The Teamster Monolith Cracks

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

David Sampson

WHEN 500 RANK AND FILE Teamsters entered the ballroom of the Atlanta American Hotel for the 13th annual Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) Rank and File Convention, you could almost sense the new feeling that something big is happening in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. From factories to giant freight barns, TDU had made a major impact on the union — the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) — within the past year.

Just as in other years, many of those in attendance were blurry eyed after driving hundreds of miles through the night to attend. All who attended were paying their own way-there were no expense accounts here. They came from California and Mississippi and Vermont; the truckers and the dock workers, the warehouse workers and the clericals.

As the first speaker came to the podium those sitting edged up on their seats seemed to be waiting for a signal. The room, filled to capacity, stilled as one of them, a truck driver, an “ordinary guy” began his speech, “Brothers and sisters, there’s a raging fire burning throughout the Teamsters union. It’s the same fire that’s burning through Poland and Eastern Europe and in dictatorships all over the world. That fire is democracy. We expect that fire to be uncontrollable against the officials in our union and all who would suppress it throughout the world.”

That was all the crowd had been waiting for. They were on their feet in thunderous applause for themselves and their movement. From one corner of the room a group of carhaulers from Jacksonville rose with their fists in the air, cheering wildly. They were some of the new blood to the organization-young for the most part and cocky. They’d seen TDU only through the last few months, months where they had turned down their contract, seen the union struggling through its worst crisis in decades, and had seen the union forced to make major internal democratic reforms. It seemed to them as if TDU was actually sharing in the power of running the largest and, potentially, the most powerful union in North America.

In another corner of the room, some veterans of the struggle, long-time soldiers in the battle for democracy also stood and cheered. They were no less enthusiastic but perhaps a little more ragged, a little less cocky, but certainly even happier after being through the fight with all its ups and downs. On these faces — hardened by years of setbacks, false starts and skepticism, the same faces you find on American workers past a certain age, past the promises of youth-you could detect the satisfied smile of vindication. They were right after all and they were proud as hell.

The membership of TDU has had much to be proud about. The recent convention was the culmination of the organization’s most successful year. The major cause for celebration came a few days earlier when members were informed that they had achieved the biggest democratic reform yet: the IBT’s General Executive Board had rescinded the rule in the International Constitution requiring only a one-third yes vote for ratification of a contract. From now on contracts require a simple majority vote to be accepted or rejected. TDU had fought for this change since the founding of the organization twelve years ago.

Workers throughout the union had consistently rejected concessionary contracts by majority votes time after time over the past year and a half: 100,000 workers at UPS, 200,000 in freight, and 25,000 in carhaul. Tens of thousands of other Teamsters have just said “no” to employers continually pounding the membership with their demands for givebacks. TDU has led the fight and, except for the freight agreement, was the sole opposition to the concessionary contracts. Through its organizing efforts and its unique rank and file structure TDU has become a countervailing power to the hard-nosed employers and a weak-willed union. In bargaining and contract ratifications there are now three parties involved, much to the dismay of the employers and officials of the union. The third force is an organized rank and file.

Perhaps the biggest reason for hope is that because the rank and file can now speak clearly in its own voice and exert considerable power over wages and conditions, a considerable space for change has been created. Top Teamster officials are now falling all over themselves trying to portray themselves as reformers. It’s a whole new day in the Teamsters union and the rank and file, through their organization in TDU, have found themselves smack dab in the middle of a battle for the soul of the union — a struggle that is far from over.

The People in TDU

As in most movements, numbers never accurately reflect the breadth of influence that a particular organization is able to exert. This is by no means an apology, as TDU’s numbers reflect strength in several areas.

The actual paid up membership of TDU stands at 10,000 members. This may appear puny considering the IBT has a membership of 1.6million; however, TDU’s influence is much broader. The bulk of the membership is concentrated in the union’s most politically powerful jurisdictions: trucking and warehousing. There are 100,000 Teamsters under the National Master Freight Agreement, 50,000 under the United Parcel Service (UPS) Agreement, and 20,000 carhaulers. TDU’s monthly paper, Convoy Dispatch, and various bulletins and flyers put out to discuss contract issues are distributed broadly throughout this workforce.

TDU influence is strengthened by the fact that there are no other organized or unorganized opposition forces in the International Union. In trucking and ware­ housing TDU is well known and most members are familiar with the program.

TDU membership is dispersed nationwide, with a heavy concentration of membership on the West Coast, in the “Rust Belt” states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania), in the South, with other concentrations of membership in key such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and in the trucking hubs of St. Louis and Kansas City. Another indication of TDU influence can be found in the heavy correlation in a given area between the no votes on the recent contracts with TDU membership and activity.

Who are the people that join TDU? The “typical” TDU member is a male, not surprisingly considering that trucking and warehousing are traditionally “male” jobs. However, there are women truck drivers, construction workers, and dock workers, many of whom are TDU members.

But the bulk of the IBT’s women membership is mainly in clerical jobs and the thousands of small factories organized by the Teamsters. It’s in these jurisdictions where TDU has been most successful in addressing issues of concern to women. For instance, the Watsonville strike, which TDU was instrumental in organizing, developed a core of women leaders-many of them TDU members-who successfully led the strike.

At this point the majority of women who are TDU members are spouses of Teamsters. These women play an invaluable role in the local TDU chapters, where they frequently serve on local steering committees. In many instances these women actually organize the work of the chapters. This is especially crucial in chapters where a heavy percentage of the membership is road drivers who are only home a couple of days a week.

Women have always played an important role in TDU’s leadership. For example, the current TDU International Steering Committee has three women who were elected at the recent convention, quite significant when you consider that eighty percent of the voting members at the convention were men. Contrast this to the fact that the IBT has never had a woman on the General Executive Board.

TDU has attempted to attract more women to the organization by developing women as leaders as well as by taking up women’s issues. Among some of our most successful legal challenges have been the sexual discrimination cases TDU has filed against several companies.

At the 1988 convention the women’s caucus introduced a motion to increase organizing efforts directed at the non-trucking-and-warehousing jurisdictions as a way to attract more women to the movement. It was a motion that passed unanimously. While for political and strategic reasons TDU’s main focus must still center on trucking and warehousing, the ability to organize effectively in non-trucking jurisdictions should increase the percentage of women TDUers.

Besides being male, the “typical” member is also white. Perhaps fifteen percent of TDU’s current membership is either Black or Latino, a figure pretty much in line with the IBT’s own membership. In the South or Southwest TDU’s minority representation is quite high, reflecting the higher concentration of minority members in those areas.

Recruitment of minorities, particularly Blacks, has been somewhat difficult. In the South, for example, Black UPS drivers making $15 an hour are much more hesitant to take on dissident activity when the majority of their community holds minimum-wage jobs. The union has done much to better the lives of minorities. Frequently in large urban Southern locals, union officials are active in civil rights fights. For instance, during the last U.S. presidential primaries many Southern Teamster officials sponsored and actively campaigned for Jesse Jackson.

The current TDU International Steering Committee has three minority members-two Blacks and a Latino. Particularly in the South and Southwest, TDU chapters and members take an aggressive stance in recruiting minority members and bringing them to leadership positions. This practical approach has gone a long ways in defeating racism and racial tension within TDU. And as TDU’s credibility over questions of contracts, representation, and democracy has grown, so has the number of minority members. TDU’s task in the coming years is to develop a self-conscious minority leadership that both speaks for the organization and helps TDU develop specific programs to defeat racism.

Typical TDUers also tend to have a few grey hairs — between 35 and 45 years old. The aging of the Teamster workforce has a little to do with demographics. Over the past few years there hasn’t been a lot of new hiring. Younger drivers have found work in the non-union sector of the industry, except for UPS. In TDU the bulk of members under thirty come from UPS.

For many of the young workers in TDU, TDU was their first exposure to unionism. Here the union stands indicted. For more senior members of the union, there still remains a semblance of pride. Younger workers often lack a sense of what the union is or can be. It’s a rare local where any education is done concerning the union. Winning the loyalty of young workers to the union is an ideological struggle that we face every day and the situation may get worse before it gets better. This is one of the great tragedies of today’s American labor movement.

Luckily the majority of TDU members are active and knowledgeable in union affairs. They are stewards, and “de facto” stewards. (Keep in mind, you can’t even elect your steward in seventy-five percent of Teamster locals). They’re the people who write grievances or complain about safety. They’re the people who attend union meetings and take up collections for their fellow workers out sick. They’re generally the cream of the crop among the rank and file, which presents a dilemma to local and International officials who have to find suitable, knowledgeable and intelligent replacements for themselves one day. It’s a mark of success that TDU recruits activists and solid union members more than they create them.

Politically, the “composite member” is a liberal Democrat, much as you would find in the UAW or Machinists Union, though membership would pretty much include the entire political spectrum.

Having a membership base is only the first step in building an effective movement. Developing an organizational structure that will best serve the purposes of the movement is the next step. TDU’s organizational structure was developed to give the greatest amount of autonomy and initiative at the workplace level and in local chapters. The basic unit of organization within TDU is at the workplace.

Typically, an issue will arise in a shop. Someone will contact one of the TDU offices in Detroit, New York, Washington D.C., or Los Angeles, or will contact someone in the local TDU chapter.

After analyzing the situation, others in the shop will be contacted by both a TDU organizer and a local TDU leader. A group of shop leaders is usually developed to go through whatever steps are necessary to deal with the problem. Usually grievances are prepared, and encouraged to be signed by the majority of members affected, building the beginning of a greater solidarity among those workers with minimal risks. Signing a petition or grievance is the first step for most people.

At this point a meeting will be encouraged between the workers at this shop and a TDU representative, who can be an organizer, a TDU leader or hopefully both. At this meeting, TDU is explained, people can ask questions, and the current situation is discussed. Several options and tactics will be suggested, with the group itself deciding on the proper course. The emphasis is placed on collective activity beyond the grievance procedure as a way of exerting some power in the situation. This discussion will usually touch upon a discussion of local politics and possible allies within the local. Legal options may also be brought up.

The small leadership group will hopefully grow into an informal committee as the fight heats up. The local union will either back the demands or not, in either case giving the leadership valuable experience in dealing with the local as a group. The whole process is thought out in terms of involving the maximum number of people and in educating the membership politically, contractually, and in their legal rights.

If the issue is successful it’s possible to recruit many new members. If not successful, recruitment still occurs and the leadership is prepared for the next fight. The leaders from these fights move to leadership positions in the existing TDU chapter or actually begin a new chapter, which is the next step in the TDU organization. Local chapters ideally coordinate activity on a local or area-wide basis.

Once the chapter is established and a steering committee elected, the chapter becomes a support group for workplace organizing and a pole for “dissident” activity within the local. Chapters begin to intervene at local meetings and become a part of the political life of the local union, often becoming the “opposition party.” This naturally leads to electoral activity. In local union elections, however, straight TDU slates are rare, though there have been successful ones. More usually, coalition slates are formed with other opposition forces.

In the past few years, TDU begun to develop regional organization, a kind of federation of chapters in areas which share contract supplements, grievance panels, or have other similarities. Activity has also been organized on a national level through the various jurisdictional and company networks within TDU. Freight, UPS, Carhaul and Grocery networks are active within TDU as are smaller networks at companies like Consolidated Freightways and Yellow Freight, two of Consolidated Freightways and Yellow Freight, two of the largest trucking companies.

The governing body of TDU between conventions is the International Steering Committee (ISC). The ISC is elected at the convention composed of fifteen members and three alternates. Out of this group four co-chairs are elected. They set the agenda for ISC meetings and are the public spokespersons of TDU. Three trustees are elected from the ISC, along with the national organizer, who supervises administrative and organizing activity in the national offices. All members of the ISC with the exception of the national organizer are working Teamsters.

With the people, and a developing organizational structure, TDU has been able to thrive and gain influence — working from shop-floor issues to questions of control of the union. It’s a long and arduous process. Developing this structure over the years has led to the ability to be a force during the current crisis within the IBT; a crisis which could lead to the complete transformation of the IBT.

Employer Attacks

A few words about the Brotherhood. It’s big and it’s bad. The IBT covers some 1.6 million workers in every possible arena of human endeavor: From airline workers to zookeepers the IBT has organized what is in some sense the One Big Union that industrial unionists, syndicalists, and radicals within the labor movement have always yearned for. Its multiplicity of trades and jurisdictions, however, is the only similarity to the One Big Union of Big Bill Haywood. What it lacks is the element of solidarity and a guiding principle that goes beyond the bounds of typical business unionism. The airline workers have no contact with the zookeepers who have no contact with the construction workers who have no idea about the freight workers and on and on.

The base and strength of the union remains in the area of trucking and warehousing. Sixty percent of the union’s membership still is employed in this jurisdiction. Wages, health and welfare, and pension benefits for Teamsters flow from the patterns set in the large master agreements in carhaul, UPS, and freight. This is exactly the area where the employers have attacked, as they understand even more than the union that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

The erosion of the master agreements has left a Grand Canyon of concessions commemorating the union leadership’s surrender. With the advent of trucking deregulation in 1980 and ’81 and a severe national recession, the first major blows were struck in the 1982 National Master Freight Agreement. The employers took the first round by freezing wages, deleting COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment), and wiping out conditions that had been in effect for thirty years. UPS was next to receive its reward in the new age of concessionary bar­ gaining and the carhaul agreement closed the door on the most disastrous year ever for Teamster bargaining.

The union, faced with a growing non-union threat due to deregulation and a score of companies bankrupted by the intense competition, framed its bargaining philosophy in terms of saving jobs. Giving up wages and conditions was thought to be a solution to the job loss in the trucking industry. But as carrier after carrier fell to the economic realities of deregulation, the membership began to wonder if concessions really could save jobs. TDU said “no” emphatically.

In a grim evaluation of the situation, the TDU leadership understood that under the economic circumstances facing the trucking industry, carriers would go out of business and the union, as it was, could not halt the slide. But some carriers had taken a more opportunistic look at deregulation. These were the largest and most profitable, with the technology, equipment, and money to undercut the smaller union carriers by discounting the prices they charged customers. These carriers emerged within a few years with a near monopoly on long-haul freight and the profits that came with it.

TDU addressed its non-concession message at these carriers, the survivors, arguing that concessions only benefitted the biggest and strongest, enabling them to cut their prices and put the smaller carriers out of business. In other words, concessions weren’t saving jobs, they were actually speeding up job loss by providing cost savings to the giants stolen from the workers’ pockets. As one TDUer put it, “They were shooting us with our own bullets.”

This analysis proved to be correct, but it took years to sink into the consciousness of Teamsters in freight. The fact of the matter was that fear had become the employers’ most effective bargaining tool. The breakthrough came from hard experience and the failure of every company that had taken concessions to survive. In the meantime, workers still resisted at times, as they always have and always will.

In 1983, freight Teamsters faced with a concessionary contract reopener which proposed a permanent two-tier wage scale voted it down by an eight-to-one margin. The rejection, led and organized by TDU, gave the rank and file organization its biggest victory to that point. The membership in freight began listening closer to TDU. By the ’85 contract round, TDU organizing against still more concessionary bargaining received the highest no vote total of any National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA) and helped to organize a two-thirds rejection of the carhaul agreement. The strike that followed the carhaul vote resulted in a better contract with the removal of most concessions.

The employers’ attacks of the early and mid-’80s resulted in weakening the union, both in terms of strength in relation to the employers and in the eyes of the membership. TDU, by consistently fighting concessions and offering an analysis that was accurate and offering an alternative to run of the mill bargaining, had begun to exert its “countervailing power.” The membership of the union in freight, carhaul and at UPS was ready for an alternative voice and had written off the current IBT leadership as not being able to deliver the goods.

This sparked an ideological struggle within the union around the question of how the union performed. The IBT is unlike other unions in which there is at least the appearance of democratic norms. Because the union is essentially a “one-party state” alternative viewpoints or discussions on strategies and tactics just don’t happen, leaving a vacuum where debate would normally occur. TDU filled the vacuum. On important issues such as two-tier wages and drug testing, TDU was the organized vocal opposition.

With a nationwide network of activists, a national newspaper and a continual stream of communications, literature, and organizing efforts, TDU won the ideological battle on the main issues. Whereas other unions would have tried to coopt the opposition through charismatic leaders and phony programs, the IBT kept a lid on debate. TDU took the debate to the members. This set the stage for the rank and file rebellion of ’87 and ’88.

The Rank and File Rebellion

To understand the significance of the contract rejections in ’87 and ’88, think of what would have happened in the UAW if Ford and General Motors had rejected their contracts. Add International Harvester, and you begin to get a feel for the scope of the rank and file rebellion within the Teamsters. Perhaps as much as twenty-five percent of the membership of the union rejected contracts in the past year and a half. Despite the rejections, the contracts were imposed upon the membership anyway, because of the two-thirds rule — further riling the membership.

The wave of contract rejections began at the most unlikely place, United Parcel Service, in the summer of 1987 when the agreement was turned down by a fifty-two percent margin. To get an idea of the shock waves the rejection sent out through the union and the company one must understand the “company culture” at UPS, a curious mixture of Dale Carnegie capitalism, Horatio Alger boosterism, and gestapo work camp tactics. The workforce at UPS had been fractured by a permanent two-tier wage which was put into effect in 1979 and split the bargaining unit into the full time “haves” who made full rate, and the part time “have nots” who made up to $5 per hour less. When the contract was put into effect in ’79, about nineteen percent of the workforce was part time. By 1984, fifty-two percent of the workforce was part time, a fact hammered home by TDU to all who were faced with a two-tier system.

The UPS Committee of TDU campaigned with the slogan “Dignity and Justice in ’87.” Analysis of the fifty­ three percent rejection contract vote showed conclusively that wherever TDU was organizing, the contract was headed for defeat Where TDU had not been effective or present, the contract passed by a wide margin.

Once again, workers were learning through hard experience. The economic struggle had now been tied to the democratic struggle in the union. The undemocratic two-thirds rule was now a direct cause of a poor contract A 100,000 Teamsters at UPS learned in a day why democracy was necessary for strong unionism. Others were listening too. Majority rule, which had a nice ring but no practical application in most Teamsters’ minds, was now on the agenda. The effect of the UPS rebellion on freight Teamsters was dramatic: if UPSers could stand up to their employer, so could the rough and tough truck drivers.

Bargaining in freight began in a militant fashion. The issues were fairly clear: two-tier wages had to go, drug testing had to be modified, and something had to be done about the loss of Teamster jobs. Economics were not the critical factor. At the 1987 TDU Convention, the TDU Freight Committee hammered out a list of demands and suggested a bargaining stance for the Teamster Freight Negotiating Committee. To everyone’s surprise, many of the TDU planks were included in the union’s demands.

As negotiations really got underway, however, the key demands for job security and protection against the employers’ use of a casual workforce were traded off. The final contract included a substantial change in the drug-testing procedure (virtually the TDU program word for word) a modification in the two-tier clause which removed seventy-five percent of that concession, and a wage and benefit increase. On the down side, the agreement contained some irritating minor concessions along with a provision allowing companies to negotiate concessions if they received the go ahead from seventy-five percent of the workers. All in all, the package was an improvement over the past two contracts.

The reaction to the proposed agreement stunned everyone, including TDU. Many local unions recommended against the agreement. Not only was TDU actively opposing the agreement, but local unions were communicating their dissatisfaction, and a spontaneous surge in rank and file flyers and communications was breaking out.

Some said the members’ outrage was fueled by the irritating concessions, others the lack of job-protection clauses. Perhaps the real reason behind the mood of defiance was that the contract votes were now being perceived as referenda on the union’s leadership and policies. When the votes were tallied the contract was rejected by nearly sixty-five percent, missing the two-thirds by the slimmest of margins. Acting IBT General President Weldon Mathis announced that the contract had been ratified, to the disgust of freight Teamsters.

Attention now focused on the National Carhaul Agreement that immediately followed the freight contract vote. The TDU Carhaul Coordinating Committee (CCC) had explicitly set a strategy of making the contract vote a referendum on union policy. The CCC had made political demands on the union as part of their contract campaign, vowing to oppose and turn down any agreement which did not include a grievance panel and bargaining committee elected by the membership. The CCC leadership undertook this task realizing that it was risky to make political demands on the union through a contract campaign, but were confident in their ability to raise the issues alongside the normal economic and other contractual demands.

Upon completion of the bargaining, the proposed contract was similar to the freight agreement. It included a raise in wages and benefits, which were traded off for minor concessions. The International was pushing hard for ratification, and under newly-appointed General President William McCarthy, were hoping to avoid another crisis brought on by a contract rejection by less than the two-thirds required under the constitution. They had no need to worry as the contract went down to a seventy-two percent rejection.

With the contract rejection, the International decided to continue bargaining without calling a strike and successfully dragged out the negotiations for a period of two months. Much of the heat of the contract campaign evaporated and a new agreement was reached with improvements and ratified by a majority. The demands on the union for a more democratic procedure and elected bargaining and grievance committees were not included in the package. However, the experiment in making demands on the union in a bargaining context proved to be successful in uniting the membership around the demands, and at least for the first vote, were a significant factor in the rejection of the agreement.

Each contract rejection strengthened the next Teamster’s hand with his employer. And with each rejection, the contracts became a way to register a protest with the union. The connection was being made — more democracy meant a strengthened hand with the boss.

The contract rejections resulted in an announcement by the General Executive Board on October 17 that the two-thirds rule was deleted from the constitution and from now on all contracts would be by majority rule. It took the rank and file rebellion to create enough heat for this major victory, and it took a national organization to create the communication among the rank and file to successfully turn up the heat with employer and union bureaucrat alike. For the first time since the beginning of TDU Teamsters were speaking loud and clear across jurisdictional lines and with a unity and purpose.

Internal Power Struggle

Big changes come through big crises. The threat of massive unrest at UPS, in freight, carhaul and in other jurisdictions wasn’t the only crisis confronting the International leadership. The death of Jackie Presser in June created a vacuum in the leadership ranks and an opportunity for a palace coup engineered by East Coast locals heavily under organized crime’s shady influence.

Two factions emerged in the power struggle. The first faction was headed by Presser’s hand-picked successor, International Secretary-Treasurer Weldon Mathis, who represented the self-described “progressive” side of the Presser leadership. Mathis would continue Presser’s policies of reaffiliation with the rest of the AFL-CIO, a slick public relations facade for the union’s image and a traditional labor movement political agenda which included cozier relations with the Democratic Party.

On the other side were the traditionalists, with William McCarthy as their appointed leader. This faction was not happy with the AFL-CIO reaffiliation and preferred to take a “we don’t give a damn” attitude about the public image of the union. Their goal was to win over the membership with Hoffa style gruffness and militant talk, while keeping a distance from the rest of the labor movement and the Democratic Party.

A little about the players in this power struggle. Weldon Mathis has been a rising star in the union for the last ten years. After taking over the reins of Atlanta Local 728, he was quickly appointed to the large and influential committees which insure a long political career in the union. Being the number two official in the International under Jackie Presser’s administration, it seemed Mathis was well set for the job of president — until he ran into problems in his home local in Atlanta.

Over the years Mathis had built a family empire in the state of Georgia. He had two sons on the local payroll, one on the International payroll, several other relatives employed by the local, and had basically run the 8,500 member local with an iron hand free of any opposition. TDU began to organize in the local in 1984 and by 1987 had built a strong and organized chapter which was capable of contending for power in the local. The Teamsters for Democracy Slate (TFD) was formed to run against Mathis and another slate in the local union elections in 1987.

The election campaign was long and bitter and exceptional for the response from employers against the TFD slate. UPS management called company meetings to get out the vote for the Mathis team, stating that they would not even negotiate grievances with the “communist and radical” TDUers. Other employers would not allow TFD slate supporters to get off work to observe the election, nor would they allow TFD literature on their property.

When the votes were counted, Mathis’ slate was declared the winner — until the Department of Labor (DOL) stepped in to investigate. The DOL found that the TFD’s allegations, charging Mathis with ballot box stuffing and the accepting of employer contributions, were true and ordered a new election to be held under the DOI’s supervision. The DOI’s decision came at the same time that Mathis had been named temporary president of the International.

To avoid further embarrassment and political damage, Mathis resigned as president of Local 728. He also announced the creation of anew local headed by his son Lamar which would take more than half of the membership from Local 728, leaving 728 just a shell of its previous strength. A new executive board was appointed for the remainder of Local 728. The controversy continues, as the DOL has ordered the new local back into 728 for a rerun election. The Mathis family has defied the order of the DOL and the case will be going to court.

Mathis’ defeat and political embarrassment in Atlanta certainly didn’t help his bid for the presidency of the International. His announcement of the freight contract ratification hurt his chances even more. The traditionalist faction saw its chance for an upset victory over Mathis and chose William McCarthy, an international vice president and president of Boston Local 25 as its candidate. McCarthy had the advantage of being an “unknown” to the membership and being relatively “clean.” He was also almost a Hoffa-style Teamster image-a tough talker with the employers and the press and in no way the slick AFL, three-piece suit type of representative. In his first press conference, when asked what Jackie Presser would think of his being elected as General President, McCarthy responded, “I don’t know what he thinks. Why don’t you ty to locate him?” The members loved it.

McCarthy was elected by a nine-to-eight margin in a vote of the General Executive Board. The infighting had begun. Mathis supporters found themselves fired from important committees and positions, and McCarthy vowed to put the union on a new course, overturn the freight contract, and begin to make the Teamsters tough again. Mathis responded by proposing reforms to bring more “democracy” to the union and began an all-out public relations offensive to show he was truly the reformer in the IBT Mathis proposed an end to the two-thirds rule, the direct election of convention delegates along with an early convention, and the formation of an ethical practices committee. McCarthy came back endorsing the same planks, along with talk of direct election of the general president, and went ahead and changed the two-thirds rule.

All of a sudden everyone was a reformer. The union’s leadership had gone from attacking TDU delegates, who had proposed the very same reforms at the past two !BT conventions, to endorsing the very same reforms in a contest of who was the 11real reformer.” Neither of the candidates’ past records would indicate any love for democracy or militancy. And besides the two-thirds rule change, not much has been done over the other proposed reforms. Even in the dictatorship called the IB'”C the leadership has to have some support of the membership, d these leaders’ calls for reform were an attempt to win over the rank and file.


But something bigger was also speeding up the IBT leadership’s miraculous conversion to reform. On June 28, 1988 the United States Justice Department filed a civil suit under the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization) statute, alleging that organized crime “has deprived union members of their rights through a pattern of racketeering that included twenty murders, a number of shootings, bombings, beatings, a campaign of fear, bribes, extortion and theft and the misuse of union funds.” The relief sought by the government was their removal of current IBT General Executive Board (GEB) members found to be RICO violators, and the appointment of a trustee for the IBT to run elections for new officers and to perform duties of the GEB in order to bar racketeering activity within the union until there are free and fair elections.

The union had been warned well before the Justice Department’s suit In fact the RICO case had been the motivation for reaffiliation with the AFL-CIO, to construct a united front against government trusteeship. After the filing of the suit, the union characterized the government’s action as “the tactics of fascists or communists and the destruction of the free trade union movement as we know it,, Teamsters and other unions alike went into an all-out campaign against the proposed trusteeship.

DU was faced with a major challenge both internally and externally with the government’s suit. On the one hand, the government’s remedy of a one-member, one-vote election for top officials had been a long-time goal of the organization, but the threat of trusteeship was enough to outweigh the benefits of a direct election. When word of a possible suit leaked out in 1987 it kicked off an intense discussion within the organization. To TDU’s credit, the issue was debated from all angles and resolved in a resolution to the 1987 TDU Convention which came out against the government lawsuit, yet reiterated that a direct election of top officers was the first step in freeing the union of organized crime elements. The slogan, “No mob control. No government control. Teamsters need the Right to Vote,” carried the day.

The actual resolution from the Convention explicitly stated TDU’s position:

“Whereas, the 1.6 million members of our union have had no meaningful input in choosing our International Union officers, including our General President; and whereas, our top leaders are more in tune with employers than with the working Teamster membership; and whereas, our General President and other top officials have damaged our union’s name and reputation through their association with organized crime and through their refusal to con­ sider internal mechanisms such as an Ethical Practice Committee, they have put our union in danger of a federal trusteeship through their self-serving actions; and whereas, Teamster members cannot accept a dangerous and unwarranted court-appointed trusteeship as a solution to our union’s problems: Therefore, this convention resolves to launch a new phase of our campaign to win the right to vote for IBT officers, on the grounds of democratic unionism and as the most effective way to rid our union of corruption.

“This Convention reaffirms that in the event of a U.S. Department of Justice suit against the IBT using racketeering statutes, TDU will intervene to strongly oppose a court appointed trusteeship, and to sup­ port a plan that will provide for a supervised, one-member, one-vote election for International Union officers.”

The program couldn’t be clearer: TDU opposes trusteeship and wants the right to vote. With the RICO trial scheduled, TDU is now intervening in the suit. In order to intervene, TDU had to choose a side. TDU will be intervening on the union’s side to uphold the principle of unions free of government control, and to speak in favor of direct elections. It’s a position that is independent from both the government’s and the IBT’s particular point of view. It remains to be seen as to whether the judge will allow the intervention.

TDU’s stand on the RICO suit was not an easy decision to make. There was and is a current of thought among rank and file Teamsters, some in TDU, which supported the government’s action as a last chance remedy to clean up the union. Many thought that winning the right to vote, at whatever cost, would be such an enormous change that it would permanently alter the balance of forces within the union towards the rank and file side. Others opposed the suit on principled grounds that the labor movement could never tum to the government, or accept trusteeship, no matter what.

The trend in the union was anti-trusteeship, and the TDU convention made the wisest and most practical choice. The union was under tremendous pressure, a crisis situation had emerged, and the right to vote was definitely on the agenda. The TDU leadership saw a chance to have their cake and eat it too.

The actual trial is scheduled to begin on February 18, 1989. It appears that both the union and the Justice Department would rather the case be settled to avoid years of litigation and millions of dollars in expenses. This explains both McCarthy’s and Mathis’ reform platforms. While these would fall short of the one-member one-vote solution, the opportunity to directly elect delegates to the next IBT convention would increase the chances for more reform elements, both TDU and non-TDU, to be elected and have an effect on the election of the GEB and on other reform proposals.

Ironically, the same administration which the union had accused of fascist tactics received the endorsement of the IBT when the General Executive Board voted to endorse George Bush in the recent presidential election, another indication that the RICO suit could be headed towards a settlement. The Bush endorsement also fired up the factional strife in the union, causing local officials to denounce McCarthy for the choice and certainly putting the Mathis faction right back in the ball game.

The debate over the RICO suit within TDU was a sign of the organization’s growing maturity. The issue could have severely strained what has been in the past a tenuous unity. Democratic debate, the development of a group of sophisticated leaders, and a unity which has been solidified by success pulled the organization through and made it stronger. With this strength of purpose the organization was well poised to organize the coming rank and file rebellion and win the respect of rank and file members and officers alike.

The Future

As Teamsters at the TDU Convention began filling the hall for a closing speech by Victor Reuther, a young UPS driver, attending with his wife, stuck his head through the door to see if there were any seats in the back of the hall. His son was restless and a little noisy. The father asked if he could bring in his son and sit in the back of the room because, “I want to be able to tell my son when he grows up that he was here to see something special.”

At the podium, a young Teamster from Mississippi was preparing his introduction of Reuther. On the day before, when asked if he needed any help or some background in preparing the introduction he replied, “I’ve been studying my history. I think I can handle it.” He handled it well, speaking of the Haymarket Martyrs and Albert Parsons and how they fought and died for working people’s rights. He spoke of Reuther and the Flint sitdown strike and finished up saying, “I’m proud to be part of that history.”

On returning to his seat he leaned over and said, “Not too bad for a Mississippi boy, huh?” Not bad at all.

For many of us involved daily in the labor movement, we’ve learned to be content with the small victories: a grievance won, a successful intervention at a local meeting, a petition signed by everyone in defense of a discharged worker: All of them hard fought victories. All of them worth the effort. TDU has built its success on these small victories, because every once in a while, one, two or a small group of these workers were touched with the fire of the movement, touched by the realization that they are part of something bigger, something historical. They realized, perhaps, that working class people don’t have many opportunities in our lives to make history, and when the chance comes, it must be grabbed with all the gusto possible.

TDU has been able to reach thousands of workers and touch them with that fire. It may be easy to lose sight of the big picture when your efforts are thrown into the day-to-day struggle at work. But TDUers see that as the big picture: to fight the boss and the bureaucrat, to build consciousness and confidence, to work for a goal of liberation, not only at work, but in our lives. It may not be spoken, or written in some constitution, but it’s there. That is what motivates TDU activists to give precious time, to risk discharge and harassment, and to stand out from the crowd.

TDU’s success in building a movement lies in its unique perspective of building rank and file power. It’s the kind of power that unites Teamsters and speaks in a way that reaches the man and the woman who didn’t have a voice, but now recognize their own voice in the movement It’s the kind of power that can sustain itself, because it always relies on the self-initiative of workers, it always seeks new leaders. It’s the kind of power that was necessary to win majority rule on contracts. The leadership of the IBT did not and still doesn’t believe in majority rule, which takes too much power from the hands of technicians and skilled negotiators and delivers it to the membership. Only an organized and confident rank and file would make such a demand.

The history of rank and file organization during the past few decades has shown that the biggest trap to fall into is to depend upon a leader, or a certain leader­ ship group, without developing the skills and leadership potential of the membership. Democracy demands responsibility. Class consciousness thrives where workers set their own agendas, create new tools to wage the fight and learn that their destiny is in their collective hands. TDU has come to be that tool for many Teamsters.

The future of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters is up for grabs, if not tomorrow, down the road. Whether control of the union will be in the hands of the current leadership, a reform leadership, or the rank and file depends on several factors. The upcoming RICO case, as mentioned, could be a watershed development. If the RICO case is settled before or during the trial, a likely settlement will involve a specially called IBT Convention, with a direct election of delegates. This would be a serious challenge to TDU’s organizational abilities to run for delegate spots on a national scale. Considering that TDU had about 100 delegates and sympathizers at the last IBT Convention in 1986, with only the largest locals being able to elect any delegates (only locals with over 6,500 members elect delegates, the rest send members of their executive boards), a much larger TDU delegation would be likely.

While this TDU delegation almost certainly would not be in the majority (there are 2,000 delegates) it would be a significant bloc. With an open convention, there is the possibility of another opposition and a sure challenge to the current General President, William McCarthy. This would make the TDU bloc all the more important, perhaps resulting in an alliance with other forces over certain democratic reforms. Bringing a well-organized force into the convention and actively seeking allies among reform-minded local officials would be a top priority.

If the IBT loses the RICO case, which would probably be after years of litigation, then TDU would face the prospect of being involved in a direct election of the top officers. Once again, finding allies among the current officialdom may be on the agenda.

If the IBT prevails, it’s still not business as usual. TDU will continue to grow around the issues it has always fought for: With the deterioration in master contracts and conditions everywhere, political opposition is more likely to grow.

The challenge within TDU in any of the above cases is to become a “political party” within the union. This means exerting political power at the local level, which means running for office and building a national network of reform officials, while at the same time retaining TDU’s identity as a rank and file movement. It’s no easy task.

TDU took the first steps at their 1988 convention by beginning to move from being an organizer and watchdog of the rank and file’s interest to a mechanism for power within the union. This is new to the TDU membership. It will take a leap in confidence and even more struggle to move from critic to becoming a “political party” with a unique rank and file program for the union. With every contract rejected, and every reform made, the rank and file comes that much closer to success.

In a way, TDU is a movement without heroes, without a recognizable leader. But the heroes and leaders are there. They’re the Atlanta truck driver who spoke of the raging fire of democracy and the Mississippi UPSer who recognized his place in history. They’re the new activists confident in their newly discovered power and the old leaders who laid the foundation for change. They’re found from Alaska to Maine cranking out flyers, passing petitions, and spreading the word that every Teamster has the ability to determine his or her own destiny. It’s what the labor movement is all about and it’s alive and well in TDU.

January-February 1989, ATC 18

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