Patterns of Rank-and-File Power

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Nelson Lichtenstein

Teamster Rank and File:
Power, Bureaucracy, and Rebellion at Work and in a Union
By Samuel R. Friedman
Columbia University Press, 1982, paperback.

SAM FRIEDMAN’s finely crafted account of the rise and fall of a rank-and-file movement in Los Angeles Teamsters Local 208 is essential reading to anyone interested in the democratization and rejuvenation of the American trade unions.

The first thing that makes this book important is that Friedman is not writing about some exceptional movement in labor history: instead his account records the emergence of a militant, rank-and-file movement in that most prosaic of all decades: 1950s. There were no charismatic leaders, no dramatic moments of general working-class insurgency, no radical politicalization of these truck drivers

 Instead Friedman’s intimate portrait uncovers the roots of union militancy and democracy in the ordinary workaday world of a union whose governing structures and animating social vision were a good deal more bureaucratic and stolid than most.

Second, Friedman’s work is of particular relevance because he explores with great skill and insight the complicated and difficult relationship which any insurgent movement, of even limited success, is bound to have with trade union leaders who seek its cooptation or suppression. In the case of Local 208, Friedman shows that a well-organized insurgency could defeat an encrusted bureaucracy, but of course, its problems had then just begun, given the political and economic pressures under which any reform leadership is bound to fall.

Militancy and democracy in Local 208 arose out of conditions which were both general to all truck driving Teamsters and specific to the five thousand short-haul drivers who composed the bulk of its membership. Unlike many industrial workers, who are subject to tight supervision and limited social interaction, Teamsters have an open work life that is at once more autonomous and socially interactive than that of factory workers.

On the road Teamsters can organize their day as they choose; many finish their runs early, then drop in at the local coffee shop for a chat with other workers. Although the fragmentation of the short-haul trucking industry into several score employers put a natural barrier between Teamsters in different barns, it simultaneously generated a large sense of solidarity among drivers at the same workplace, whose relative power against an individual employer can be very large indeed.

Moreover, the great number of individual employers meant that if a worker were fired at one place, he (there seem to have been no women drivers) could usually find a job at another. And since there were far more individual employers than full-time business agents, many barns elected working stewards, whose institutionalization of a “quickie” strike tradition and union-wide organization made bureaucratic control from the top much more difficult.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Local 208 activists also profited from the divisions which existed among Teamster leaders, although Friedman argues that they may well have learned the wrong lesson from their good fortune.

When the insurgent movement made its play for power, Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa was in the midst of a desperate battle with the government, with the AFL­CIO and with local Teamster elements that he feared might secede from the union. Thus Hoffa, whom Friedman characterizes as a sort of “Bonapartist” union leader, accommodated Local 208 militants, even when they forced out their old officers and pushed through a bylaw change mandating election of all business agents.

Under the regime of Edwin Blackmarr, an activist whom the rank-and-file movement installed in 1963, a “Hoffa connection” protected Local 208 from efforts by the South California Joint Council to squash their troublesome militancy, but it also blinded the Local’s leadership to the need to spread its yard-based brand of democratic unionism throughout other locals in the region.

Limits of Localism

The crunch came in 1970 when Local 208 and several other powerful Teamster locals wildcatted against the national contract negotiated by the new Teamster president, Frank Fitzsimmons. In recounting the disastrous history of this two-month strike-his account is aptly entitled “Apolitical Activism Ambushed”-Friedman demonstrates that syndicalism of even the most militant sort is insufficient without a larger political strategy that could give it coherence.

Thus Local 208 militants shut down most of the important barns in the Southland, briefly closed down the Bay Area and even reached out to student radicals from Los Angeles-area campuses. The social atmosphere of 1970 aided the strikers: their work stoppages coincided with the Cambodia invasion, Kent State and the mass student strikes of that season.

But sheer militancy was not enough: the Local had no strategy to take the offensive against the freight companies and the Teamster bureaucracy. With Local 208 isolated, the strike stagnated.

Moreover, with Jimmy Hoffa in jail, the “umbrella” which he had once held over its militant autonomy no longer existed. Thus while Local 208 leaders long hoped that at least one top Teamster official would come to their aid, the now-unified International leadership remained hostile. It stood by when the trucking companies fired hundreds of militants, after which the International threw a trusteeship over the now-demoralized local.

Although leaders of the rank-and-file movement eventually recaptured the top offices in the local, the failure of the 1970 wildcat represented a watershed in the history of teamster militancy in Southern California. “We thought we were voting for tigers,” said a truck driver, ”but we got pussycats.”

Fearful of the imposition of a new trusteeship and chastened by the mass firings during the wildcat, 208’s new leaders adopted a defensive, legalist strategy that routinized grievance processing and downplayed conflicts with the International. The great recession of 1974-75 gave the employers the initiative in reorganizing and merging their operations, thus further demoralized the rank-and-file movement.

By this time, however, what was left of the 208 insurgency had merged with that of the new Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the most successful opposition group to take root in any major industrial union the last twenty years.

Friedman’s attitude toward TDU is colored by the 208 experience. On the one hand TDU has clearly been a more political, better organized and more far-reaching opposition movement than anything the 208 activists mounted in the 1950s or 1960s. In its Midwestern centers of strength, TDU has taken the initiative, both in organizing large-scale job actions, such as those of the carhaulers and steel-haulers in the late 1970s, and in projecting an alternative strategy to fight the freight companies and the Teamsters’ leadership at each contract negotiation. TDU has taken the leadership of a few locals and elected its adherents to the executive boards of many more.

But Friedman worries that in this era of general working-class demobilization, TDU could take the same electoralist road once traveled by the 208 militants, turning into a “loyal opposition” increasingly divorced from an activist, shop-based culture. As long as TDU remains a “group of activists waiting for the breaks,” Friedman believes it will encounter pressures, both legal and organizational, which in conservative times push union opposition elements in this direction.

Friedman offers no magic formula to retard this tendency, and in fact there seems to be no simple solutions. The kind of external shocks that might open the door to a large increase in rank-and-file control of the Teamsters union remain largely out of the hands of the TDU and still beyond the horizon.

Friedman’s book is therefore a cautionary tale for union activists in conservative times: an historical guidebook to the building of a rank-and-file movement and a politically-informed consideration of the constraints which erode such insurgencies when their isolation persists.

September-December 1985, ATC 4-5

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *