the US and to smear all unions, has resulted in the election of a reform slate to the leadership of the union. It shows how big business has nothing but contempt for working people and their abilities to organize and struggle to change their conditions. The Teamsters Union now has the potential to organize a movement to give a new direction to labor nationally. The continued intervention of the government in the union has been left as a further legacy of the misrule of the Old Guard.

Now that the Old Guard has been swept aside by the rank and file at the top, but only at the top, it is necessary to prepare the entire union to confront the coming crisis of the 1990s. To do this, it is essential that the leadership of the union develops a fighting program and campaign for this program among the members and against the employers.

The Need for a Fighting Program

Rejection of concessions must be the starting point. But workers cannot be effectively mobilized into struggle just on demands against concessions. As in Minneapolis, workers will respond enthusiastically to a series of demands that will boldly confront the major problems they face. These demands should address the needs of all Teamsters as well as the concerns of other workers – organized or unorganized – so they can be rallied around the labor movement:

  • A minimum wage of at least $10 an hour. For a 20% increase in pay on all contracts and full, uncapped COLA. This would raise the wages of the lowest-paid members to a level that would provide a basic standard of living and would compensate workers for the loss of earnings over the last period. This would get an enthusiastic response from members and be a beacon to workers across the country.
  • A 32-hour workweek with no loss of pay. This would undoubtedly help to guarantee full employment for all Teamster members without a cut in wages. Also, it would be a clear signal to unemployed workers that the union is fighting for jobs for all workers.
  • The right to strike for violation of the contract to be included in all contracts. This is the only way the union can effectively pressure management to accept and abide by all the provisions of the contract, and it puts the day-to-day enforcement of contracts in the hands of the rank and file. This will also avoid costly legal fees and third party interventions.
  • No employer to have the right to order his employees to go through a picket line of a striking union to be included in all contracts as has been provided for in the NMFA. This was one of the key demands in Minneapolis contracts and was extended through the over-the-road drive, and is essential to building up the power of the Teamsters and building solidarity with other unions and workers. Drivers should have the right to turn trucks around at a picket line. Management or scabs should not be allowed to unload trucks or drive them through picket lines.
  • Restore the practice of pattern bargaining on a national and regional level. All employers who employ workers in similar line of employment to have to conform to area agreements. This will prevent employers from chiseling away at our wages and benefits by signing separate deals and by getting workers to compete against each other.
  • All employees must be paid for all time spent in the service of the employer. No stand-by or dead-time practices should be allowed. This demand was accepted by employers as early as the September 1938 Over-the-Road Motor Freight Agreement.
  • Free nationalized health care. Only this can guarantee that members are not gouged by the for-profit health industry. Neither Teamsters nor other workers have any security under the present system, because workers who lose their jobs or have to take work in other industries have no fallback.
  • Free on-site childcare. The Teamsters are organizing more and more woman workers. For working families, childcare, along with a year’s paid family leave is a key demand. They cannot work and look after the children, and they cannot afford not to work. The present cost of childcare is prohibitive for most families.
  • Fight all attempts by the employers to divide workers. This means taking a clear stand against racism or sexual discrimination.
  • All union officials should be on the same wage scale as the average wage of the members they represent. This will ensure that the leaders understand the members’ concerns and will fight for their interests.
  • Organize the Unorganized! There are millions of truck drivers, warehouse workers and other workers looking to get the protection of the Teamsters. Carey has taken some important steps forward. This can lead to an explosive growth of the Teamsters in the next period. In order to accomplish this, a general mobilization of the rank and file is necessary.
  • Repeal all anti-union legislation, including the Taft-Hartley Act. These laws were created by big business to cripple the unions. Both the Democrats and Republicans are responsible for this legislation.
  • Companies who declare themselves unable to pay decent wages or who claim bankruptcy should open their books and show their profits. All the books of account of the company should be opened for inspection by the union. This principle was established as early as 1939 in the over-the-road organizing drive. Those companies who refuse to pay, or threaten to move or shut down should be taken into public ownership under workers’ democratic control and management to save jobs.
  • All-out opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. According to the AFL-CIO, over 500,000 union jobs will be lost if this agreement becomes law.
  • A massive program of public works to rebuild the infrastructure and provide housing, health and environmental cleanup. Private industry is offering no prospect for full employment in the coming period.
  • Drive the government out of the Teamsters! No cooperation with the Review Board established by the consent decree signed by the Old Guard and the government. This body is now stacked 2-1 by government appointees! The union should refuse to cooperate in any way with the Review Board. The government’s aim is to weaken the Teamsters and all other unions, to smear organized labor, to discourage workers from joining unions, and to set a precedent for agents of the government to take over other unions. Rank-and-file Teamsters do not need any lessons from government on how to eliminate corruption or on how to ruin their union!
  • Break from supporting candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties. Instead, the Teamsters should campaign for the AFL-CIO to call a Conference of Labor to build a Labor Party.

Such a program would get enormous support from Teamsters and other workers to fight for improvements in conditions. It would mean exposing the overall attack on workers and how this is rooted in the deepening economic crisis of capitalism.

Challenge for International Leadership

An important challenge now faces the new Teamsters leadership. The replacement of the Old Guard at the top of the union is an important step forward. However, many good fighters have come forward in the past, but have been derailed because they accepted the limits that capitalism puts on the demands of workers. These leaders have not failed because of personal weaknesses, but because they have accepted capitalism and restricted the demands of workers.

The days of economic upswing of the 1950s and 1960s, when lasting reforms could be granted by the system, have ended. Now we face the 1990s and a deepening crisis of capitalism in the US and on a world scale. In this period, big business wants to take back the gains workers have won in the past. This creates a dilemma for the leaders of the labor movement. Either they accept the limits of the system, or they need to challenge the domination of society by the 500 corporations who control 70-75% of production and constitute the ruling class. This means clarifying the role of the press the courts, the police and the two big major political parties as having been established to defend the interests of this unelected minority who are the real “owners” of America. Unless Ron Carey and the new leadership clarify these issues, and draw the necessary conclusions, they will be forced to restrict the demands of Teamsters. This will mean accepting concessionary contracts and the derailing of the reform movement.

It was the clear understanding of the nature of capitalism that enabled the socialist leadership of the Teamsters in Minneapolis to prepare workers for the necessary battles, to marshal the necessary forces, and to defeat the forces that big business threw across their path.

Farrell Dobbs explained their position in this way:

“Local 574’s leadership flatly repudiated the bankrupt line of the class collaborationists. There can be no such thing as an equitable class peace, the membership were taught. The law of the jungle prevails under capitalism. If the workers don’t fight as a class to defend their interests, the bosses will gouge them. Reflecting these concepts, the preamble to the new by-laws adopted by the local stated:
‘The working class whose life depends on the sale of labor and the employing class who live upon the labor of others, confront each other on the industrial field contending for the wealth created by those who toil. The drive of profit dominates the bosses’ life. Low wages, long hours, the speed-up are weapons in the hands of the employer under the wage system. Striving always for a greater share of the wealth created by his labor, the worker must depend upon his organized strength. A militant policy backed up by united action must be opposed to the program of the boss.

‘It is the natural right of all labor to own and enjoy the wealth created by it. Organized by industry and prepared for a grueling daily struggle is the only way in which lasting gains can be won by workers as a class.'”

The Teamster Leadership’s strategy must include the demand that all jobs be protected and that businesses who claim they cannot pay will have their books inspected by the union and their members. The union must be prepared to say that the owners of trucking companies and other industries have shown themselves incapable of running their industries in the interests of society and workers. It must point to the long hours, low wages and wrecked family lives of those workers who do have jobs as unacceptable.

The Teamster leadership must be prepared to call for public ownership of the trucking industry, and other key industries, under workers’ democratic control and management. It is only by taking the top 500 corporations into public ownership and a socialist plan of production being implemented that jobs, wages and working conditions can be defended in the coming period.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union

Since its inception, TDU, along with individuals like Ron Carey, has played the leading role in fighting for democratic reforms and fighting against the Old Guard. At the same time, it has led campaigns to oppose concessionary contracts and other decisions that adversely affect the members. TDU must intensify this struggle, and especially target locals with Old Guard leadership for reform. Also, new challenges have been placed in front of TDU. For example, TDU must give support to Carey in fighting the Webster appointment, as part of the struggle to end the government’s intervention in the union. In the stormy period of the 1990s that is opening up, TDU should develop a fighting program similar to that explained above to give leadership to the rank and file in order to defend the living standards and interests of all Teamsters.

In the past years, TDU has provided leadership on a number of issues including one person-one vote in the union, and ousting corrupt officials. Teamsters should recognize the role TDE has played in this. Now, however, rank-and-file Teamsters and TDU face much bigger problems. As workers get activated around the need for reform, they will be looking for answers on all the issues they face. TDU will have to provide answers to these problems to keep these members involved. This can only be done through a fighting program. The leadership of TDU should now develop such a program to solve these problems, and then campaign among the ranks to commit the leadership of the unions to such a program.

Most of the problems Teamsters face today, such as government interference in the union, can only be solved by breaking from supporting the Democrats and the Republicans and beginning to launch a Labor Party. Farrell Dobbs, leader of the Minneapolis Teamsters and the original over-the-road drive, explained this issue in relation to government attacks against Hoffa in the 1960s:

“He [Hoffa] has been unable to rise above peanut politics with the Democrats and Republicans office holders. The limitation has been very costly to Teamsters. Restrictive laws passed by the capitalist politicians have weakened the Teamsters’ inherent power to defend their class interests. A nine-year vendetta has been waged against them by the capitalist government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. To politically class-conscious workers the answer to these attacks is self-evident. The Teamsters should take the lead in breaking with capitalist politics and launching an independent Labor Party. Their perspective should be to build a class political movement oriented towards the workers taking governmental power away from the capitalists.”

The leadership of TDU needs to include the demand for a Labor Party in its goals and principles. Through utilizing a page from the Convoy Dispatch, Teamsters could learn how support is growing for a labor party and how they can become involved in building such a party. Teamsters in the US could then follow the steps taken by Canadian sisters and brothers, whose unions have built a labor party, the New Democratic Party (NDP).

Up until now, the main efforts of TDU have been directed to making changes at the top leadership level of the union. The election of Carey/TDU now means the struggle must be intensified on the local level. Those locals with Old Guard leadership must be targeted for reform. The Old Guard are still entrenched at the Joint Councils and Conference level of the Teamsters. These bodies also must be captured by the reform movement.

On the local level, the leadership of TDU must establish new traditions for the role of union officials and business agents. As reformers take over union goals, business agents must either transform their way of working or else be replaced by those who will. Just as management defends its own interests, the BAs must defend the interests of the workers against management. Shop stewards need to be elected regularly by the membership and linked into a strong shop steward system. TDU must also campaign for the principle that when workers are slapped down with grievances, the company and the union should treat them as innocent until, or if, the company can prove them guilty. Only in this way can trust and support be built up among members so they will come forward to reclaim their union.

TDU must fight to include demands in local contracts built around the already-mentioned nine-point “Model Contract” of the Minneapolis Teamsters, and which was the basis for the original over-the-road contract. The principles behind these demands show a way to rebuild the Teamsters. Most particularly, the principle of the right to strike over grievances during a contract must be restored, and included in all the contracts. This is the only way to stop the employers piling up grievances and bogging down the union in arbitration, and weakening the ability of the union to defend the contract. Ron Carey attempted, but failed, to include this demand in the recent car haulers contract, but it must be included in all future contracts. This program will put power back into the hands of the rank and file, and make the Teamsters a fighting union.

In the next period, many honest fighting Teamsters will come forward as reform candidates. However, without understanding the seriousness of the situation they face, they will not be able to mobilize the rank and file, who alone can give the power to defeat concessions. In this situation, workers can suffer defeats and the reform movement can be derailed. It must be remembered that many of the Old Guard who have taken the union away from the members started, themselves, as workers who wanted to build the union. Without a correct understanding of the problems and how they could be overcome, they were forced to accept concessionary contracts. Also, because they sought to isolate the union from the struggles of workers and youth outside the workplace, they found themselves supporting the wider demands of big business, which are attacks on workers. Very soon they were defending concessionary contracts against the rank and file who opposed them. This led them to use the union structures against workers and to try to hide the real state of affairs from the members.

More and more Teamsters will be moving forward into struggle against the attacks of the employers. They will be looking for a fighting leadership to organize their struggles. By adopting a bold program and campaigning among the members, TDU can make these workers conscious of their power and the role that the labor movement can play in transforming society. It is essential that TSU re-establish the fighting traditions set forth by the socialist leadership of the Teamsters in Minneapolis and as was continued in the original over-the-road organization drive. It is only then that the present assault of management can be defeated.

Building the Union in the 1990s

The working class, and especially organized labor is the force that can turn around the present situation. Such was the threat that big business saw from a national rail strike in 1991 that both political parties managed to pass legislation against the railroad union, and wake the President to sign it, in less than 17 hours! They knew that major sections of industry would come to a halt in days if workers were allowed to continue their strike.

However, the labor leaders do not see the potential power of the unions. In fact, at present the labor leaders have started to draw pessimistic conclusions. Following the recent strikes at Eastern, Greyhound and now Caterpillar, they have begun to conclude that strikes cannot be won. These are wrong conclusions. The correct conclusion is that isolated strikes organized as they are at present are not sufficient to defeat the employers in this period.

The solution is to clarify the necessary program and strategy of labor, and then build the solidarity and support behind the struggle of workers. Throwing workers on the streets with no mobilization, no program, and no perspective for victory just does not work. In the recent Caterpillar strike, the task of the union should have been to take the offensive through a clear program of demands and then to occupy the plant. As in the successful sit-down strikes of the ’30s, this would put employers on the defensive as they are unable to operate their plant with strikebreakers, and it would have put workers in control of the struggle. In this way, the union could have rallied thousands of workers to support such a strategy. Not only could Caterpillar workers have won a victory, but such a victory would have shown a way forward to workers across the country. Around the time the Caterpillar strike ended, the uprising in South Central Los Angeles took place. Had the UAW taken the strategy proposed here, it would have united the struggle of its members with the struggle of youth and workers against racism and poverty. In this way, a generalized fight back throughout America could have developed under the leadership of the unions.

Along with this strategy, it is essential to confront the array of legal hurdles and roadblocks that the employers and big business throw down across the path of labor. It must be remembered that when the labor movement began, it was illegal to form a union or go on strike. The labor movement must throw down a challenge to injunctions put out by bosses’ courts. All Teamsters and other workers must be told that the union does not accept these injunctions and laws that are created by the bosses purely to protect their profits. Any threat of lawsuits or fines must be met with a continued escalation and spreading of the action until such threats are removed.

The example of Teamsters Local 211 in Pittsburgh shows a way forward for all workers. In response to demands by the Pittsburgh Press to lay off 450 out of 600 union workers and fire the thousands of mainly teenagers who deliver the paper, the union appealed for support from the public. This put the union in a strong position when on July 27 management attempted to operate the presses and distribute the paper using scabs. Thousands of Teamsters and other workers blocked the distribution of the paper. They defied the injunction passed by the courts. This drew support from the AFL-CIO unions in Pittsburgh, who threatened to call a general strike if the paper was still produced. This built a huge feeling of solidarity and forced management within two days to back down from its attempt to replace workers with scabs, at the time of this writing, these workers were still on the picket line on strike.

This action by Teamsters and other workers in Pittsburgh shows that when mobilized, the labor movement is the most powerful force in society. The working class today is much larger as a proportion of society than in the 1930s. Union membership, while reduced in the past decade, is still much greater in proportion and in absolute terms than it was before the great leap forward in the 1930s. The New York Times (4/19/92) quoted what it called a prominent economist: “American trade unionism is slowly being limited in influence by changes which destroy the basis on which it was erected. The changes, occupational and technological, which checked the advance of unionism in the last decade are likely to continue in the same direction.”

This sounds familiar because it is part of the employers’ constant refrain of the recent years. The only problem is that this statement was made in 1932! Two years later, the general strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco and the mass strike in Toledo exploded, resulting in a fivefold increase in union membership in the following ten years.

The lesson to be learned from the past two decades is that the policies of the union leaders in general have been a disaster. The balance of forces is in favor of the working class – workers are prepared to fight. What is needed is a program and a strategy to meet the challenge of the new period that has opened up.

The Teamsters can play a major role in forging a new direction for working people across the country. The fear, insecurity, falling living standards and the pain of day-to-day life that shatters the lives of workers, the youth and the unemployed can be ended. The country can be rebuilt on new foundations not based on individual greed or profit. Through socialist policies that benefit the majority of society, the vast resources of this country can be utilized to tackle the problems workers face. This can be achieved on the basis of the top 500 monopolies being taken into public ownership and under democratic workers’ control and management. On the basis of a Labor Party with a socialist program and a fighting trade union movement, the working class in America will be able to look forward to the creation of a new humane society.