The New Teamsters

Against the Current, No. 37, March/April 1992

Phil Kwik

IN HIS DECEMBER 13 victory speech, the new General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (1FF), Ron Carey, said: “Good-bye to the Mafia …. This union has been won back by its members.”

The stunning victory of the reform slate in the first-ever, one-member, one-vote election in the 13 million-member union represents just that a victory by the union’s rank and file. Officers in fewer than thirty of the union’s 638 locals supported the Carey slate. None of the Joint Council—the middle level of the union—supported Carey. None of the International vice presidents—the union’s executive board—supported Carey.

Most striking is the victory’s breadth. The Carey slate won in every region of the union, except Canada, swept all sixteen seats it contested, and won 483% of the vote. In two regions, the South and the West, reformers won an absolute majority against the combined forces of two incumbent slates. The reformers also won in most union jurisdictions, including freight, United Parcel Service and airlines.

In retrospect, the sweeping reform victory should come as no surprise. For two years, the entire campaign took on the feel of a social movement that grew every step of the way. How did it happen? Two factors stand above all: the collapse of the incumbent machine, and the organization of the rank-and-file reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

Winning The Union

Once famous for its militancy, the Teamsters union of the last thirty years has been better known for its ties to organized crime, sweetheart contracts and declining strength. Angry at their loss of strength at the workplace and at the bargaining table, the members finally said “Enough!”

Not everyone voted for Carey out of a commitment to his candidacy. Many wanted to “throw the bums out” This government-supervised election (for background see the accompanying article by Kim Moody) was the first time most Teamsters could express their feelings about the union without fear of reprisals. To these people, the election became the focal point of years of disenchantment with the union.

This sentiment was clear even in locals controlled by Carey’s opponents. In Detroit Local 337, for example, home of R.V. Durham slate member Larry Brennan, Carey received 1,000 votes to Durham’s 1,200—an amazing thing given that Local 337 reformers were defeated and blacklisted in local elections in the early 1980s and hadn’t been very active in the local since then. Yet, when the members were able to vote in a secret ballot the reformers just missed winning.

More than just the chance to vote, however, the Teamster ranks had candidates they believed in, candidates who were not tied to the old guard, but who were honest, hard-working unionists. Ron Carey never cozied up to the mob leadership. But perhaps more important to many of the rank and file, he took on the boss. He earned his reputation in the 1970s and ’80s fighting UPS, the most notorious of the tens of thousands of Teamsters employers, and winning decent contracts.

Carey and his supporters took his campaign to the members, charged up the activists, spoke with hundred of thousands of Teamsters, opened up the union and created a spirit that won over many who thought they could never play a role in their union. His personal appeal is very strong.

Carey isn’t the only one on his slate who was of the rank and file. The composition of the entire reform slate—and of the new Teamsters executive board—is very different from any other leading body in the U.S. labor movement It includes no incumbent International officials. Only about half of the members are local officials; the rest are working Teamsters, and nearly half are members of TDU.

Like many Teamsters, two slate members have been out of work since the past summer, one was fired for union activity, another was laid-off when the trucking company he worked for closed. Significantly, the reform slate includes the first woman and Latino to sit of the Teamsters executive board, and one African American.

The Need for Organization

The ease with which the union bureaucracy collapsed in the face of a rank-and-file challenge shocked many observers. Teamster officials, who relied on intimidation for so long in the past, couldn’t deliver the vote when their jobs depended on it.

According to activists, the story was the same all over the country. Among Chicago clericals: “Durham’s people didn’t know how to campaign, because they never had to. They told the members to vote, but they never had any strategy for how to turn people out” In New York City warehouses: “When local officials told a member to vote for Durham or Shea, they said ‘Yeah, stick it’ They certainly weren’t going to listen to them.” At an Iowa United Parcel Service hub: “The members tell me, ‘We know Carey and we’ll vote for him. We don’t know Durham, but if he’s part of the old guard we won’t vote for him.” At Detroit freight docks: ‘Business agents, who haven’t been at workplaces for years, are campaigning for Durham. That’s losing him more votes than it’s winning him.”

By contrast, the reformers were organized, due mostly to the structure that had been built by TDU. For sixteen years, TDUers organized a grassroots network of activists in some 150 locals across the U.S. and Canada. They were seen daily in the workplace, distributing contract bulletins, helping members file grievances, providing pension information, leading support for sisters and brothers on strike.

When TDU first endorsed Carey in November 1989, some in TDU thought they would be a part of a coalition, which would include many disenchanted local officials who would be willing to take on the union’s power structure. While Carey named afew local officials to his slate, the coalition never really materialized. In the end, TDU was the backbone of the campaign, activating rank and filers far beyond its numbers.

In 1990, Carey supporters gathered 100,000 signatures on petitions to give the reform slate space in the union’s magazine, The International Teamster, the first time debate appeared in the pages of the magazine.

In early 1991, reformers won half of all delegate races they entered and sent 275 delegates (15%) to the union’s June convention. At that convention, they won the right to vote for officers, majority rule on contracts and supplements and a quadrupling of strike benefits. During the floor demonstrations after the nominations, Carey delegates had the determination and spirit, the old-guard supporters were only “doing their job.”

Not until late October, when Durham warned all local officials to take the reform campaign seriously, did the incumbents understand the movement they were facing. But by then, only three weeks before the ballots were mailed, it was too late. A local-by-local look at the election results clearly shows the effect of the rank-andfile organization: Where TDU organizing has been strongest in the past, the Carey slate win was the strongest—even in the opposing camp’s back yards.

Many rank-and-file campaigners were able to tap into the desire for change among the ranks because of the training, experience and commitment they had developed over the years of building TDU. As a Memphis, Tennessee freight driver put it: “The old guard had the money, but we had the people and the foundation that had been build by TDU.”

Finishing The Job

One of the main tasks of the reformers now will be to finish the job of cleaning up the union. They’ve elected the top officials and have demonstrated their support among the rank and file, but there are many officials at the local and Joint Council level who, for the most part, remain hostile to reform.

Because of the union’s decentralization, these officials could block democratic reforms and a militant program. Some activists predict a “civil war” in the union, with the International officers and the ranks on one side, and local and Council officials on the other.

Carey has attempted to diffuse this situation. “In building the new Teamsters, I need the help of everyone,” he said in his inauguration speech on February 2. “Regardless of who you supported in this election, I am reaching out my hand to ask for your support … in building a better union.”

At the same time the new administration is pushing ahead with reform. “Within the coming weeks, I will be announcing the creation of a new ethics committee within our union… [to] investigate misconduct and corruption wherever they exist and recommend disciplinary actions,” Carey said.

It appears that some of the union’s old-guard are gearing up for a fight. Larry Brennan, a defeated candidate of the Durham slate and president of Michigan Joint Council 43, told the Detroit Free Press that his council may withhold dues payment to the International if Carey “antagonizes” too many local officials.

The New York limes reported that on inauguration day “members of the [Johnny] Morris local laughed as Carey promised to create an ethics committee to investigate misconduct and corruption.” Morris is the only member of the Shea slate to win election to the union’s executive board, to a position not contested by the reform slate. So far outgoing General President Billy McCarthy has refused to give up his seat on the AFL-CIO’s executive council. (Though McCarthy’s term ends next year, typically council members who lose election relinquish the seats to their successors.)

To consolidate reforms, activists will put some of their energies into local elections. About one-third of local union elections take place each fall.

There are two reasons for this emphasis. First, this is the level of the union that members see day-to-day, and the level at which much of their dissatisfaction lies. TDU activists often argue that winning International office doesn’t necessarily change things at your particular workplace. It doesn’t change who your business agent is or whether you get a grievance settled. Second, local leaders elect Joint Councils officials. In order to transform the union—for lasting reform to take root, for real organizing drives or contract campaigns to happen—the Joint Councils must be changed.

Though the top officers cannot play a direct role in local elections, they can help guarantee against stolen and fraudulent elections. Under the old adminstration, reformers sometimes won local office, only to have the International order a rerun, producing different results.
TDU activists and other reformers realize that they will have to focus on more than local elections. They need to reach new areas, and involve more than the 28% of the membership who voted. The election of the Carey slate removed some of the obstacles to activating the members, but it doesn’t guarantee success. More members will have to be involved in the union if the reformers hope to consolidate their power.

Taking on The Bosses

To many, the attraction of the Carey slate wasn’t only its call for greater union democracy. It was also because Carey ran on bread-and-butter issues, arguing that a dean union is an effective one.

In the past, the reformers frequently were in the position of challenging contracts that had been negotiatedby the leaders in a secretive, top-down fashion. Now the new Teamster leadership has the opportunity to use the resources of the union to put in place aggressive internal organizing and real contract campaigns. Every workplace problem or contract issue would become a focus for organizing, education and leadership development. Workers would participate in strategy decisions. Leaders would encourage direct action, building coalitions, and exerting pressure.

Organizing new members is clearly another priority. Union membership has fallen from 2.2 million to 1.5 million over the past decade. While the reasons for this are complex and varied—deregulation; new efficiency in the industry; erosion of the U.S. steel, automobile and rubber industries that used trucks to move their products—certainly a renewed emphasis by the administration to organize Federal Express, Overnite, J.B. Hunt and other non-union carriers and delivery services could boost the union’s clout at the bargaining table.

Throughout the union, the new officials and the activists will have to work together to reach organized members in nontraditional Teamster jurisdictions—dubbed by Carey during the campaign as the “forgotten Teamsters’—in particular women and people of color, who had no role in the old union.

The new administration will face some big challenges early in its term. One test will be the carhaul contact, which expired in June 1991. Carhaulers—those truckers who transport automobiles from the assembly plants to the dealerships—still have a great deal of power With the current recession and the general state of the economy, however, few people are buying cars.

If the administration can put in place a rank-andfile negotiating committee and contract campaign, and turn back the concessions being demanded by the employers, it has the opportunity to show the ranks the difference that new leadership makes. It would also go a long way to prepare the groundwork for the national freight and UPS contracts in the upcoming years.

Another test will be the raid of Teamsters flight attendants at Northwest Airlines. Five years ago, when Republic and Northwest merged, the Teamsters—the union that represented the Northwest flight attendants—defeated the Association of Flight Attendants, which represented attendants at Republic.

The flight attendants have been unhappy with Teamster representation ever since. To press their concerns, they formed Flight Attendants for a Democratic Voice, and voted almost three-to-one for the reformers in the International elections. But when the AFA recently initiated a raid of the unit at Northwest, 70% of the attendants signed up, according to AFA officials.

According to union activists, this shows how low the former officials let the union sink in the eyes of many rank and filers. It also demonstrates how big a job the new administration will have reaching and winning over the members. Though the reformers were campaigning among rank-and-file flight attendants in January, trying to convince them to stay in the Teamsters, it is not clear whether they will succeed. A vote to see which union will represent the attendants will be counted in March.

Spreading The Movement

Clearly, the initial focus of much of the reform administration will be consolidating its base, and working for better contracts and conditions for rank-and-file Teamsters. At this point, what role the union will play in the larger labor movement is unclear.

Carey seems to understand the need for the new Teamsters to be an aggressive member of the house of labor. In his inaugural address, he said the union must “look beyond the problems that exist today, to stand up and be heard on the issues that… affect the lives of working people in this country and abroad.

“No longer will we support candidates who are enemies of organized labor…. We will be in the forefront of the battle to pass national health insurance Well fight for legislation to stop employers from firing workers who exercise their right to strike.”

Where the Teamsters union is headed is an unansweredquestion. But the door has been opened for change. Carey ended his inaugural speech to some 2000 Teamsters by inviting them to come into the building because “it belongs to you now.” The membership of the union can shape its future, and its future depends not only on the new leadership, but on the membership as well.

Some members of the new administration will push the union to be a stronger voice on issues like childcare, civil rights, the economy and the needs of the poor. What part might TDUers—the best, most advanced, and most experienced activists in the union—play in this?

For the last sixteen years, the main task of TDU has been union reform. Now that some reforms have been won, TDUers are in a new position. For a time they may be the “shockfroops,” carrying out the new administration’s overhaul of the union. Because of their workplace experiences they may be the key leaders on the front lines of the International-endorsed organizing and contract campaigns. TDU is also now in a leadership role: How far and how fast the union moves will, in many instances, depend on how far and fast the reformers move.

The role that the Teamsters union plays in the AFL-CIO will also depend on how the leaders in other unions respond to the new administration. Some may try to welcome the new Teamsters leaders into the inner circle. But to many, Carey’s victory represents a threat to the way they do union business, especially since Carey seems willing to continue his friendliness toward reformers in other unions. Before the election, Carey told a Los Angeles reporter that not one International union official gave him any support—even verbal.

Because of different conditions in other unions, the election in the Teamsters will probably not have a direct spin-off effect It’s doubtful that activists will come to power anytime soon in the United Auto Workers, the Food and Commercial Workers, or in other unions that have fledgling reform movements. Nonetheless, with the rank and file in control of the largest union in the AFL-CIO, and with more activists winning local office and playing a larger role in the cross-union labor bodies, workers in other unions will begin to feel empowered by the Teamsters’ example.

The reform Teamsters will send the clear message that militancy and democracy can succeed. As one Teamster activist said in explaining the impact of the December rank-and-file victory: “People will see that we did it. They’ll see how we did it. People will start feeling like they belong to a union movement again.”

May-June 1992, ATC 36