TDU: Ranks Try to Save the Union

Against the Current, No. 9, May/June 1987

David Sampson

EVERYONE LOVES A WINNER. One of the main functions of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has been to show rank-and-file Teamsters that members can take collective action to better their lives. In many instances the importance of winning goes well beyond the issue at hand. Perhaps as important as the immediate victory is the value that comes from building confidence and consciousness-to move on to the next fight.

Almost four years ago Jackie Presser, president of the Teamsters union, announced to the National Freight Negotiating Committee that he had just completed secret negotiations with Trucking Management Inc. to reopen the National Master Freight Agreement. In return for some vague promises from the employers that they would be able to put more Teamsters to work, the union would accept a permanent two-tier wage structure for new hires and members coming off layoff.

Presser explained that cutting labor costs would give employers more flexibility to compete with the rash of nonunion operations created out of trucking deregulation. When the meeting adjourned Presser made sure that the documents outlining the deal were collected. But one document was saved, and turned over to TDU.

Within two days TDU had issued 20,000 contract bulletins alerting the rank and file to Presser’s act of treachery. Over the next six weeks the campaign to defeat the “Relief Rider” was able to secure fifty union resolutions putting their locals against the reopener. And when the votes were counted, Presser and his relief rider had gone down to a 94,086 to 13,082 defeat. For the first time in many years the rank and file had turned down a major concessionary contract-something possible only through their self-organization and solidarity.

The relief-rider campaign was an example of TDU’s ability to influence the course of events within the union. In fact, TDU’s influence extends far beyond its active membership of 10,000. Teamster leaders like the ones who leak information to TDU as well as those who organize the goon squads against TDU recognize it as a powerful political force within the union.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union has been around for a decade as a national rank-and-file movement within the Teamsters union. Born out of a strategy of democratic reform and militant shop-floor organizing,

TDU has developed a basic philosophy, which reflects some of the impulses of American populism: a stress on democracy and hostility toward the big shot.

TDU has not been able to invent a blueprint for radical social change. But the unspoken principle of TDU is that the class struggle exists. In fact, it is waged daily. By organizing collectively, TDU is able to exert the power of its membership-forcing the settlement of grievances, putting direct pressure upon the employer, and setting the parameters of debate within the union.

On issues such as two-tier wages, drug testing, employee stock-ownership schemes, productivity harassment and speedup TDU has been the lone organized voice of opposition within the Teamsters. In addition, TDU members have successfully run for local office.

During some specific campaigns TDU has been able to forge political alliances with union officials, yet throughout the ten-year period TDU has retained its rank-and-file character. Through TDU’s ability to build a rank-and-file organization a broad new layer of working-class leadership has begun to develop within one of the most corrupt unions in the United States.

Many observers believe the reason for the success of TDU is directly related to the fact that the Teamsters union symbolizes the worst stereotype of the U.S. labor movement. After all, the International Brotherhood of Teamster’s links to organized crime have been well documented.

The obscene salaries and pitiful lack of internal democracy are strong incentives for rank-and-file organization. Sweetheart deals have been repeatedly exposed. And since Jackie Presser was appointed general president in 1983, TDU has been able to organize an even more effective opposition. Presser’s policies and authoritarian personality seem to make him an effective “fall guy.”

But even more important, the economic instability of the 1970s and ’80s, combined with the deregulation in trucking, has decimated the standard of living for the average Teamster. Over 300,000 Teamsters have lost their jobs since the advent of deregulation in 1981. Most of those now work for nonunion outfits or have left the industry.

Unlike Hoffa or his successors, Jackie Presser never worked a day in his life as a real Teamster. He began his career doing odds and ends for the mob and his father, William Presser, a Mafia-controlled figure who got his start in the juke-box rackets. When Jackie came of age he received his own local union, Cleveland #507, which his father carved from other locals’ jurisdictions. Discovering that there were riches and power to be had in the family business, Presser knew he had found his true calling.

Of course he has had his problems with the government. Last year he was indicted for padding the payrolls of his home local and paying officials who never worked a day for the union. Actually this was one of his most innocuous crimes. Allegations of Mafia control have continually swirled around his tainted regime.

But Presser’s biggest crime — in the eyes of many rank-and-file Teamsters — has been his readiness to make deals with the employers. His refusal to seriously organize the workers in the trucking and warehousing sectors runs a close second.

Officials in local unions are threatened and coerced in­ to supporting top officers and their policies by withholding organizing and technical-support funds from the International, merging locals, imposing trusteeships, and, in some cases, the use of physical violence. The result is that a large canyon separates Teamster officials and the membership.

The 1986 IBT Convention is a perfect microcosm of this process. Before the convention TDU circulated a petition calling for direct election of the top IBT officers. The petition drive generated 100,000 signatures from rank-and-file Teamsters calling for the change. Added to the membership petition was another petition signed by one hundred officers and convention delegates. However, once the delegates and officers reached Las Vegas, the screws began to be turned.

Presser’s strategy was to isolate the reformers and give the impression that any force seeking change within the union was just a tiny handful of malcontents. The strategy worked well for the most part, as the one hundred signers were quickly whittled down to a hard core of twenty-five. But what the strategy leaves out is the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the rank and file who did seek change.

As the result of the collapse of any alternative reform force at the 1986 convention, TDU became the “official opposition” within the union. For rank and filers and officers interested in internal reforms and a more militant posture from the union, TDU became the only game in town.

In addition to the corruption, high salaries and dictatorial control within the union, there is one additional point that might be a factor in Teamster exceptionalism. Some half a million Teamsters are represented under national trucking agreements. And these three agreements set a pattern for most other Teamster bargaining.

This national convergence of interest between the half million Teamsters who are under the major agreements is coupled with the ability of over-the-road drivers to spread the word and communicate directly at points all across the nation. Clearly these are important factors in TDU’s success.

Yet it is important to recognize that Teamster exceptionalism can cut both ways. The lack of other coherent reform forces within the union tends to isolate TDU and marginalize it from the perceived seats of power within the union. It can also lead to cynicism and apathy among a large portion of the membership who like and support TDU but feel it is engaged in some quixotic pursuit. It also places TDU activists and officers in the direct line of fire from both employers and the union hierarchy. Fear of retaliation is the biggest handicap in TDU’s efforts at organizing.

The Origins of Teamster Opposition

Prior attempts at organizing a rank-and-file grouping helped TDU to avoid some of the natural pitfalls that exist. In 1971, on the heels of a massive wildcat-strike wave among Teamsters, a group calling themselves Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF) formed. TURF centered their demands around the right of the membership to elect directly the national Teamster leadership as well as the issue of reforming the pension plan.

In several areas of the country, TURF caught the imagination of Teamsters. In such widespread areas as Cleveland, Toledo, Louisville, El Paso, Los Angeles and upstate New York, TURF paved the way for the election of some reform candidates to local union office. In some places TURF absorbed local networks but in other localities it organized in completely new areas. TURF’s rapid development illustrated the potential for building a national opposition.

But TURF died almost as quickly as it was born. It had no staying power because it had no coherent strategy or program through which it could mobilize the membership. TURF also suffered from a distinct lack of input from a rank and file.

In the end TURF was nothing more than a batch of union politicians looking for a vehicle for local office. Rank-and-file activists attracted to TURF were sincere about empowering the membership. But they did not have a strategy to counter the top-down style of organization nor the leadership skills to wrest control from the opportunists who used TURF to climb up the union ladder.

TURF petered out because they were not able to develop a model that could pose an alternative to traditional union politics. Therefore they fell prey to a charismatic leader who would promise reform, and then back off once his particular political faction got into power. There was no program to unite union reform with the struggles over contracts, working conditions and other shop-floor issues. So the organization ended pitifully with feuds over who stole the treasury

During the same time the Professional Drivers Council (PROD) developed. It originated out of a 1971 conference on truck safety called by Ralph Nader. Initially, PROD was a dues-paying membership organization that served as a public interest lobby for professional truck drivers. In an industry where over 1,000 drivers a year are killed and thousands more end up crippled or disabled, an organization that promised to represent the driver on health and safety issues was extremely attractive.

Whereas TURF only had the vaguest notion of what they wanted to accomplish, PROD outlined specific and relevant tasks which appealed to a wide range of drivers. Early on PROD won some important legal precedents. Its reputation spread quickly among road drivers, especially in the South. PROD’s concerns, consequently began to broaden, encompassing both pension reform and a comprehensive program for internal union democracy.

Training for Power

TDU formed in 1976 in an attempt to build an organization whose strategy was to combine militant workplace organizing with the fight for democratic reforms. It was built with veterans from TURF, a few PROD activists, and a host of fresh forces who had organized around the Master Freight Agreement that year.

TDU started with a tiny group of seasoned rank-and-file activists and young socialists. And given the changed economy, which meant organizers couldn’t count on a spontaneous eruption of working-class militancy. Rather organizing would have to concentrate on nurturing an alternative to the union leadership.

Many of the group that gathered in Kent, Ohio, for the founding of TDU had learned from the failure of TURF and the organizational weakness of PROD. They understood that a new culture of democratic functioning and shop-floor resistance was necessary to develop a movement that placed rank-and-file power at the top of its agenda.

Teamsters were used to seeing the fate of grievances in the hands of distant business agents or hostile local officials. They had to learn new methods of resolving grievances before they were traded away. The only recourse was collective activity and direct pressure on the employer and the business agent.

While the culture of shop-floor resistance is alive, too often it exists in the form of individual resistance. TDU organizers are trained to recognize the resistance that occurs daily in individual acts and to develop this into group activity. In the process new leaders emerge and new tactics and strategies are developed.

A high degree of solidarity is necessary in order to carry out effective shop-floor activity. The antagonisms and divisions that management fosters need to be overcome. But confidence in other workers and in the organization’s capacity to defend people develops through a myriad of daily tests.

Plunging into activity on the shop floor without a defense mechanism, without a plan, and without the solidarity of a group of workers almost ensures isolation and defeat. Except on the rarest occasions, confidence is built on the basis of victories. This organizing principle informs much of TDU work.

TDU’s approach to shop-floor organizing looks at the work-related issues that need to be altered, attempts to establish goals that can build more effective solidarity, and provides training on legal rights, contractual rights and internal union procedure in order to help defend the membership from retaliation from either the employer or the union. The goals of the organization need to be grounded in reality so that the average Teamster can see these as winnable issues, and winnable precisely through collective action.

In order to help provide training to enable TDU members to acquire the variety of skills necessary to be an effective organizing team, educational work is a primary task of all chapters. TDU chapter meetings are often accompanied by educational workshops on basic organizing techniques, understanding the procedures of running a meeting or filing a grievance.

Basic educational literature and handbooks have been produced in order to carry out that training most effectively. The yearly TDU convention-attended by five hundred rank-and-file Teamsters-also has a significant educational component.

One of the best tools for building ongoing organization in TDU is the monthly newspaper, Convoy Dispatch. Besides reporting on national issues, campaigns and labor news, it provides technical support through columns like “The Steward’s Corner.”

Today Convoy Dispatch has a circulation of 60,000. It has proven effective in spreading the word about TDU as well as in cementing communications between Teamsters in different areas. It also means that thousands of Teamsters see the paper as a reliable source of information on the matters affecting them.

What TDU Learned from PROD

By the late 1970s PROD activists were looking for a strategy that could combine shop-floor struggles with legal and legislative tactics. On the one hand PROD was becoming more like TDU-more activist, more willing to challenge both the union hierarchy and the employers, more willing to take on contract and shop-floor issues. But on the other hand, some PROD leaders had characterized TDU as a “noisy rank-and-file movement.” They had redbaited TDU leaders as TDU was getting off the ground.

But it became apparent over the next several years that to further PROD’s goals of pension reform and health and safety regulation, they needed exactly the kind of noisy rank-and-file movement they had criticized a few years earlier. In 1979 PROD merged into TDU with the support of a clear majority of PROD members and the nearly unanimous support of TDU’s membership.

PROD’s strategy of protecting the legal rights of Teamsters and their lobbying efforts to secure health and safety continue to play a role in the merged group. The emphasis switched from a legalistic view to one where rank-and-file power and activity is the driving force.

This synthesis of PROD and TDU strength and organizational style has united the concepts of fighting for democratic rights and militant action into a powerful movement. Its legal network has helped to secure judicial decisions and link union democracy with the ability to defeat bad contracts and sweetheart deals.

This strategy of utilizing the legal road has also enhanced TDU’s authority as not only a fighting organization, but one that wins significant victories. This strategy has proved extremely valuable as the new issue of drug testing at the workplace has emerged.

Drug Testing

An example of how TDU takes an on-the-job issue and develops a national campaign can be seen in the issue of drug testing. It was a “new” issue, so both the Teamsters officials and TDU had to the opportunity to define their attitude and discuss the implications of such testing.

Since the advent of deregulation in the trucking industry, accident rates and injuries have skyrocketed at a deadly pace. Instead of shouldering the blame, the trucking industry has unleashed an attack on the drivers, trying to portray the image of the wild truck driver, high on drugs, driving too fast for too long.

It’s a case where greedy employers, intent on cutting costs in order to compete in the deregulated market, blame the consequences of the speedup on the driver, not on themselves or on the regulatory agencies. And the union swallowed the argument hook, line and sinker.

Almost three years ago the employers of Trucking Management Inc. and the National Freight Negotiating Committee reached a mid-contract agreement regarding a new drug-testing procedure. It was to become effective immediately. The agreement gave the employers the ability to do drug testing in “probable cause” cases and on biennial Department of Transportation physicals. This agreement was reached without a vote of the membership, a violation of the IBT constitution.

The agreement was the first major contractually negotiated drug testing procedure in the country. It was highly touted as a model for other unions and industries to follow.

The procedure called for firing a worker who tested at a positive level for marijuana of 30 nanograms, a very strict standard. By comparison the military has a standard of 100 nanograms in all branches. At 30 nanograms the possibility for a positive result based on passive inhalation or because of technical error in the reading by lab technicians is quite high.

Three years ago the drug-testing mania had not yet swept the country. In fact, the implications of a testing procedure designed to fire-not rehabilitate-were not apparent to the membership. But by the time the National Master Freight Agreement was negotiated and ratified in April 1985 the intent of the drug-testing provisions had become apparent.

Included in the agreement was a provision for a modified two-tier contract, where new hires would be paid 70% of scale, progressing to 80% in their second year and 90% in their third year, finally making scale in their fourth year. What this did was put a sign on all high seniority employees saying “Fire me and get cheaper labor.”

Since the advent of deregulation many companies have been getting by with the slimmest of profit margins. Any edge achieved through cost savings was desperately sought. Drug testing coupled with the two-tier wage seemed to provide some companies with just the economic edge they needed.

For example, PIE, the nation’s fourth largest Less-than-Truckload carrier had fallen on hard times. In a recent article in Heavy Duty Trucking, an industry magazine, company officials talk about their miraculous turnaround in 1986. Besides having a 15% wage cut through an ESOP, they state that 8% of their employees have been discharged in the drug-testing sweep. That’s about 500 drivers being replaced with drivers making 70 % of their wage, or a cost savings of $5 million in 1986 alone. And PIE made a $5 million profit for 1986. The connection is obvious.

Almost overnight the situation in many Teamster locals changed from support or indifference to the drug­ testing program to heated opposition. Thousands of Teamsters were wondering if the provisions violated their constitutional rights and were shocked to find out that the rights guaranteed under the Constitution did not apply at work.

Many Teamsters were outraged over the fact that not the employer could regulate activities engaged in outside working hours, and fire you for them. The great drug-testing purge, which was locating casual marijuana users at best and firing nonusers at worst, was now serving to unite a broad spectrum of Teamsters around the civil rights of workers. It also made crystal clear the effects of the two-tier wage structure.

The first need was education around the issue itself. No one not the members, not the business agents or stewards, not even the Joint Grievance committees knew about how to proceed. TDU’s response was quick. TDU produced a pamphlet, Playing It Safe — Teamster Drug Testing. It outlined employee rights under the contract and emphasized the economic nature of the testing. So far, 50,000 pamphlets have been distributed not only to Teamsters but also to many other unions looking for a way to defend their members.

By contrast, the IBT waited a year before making an explanation of the program available to the members and union officials. Knowledge is power, and TDU’s credibility won hands down on the question of providing information to Teamsters. In fact, the issue has become identified with TDU.

Besides education, TDU has helped to file litigation, working with many Teamsters to prepare their grievances and doing research on the issue. Internal IBT documents have revealed that top union officials and consultants have agreed with TDU on the most unjust aspects of the procedures.

In recent testimony before a Senate committee on drug testing, R.V. Durham, Teamster director of health and safety, promised that the union would negotiate a rehabilitation program to be included in the next National Master Freight Agreement. This was a key TDU demand.

The carhaul agreement, which was ratified after a strike shortly after the freight agreement, did not include drug testing. However, a mid-contract change was made, adding in the same drug-testing provision. This time TDU was prepared to take the issue head on. Legal action was initiated against IBT for negotiating a mid-contract change without a vote of the membership, and the union settled out of court. This resulted in ending drug testing procedures for 25,000 carhaulers.

The court victory actually came through the militancy and organization of the rank and file. For the 1985 rejection of Presser’s proposed contract by 81%, and the subsequent strike (which Presser openly attributed to TDU) brought forward a better agreement. These actions made it too risky for the employers and Presser to put a drug-test clause in the contract before members voted. So they waited till later and sneaked it in. It was this after-the-fact change that was ruled illegal. TDU emphasizes such national networks at major employers and in industries like carhauling.

Only the process of current litigation and the greater determination of the Teamster rank and file can tell whether the procedures will be modified in the near future. What is clear, however, is that there will have to be significant changes made in the next agreement.

TDU intends to continue clarifying the problem, taking the lead, and putting the issue of drug testing in class terms. Whether the union couldn’t or wouldn’t address the issue, TDU did. It was able to raise a certain amount of consciousness on this issue, taking on and campaigning against a right-wing, moralistic attack on the rights of Teamsters and linking it to the two-tier wage agreement and the issues of speedup, deregulation and greedy employers.

Expanding the Base

Several years ago TDU began to reach out to cannery workers in California. This represented a large group of Teamsters who were very different from TDU’s main base of support. In 1980 a local chapter of TDU was formed in Watsonville, with other similar local efforts made throughout the region. A cannery workers’ movement spread through northern California. And in some locals the old-line leaders have been ousted in favor of TDUers and other rank and filers.

Watsonville TDU was successful in winning some basic rights for the 5,000 members of Local 912, including the right to bilingualism in the union. This graphically illustrated the fact that the union belonged to the rank and file, not to the small Anglo clique that had ruled it for thirty years like a family business.

By 1985 the head of Local 912, Richard King, was a liability to the hierarchy and was “retired.” Business representative Sergio Lopez took over.

Also in 1985 — three months into a strike — TDU leader Joe Fahey was elected business representative. This assured the strikers that no sellout would occur wTithout at least one official blowing the whistle and informing the rank and file. This was a factor during the final days of the eighteen-month strike, when the signing of a contract without medical benefits triggered a five-day wildcat strike.

It is of note that the Teamster union leadership, known for its goon-squad tactics, right-wing politics and sweetheart deals, never openly attacked or pulled the plug on the strike. Some on the left have drawn a conservative lesson from this fact. They point out the contrast with the P-9 struggle against Hormel, where the militant local leadership was considered “out of line” by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) leadership and was knifed in the back by the International. Strike benefits were stopped, the local was put into trusteeship and a sweetheart deal signed.

However the Teamster leadership did in fact threaten at various times all these exact same measures. It even assigned International reps to Watsonville to guard against the situation getting “out of line.” However one difference between the UFCW and Teamsters was the presence of a national opposition grouping in the Teamsters.

The existence of TDU nationally — coupled with the cannery workers’ movement and the widespread grassroots labor support for the strike in California — are crucial factors that kept the millionaire businessmen who head the Teamsters from pulling the plug.

Although TDU is too small-and the rules of the game too stacked-to directly threaten the top bureaucrats, TDU is a viable force. Jackie Presser and company knew TDU would force them to pay a political price for dumping the Watsonville strike. This was especially true as TDU had made the strike a national issue from the start. In fact, within weeks of the strike’s beginning, TDU brought strike leaders in to address the TDU convention in Chicago and began to raise funds and support.

What’s Next?

The next year will see negotiations and ratifications of the big national contracts in freight, United Parcel Service (UPS) and car haul. This will again offer TDU members a wide hearing among their coworkers, place the greatest pressure on their local officers and provide an important c opportunity for making an impact on these industries.

Combined, these contracts cover 350,000 Teamsters. Clearly they will set the pattern for hundreds more contracts throughout trucking and warehousing. And each of the proposed contracts contain two-tier elements that TDU will challenge.

On the issue of drug testing, TDU’s efforts have already had an impact on deterring the installation of this practice at UPS. In the initial UPS contract language, drug testing has not been raised. Next year the challenge in freight will be to increase the range of member protections on this issue.

Another major issue in the UPS negotiations will be challenging the unparalleled harassment to increase productivity at UPS. After years of TDU organizing, many local unions submitted specific contract language that has finally been included in the union’s bargaining proposal. The TDU campaign also focuses on the return of cost-of-living-allowance (COLA) money and on part-time workers who now make up 40% of the UPS workforce. UPS organizing has brought in hundreds of new members and activists to TDU. It has also strengthened the members’ bargaining power and information network. In the past, lack of a TDU presence in the South has been a weak link during national campaigns. Developing a strong network of UPS members rooted in the South has been a priority.

The negotiation of these national contracts graphically underscores the unresponsiveness of the union’s top leadership. But with Teamster president Presser facing a trial-and a possible move for government-sponsored trusteeship of the entire union under the Racketeer-Influenced & Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO Act) — Presser’s future is uncertain.

If Presser is convicted, he would be removed from office, and the union executive board would choose a new president. This would put the bureaucracy in flux for a time-but it would also allow TDU some breathing room.

Since a “fresh face” may in fact appear more like an actual trade unionist than Presser, TDU will need to focus on keeping these union issues before the membership. TDU’s International Steering Committee, elected each year at the TDU convention, has formally opposed any sort of trusteeship. Instead, TDU hopes to use the opening created by Presser’s legal problems as a way to raise the demand for a direct election of the union’s top officers, a remedy that could be implemented under the RICO Act.

The bargaining has the potential to challenge management’s underlying assumptions. But clearly, given the entrenched character of the Teamster bureaucracy, it seems as though there will be no quick and easy victory. The fight for an effective and democratic union is a long and many-sided one. Given the level of organizing allowed, the gains made by TDU are all the more impressive. From hundreds of shop-floor lights to the big national contract bargaining, the rank-and-file movement embodied in TDU has had a catalyzing effect.

Rank-and-file militancy and the organization of the Hormel and Watsonville strikes and strike-support activity, the beginnings of a struggle against concessions in many unions, and the building of networks between unions are encouraging signs for TDU.

Those on the left have an important contribution to make in encouraging these small beginnings. As TDU is continuing to grow in numbers and influence, it continues to educate Teamsters in the skills and knowledge acquired through many battles.

TDU can’t be replicated in all of its details in other industries. It wouldn’t work and it’s not what’s needed. But the notion of a national rank-and-file movement in a number of key industries would be a tremendous step forward for the labor movement. And, frankly, it’s in TDU’s best interest to have one, two or a hundred TDU’s.

May-June 1987, ATC 9

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 *