TDU Faces Major Challenges Ahead

Against the Current, No. 43, March/April 1993

Nick Davidson

TEAMSTERS FOR A DEMOCRATIC UNION (MU), the rank-and-file reform caucus within the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), is at a turning point in its history. With the victory of the Ron Carey Slate in 1991, several 1DU members have moved into high-ranking positions within the union as elected officials and field staff. Long accustomed to being dissident “outsiders” far removed from the levers of power, reformers are struggling to make the most of their new role in what has been America’s most corrupt and conservative union.

At the same time, =having focused much of its energy over the past few years on its campaign to democratize the union, 1DU is now having to turn more of its attention back to its roots: fighting Corporate America.

The recent 1DU Convention in St Louis, held last October, was the most successful in 1DU’s sixteen-year history. Record numbers of Teamster activists attended workshops and discussed the fir-hire of the reform movement, allaying fears that rank and filers would drift away from 1DU after the Carey Slate won. Most TDUers know that Ron Carey cannot fix the union, or fight the corporations, by himself.

TDtJers recommitted themselves to strengthening the reform wing of the union, of which Carey is a leading figure-However, 1DU remains the main engine for change in the union, and its independent role vis-à-vis the International was emphasized over and over again.

1DU’s efforts have been generally divided into two main areas. One has been to reform the internal functioning of the union to bring rank and filers into the decision-making process, allow open debate and discussion, and eliminate the bureaucratic stratum that has controlled the union for decades. The other has been to push for a tougher stance against the employers, resisting concessions, enforcing contracts and building solidarity within the workforce.

TDU’s position has been that the two areas of activity are linked: Internal democracy will result in a stronger union, and a stronger union will require the involvement and participation of the rank and file. The past three years of TDU activity have seen a large focus on the “democracy” side of the equation due to events beyond 1DU’s control.

Winning at the National Level

When the U.S. government brought suit against the IBT in 1988 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act for connections with organized crime, 1DU threw itself into a battle to ensure that the outcome of the government’s intervention would benefit the rank-and-file membership.

By intervening legally in the RICO case, by organizing rank-and-file activists to testify at hearings, and through intense lobbying efforts, 1DU helped shape the final settlement between the government and the union. The result was the first-ever rank-and-file vote for delegates to the Teamster International Convention, and direct election of the International officers of the union.

The following three years were ape-nod of intense activity by reformers to participate effectively in those first- ever elections. The result, the election of the Ron Carey Slate in December, 1991, was a stunning victory for the Teamster reform movement.

The success of these efforts are measured not only by the salutary effects on the Teamsters Union—the election of an honest, activist-oriented leadership that has already made a sharp break from the self-enriching concession-minded policies of past union officials—but also by the enormous benefits that have accrued to 1DU for having done the lion’s share of the work in getting the Carey Slate elected.

TDU is now a player in national Teamster politics as never before 1DU members hold positions on the General Executive Board of the union, and TDUers and other reformers are running for local office in unprecedented numbers. The Carey victory has shifted the terms of the debate over the direction of the union in 1DU’s direction. 1DU has a voice in the leadership of the International union, and has established itself as a growing “second party” at the lower levels of the former “one-party state” of the union bureaucracy.

Despite these breakthroughs, TDU’s struggle for union democracy is far from over. On the contrary, Old Guard union officials are fighting back hard, and with some success. The Old Guard still controls the overwhelming majority of local unions, and all of the Joint Councils and Area Conferences.

From that vantage point, they control the vast majority of the union’s dues money, much of the master contract grievance panel system, and the largest union pension funds. Structural changes could be instituted by Ron Carey which, while antagonizing powerful Old Guard officials, would strengthen rank-and-file efforts to root out strongholds of the old regime, and give the International more allies at all levels of the union. Carey, however, has so far been cautious in his relations with entrenched union officials.

How Carey and the unique rank-and-file movement represented by TDU deal with these problems—and handle their own delicate relationship—will determine whether last year’s historic election victory results In fundamental institutional change or more superficial improvements in the IBT.

Fight for Democracy an Uphill Battle

Having organized the popular upheaval that toppled the most formidable one-party state In American labor, Teamster reformers now find themselves in a daunting position Overhauling the central bureaucracy has proven to be harder than they ever imagined.

With little preparation or experience, some movement activists have been thrust into administrative jobs where the day-to-day demands and dead weight of inherited structures threaten to detach them from their grassroots base. Vacillation or even accommodation with the Old Guard may result.

Meanwhile, since the reformers’ control of the IBT at the top has produced few immediate gains for many members at the bottom, there is a danger of rank-and-file disillusionment and demoralization that could undermine the further organizing necessary to complete the job.

The skilled intriguers and veteran apparatchiks of the old regime have considerable staying power and many perks left to defend. They’re attacking and exploiting every miscue of the new leadership, even while sometimes masquerading as “New Teamsters” themselves. If reformers fracture or fail, future elections might return power to those who wielded it against the membership in the past.

Foot dragging, even outright sabotage, by Old Guard officials pose a big threat to the Carey Administration’s next major challenge—mobilizing the 160,000 Teamsters covered by the IBTs largest single contract, the national agreement with United Parcel Service (UPS) that expires July 31.

Early in his presidency, Carey sent management and the Old Guard a strong message by removing Incumbent union reps on a national ST-UPS grievance committee. He replaced them with reform-minded local officers and rank-and filers committed to aggressive contract enforcement However, many of the 200 Teamster locals representing UPS workers are still giving the company a free ride and UPS has systematically weakened the union by hiring so many part-timers that they now constitute half its workforce.

“We have enemies—both In Corporate America and the union—who want us to fall flat on our face and they talk to each other,” says new IBT Vice-President Mario Perrucci. “We’ve got to show these employers and the Old Guard that, if they don’t get out of the way, we’re coining right through anyway.”

One immediate problem is a financial crunch at the International. The International’s ability to implement new programs is severely constrained by the fact that it gets only thirteen percent of each dues dollar and is paying out more than it takes in. This longstanding deficit spending—left over from previous administrations–is reducing the IBT’s $75 million general fund at the rate of $20 million a year The union’s strike fund, drained by a 1991 increase In benefits to $200 a week and greater strike activity, will go broke even sooner if revenue is not increased.

These financial difficulties have forced Carey to consider calling for a special convention to raise dues. This possibility partially explains why Carey has shied away from reforms sought by TDUers that would save more money or further democratize the union, but also antagonize the hundreds of local officials who would inevitably dominate such a convention. Unfortunately, in this situation the Old Guard has added leverage.

Among the steps Carey has not taken is depriving the union area conferences of their $3.6 million in annual subsidies from the International, and discontinuing a lucrative Teamster pension plan for officers around the country (most of whom are already covered by one of two other retirement funds). This $500 million plan alone claims about one-seventh of the IBT’s total annual revenue.

To the disappointment of many In TDU, Carey also refused to use his extensive constitutional powers to order mail ballot voting in all Teamster local officer elections, which would increase voter turn-out and limit the influence of machine politics and intimidation. In addition, when reformers were running for office last fall In numerous locals that voted heavily for Carey a year ago, the IBT president adopted such a strong neutral stance that he appeared to be distancing himself from his own base.

Furthermore, reformers are discovering, to their chagrin, that union members are not willing to vote for local union reformers simply because they supported the Ron Carey Slate at the national level. Several reform slates have recently lost officer elections in local unions which voted heavily for Carey in 1991.

There are several reasons for this. For one, local incumbent officers are campaigning much harder to preserve their own positions than they did to defeat Carey. Second, rank and filers are wary of voting for challengers who are inexperienced in contract negotiation, grievance handling and pension administration, even though they may be dissatisfied with their local leadership. Carey’s unwillingness to order mail-ballot elections also made it more difficult.

Of course, compared with past years reformers are running in, and winning, more local elections than ever before. Reformers have won local union executive board positions in nearly half of the races they have entered. But the results show that winning the top spot in local unions is not as easy as some had hoped. The staying power of local incumbent officers may also have a conservatizing effect on the Carey administration, who may see local election results as even more reason to build bridges with the Old Guard.

Some Carey supporters—particularly in big city locals with a history of organized crime domination—also worry that he has been slow to tackle remaining corruption, while at the same time criticizing the cost and Intrusiveness of court-supervised clean-up efforts.

Government Involvement Continues

The issue of government involvement in the union’s internal affairs is a controversial one. Under terms of the 1989 racketeering case settlement, representatives of federal judge David Mel-stein Investigated and brought charges against 185 Teamster officials. Almost sixty were expelled for mob ties and another seventy-seven were suspended, removed, or forced to resign over their involvement in corruption generally. Nine locals were put under trusteeship and millions misappropriated by Teamster crooks were recovered.

The Consent Decree also provided for the establishment of an Internal Review Board (IRB), whose job is to continue indefinite government oversight over Teamster internal affairs. The IRB consists of three members, one appointed by the court, one by the union, and one mutually agreed upon by the first two.

The court appointee, high-priced Republican lawyer Frederick Lacey, who sits on the boards of Anheuser-Busch (a major Teamster employer) and the Pinkerton Security & Investigation Services (which has a long and sordid antiunion history) quickly sought to expand the IRB’s oversight functions, to be paid for with unlimited access to Teamster funds. IBT officials have taken exception to the projected cost of the IRB, especially considering the union’s financial crunch.

Edelstein also approved the appointment of former FBI and CIA Director William Webster as one of the three members when the union wouldn’t agree to his appointment as the “neutral” third member, leaving a sole representative to be appointed by the union.

Carey rightly blasted Edelstein’s appointment of Webster, but the crusty, eighty-two-year-old judge responded with a largely accurate critique of the new administration’s “anemic record in attempting to eradicate corruption” through internal union action.

During his first few months in office, Carey created a parallel institution called the Ethical Practices Committee, which is a purely internal union policing mechanism. He counterposes it to the IRB as proof that the new union leadership does not need outside interference to clean its own house.

Discussions within the Teamster reform movement about further government involvement have revealed differences of opinion Some take the traditional view that unions must be free of government influence, and argue that the internal Ethical Practices Committee should be given a chance to work Others see the IRB as being able to act free of Old Guard pressures and therefore better able to eliminate corruption.

Whichever proves more successful in removing corrupt officials, reformers widely agree that a key to Carey’s efforts to cleanse the union will be to build rank-and-file involvement in the union, and to strengthen the reform movement within and beyond the several hundred thousand members who voted for change a year ago. TDU, with its continual development of new rank-and-file leadership and local reform slates, is an indispensable part of this process.

Teamsters for a Militant Union?

In addition to pressing for greater union democracy, IDU must also shift more of its focus to the employers. Several corporations are already stepping up their pressure on the International union in reaction to its greater militancy.

For instance, Yellow Freight, one of the largest Teamster trucking companies, has recently begun opening non-union operations in the South in response to the International’s refusal to accept concessions in early 1992.

One of TDU’s major upcoming challenges will be, without forgetting the unfinished work of democratizing the union, to lead the fight fora more militant stance and consciousness among the Teamster rank and file.

Fighting the boss has always been part of the “TDU personality.” Most 1DU members are recruited when they are in struggle against their employer. TDU membership grows fastest during negotiations for the three national Teamster labor contracts: freight, UPS and carhaul. TDU grew in strength and prominence when it was able to organize majority “No” votes on freight, UPS and carhaul contracts during the late eighties.

TDU’s role has changed with respect to national contract negotiations. Instead of fighting the national union leadership to prevent concessions, TDU activists must now become the “shock troops” of the union—the most militant, willing to fight and able to mobilize their coworkers to stand up against the corporations. A first look at this new role came during negotiations between the International union and the auto transport companies in early 1992.

The national carhaul contract, covering approximately 17,000 Teamsters, expired in July, 1991, but was still open when Carey took office on February 1, 1992. The Old Guard leadership had failed to negotiate a contract that the rank and file would ratify (a previous tentative settlement had been rejected). The main issue on the table was growing efforts by the corporations to “double-breast” (open non-union subsidiaries and transfer work from their union to their nonunion operations).

The new union leadership took a harder stance at the bargaining table, and launched a multi-pronged campaign against the corporations. This included mobilizing the membership through petition and button campaigns, issuing regular contract bulletins to keep the members informed, and attacking the largest carhaul corporation (Ryder) with a corporate campaign. At the same time, the International began preparations for a national strike.

Some union officials embraced the new strategy. But many more, who had not supported Carey’s campaign for union president, balked at the new tactics. They argued that the union could not win the fight, that the union’s only chance for survival was to give concessions, and that Carey was usurping the authority of local officers by communicating directly with the membership through letters and bulletins.

In the internal union conflict over tactics, TDU played a crucial role. TDU rank-and-file activists advocated and carried out the International’s program over the objections of their local union officers. TDUers distributed flyers, circulated petitions, leafletted customers and supported strike action if necessary.

The mutual efforts of the IBT and the reform movement carried the day. The carhaul corporations were forced to retreat from doublebreasting, and the new contract proposal was ratified by a better than ninety percent vote. At the same time, Teamster union officials who had opposed the new strategy were forced to acknowledge that the New Teamsters Union had scored a significant victory.

In the example of the carhaul contract, the reform movement played a supportive role to the International, and will do the same in upcoming UPS bargaining. In other cases, however, rank-and-file activists will have to take the lead, particularly in contracts negotiated by local unions rather than the International. In both cases, TDUers must be the best union activists in fights against the corporations.

The Question of Consciousness

For many TDU members, the greater emphasis on militancy will come easily. As described above, most TDUers joined the organization because it helped them fight the boss. A more difficult question will be how far the militant consciousness will go. In today’s economic reality, fighting your own boss is often not enough. The internationalization of capital, the growing competition between workers in the First and Third Worlds, the falling rate of profit and the general crisis of the U.S. economy, have made it more difficult for workers to win with a narrow conception of the battlefield.

Furthermore, militant protection of one’s job can turn into seeing other workers (union workers at other companies, non-union workers, part-time or casual workers, Third World and women workers, etc.) as the enemy. Over the past decade, the corporations have increasingly used cooperative management schemes as a powerful new psychological weapon to reinforce such divisions between workers. Most TDUers are not susceptible to such programs. However, the 1DU militancy of the past will not be up to the challenges ahead unless the conception of militancy includes a broader understanding of the need for class conscious solidarity.

1DU faces numerous obstacles in trying to move in this direction. First is the weakness of the U.S. labor movement and the left in general. The pole for class consciousness in the United States is frighteningly weak. Added to that is the fact that the U.S. left itself is more estranged from the working class than ever before. This is nothing new (we only have to recall the relationship between the labor movement and the New Left of the 1960s). It is, however, difficult to bring Teamster members into contact with an American left that is ambivalent at best toward labor issues.

Second is the make-up of TDU’s membership, which consists mostly (though not exclusively) of white, male truck drivers, many of whom hold the very prejudices and attitudes that the left is trying to combat.
All of this combines with the fact that fighting the corporations is harder than fighting the union bureaucracy. With major victories under their belt in the fight for union democracy, 1DU activists see the progress they have made, and feel empowered. Fighting for democracy has been a popular cause in the world lately, and TDUers have felt proud to be part of it in their own way.

It is harder to feel proud of fighting the boss. There will be no affirmation in the media. To fight for class solidarity, 1DU will have to swim upstream against the dominant political currents in American society.

Positive Signs

Some small steps are being taken, however, in that direction. One example is the growing attention, within TDU and the IBT, to the “cooperative management” schemes promoted by many corporations, often with approval—implicit or explicit—of many Old Guard Teamster officials. (Recently, for instance, an IBT sponsored training program to help union officials and rank and filers deal with cooperative management schemes was attacked by conference level union officials, on the grounds that the correct “protocol” was not followed.)

Cooperative management ideology argues that workers and management are not in conflict, but have a mutual interest in seeing their companies succeed in the marketplace. These schemes will find a powerful new ally in President Bill Clinton, who has made cooperative management a cornerstone of his labor policy.

In contrast, TDU (and IBT) are conducting workshops and distributing literature arguing that workers and management have an inherent conflict, and that workers at particular companies should identify with workers at other companies, not with their bosses.

In combatting cooperative management, TDU and the IBT are waging an ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of Teamster members.

What’s Next?

Another positive sign is the growing interest among TDU leaders in such alternative labor publications as Labor Notes. Teamster members have reportedly become the single largest subscriber group for Labor Notes, where they read about the struggles of workers in other unions and other countries. Significant numbers of Teamsters attended the last Labor Notes conference in 1991, and many are expected to attend the upcoming conference in April, 1993.

In opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), TDU is using another opportunity to expand the definition of class solidarity. In fighting NAFTA, TDU has emphasized solidarity with Mexican and Canadian workers as opposed to the protectionist, and sometimes racist, view that “American workers come first.” Reflecting its own new approach to fighting free trade, the IBT invited a representative of the Frente Autentico de Trabajo (FAT), the largest independent Mexican union federation, to join a travelling caravan campaigning against NAFTA in California during the U.S. presidential campaign.

Over the course of the presidential campaign many TDU activists expressed frustration with the two major political parties, and were sympathetic to the formation of a labor or third party that speaks for working people. Most of them also supported the Clinton candidacy, and were glad that he won. But, as with the population as a whole, they are cynical and waiting to see if Clinton will deliver. When, as we can expect, the Democratic Administration reveals its shallow commitment to workers’ interests, there will be further openings to discuss independent political action with 1DU activists.

Finally, rank and filers have established within TDU a “Women and People of Color Committee,” devoted to raising issues of race and gender on the job and in the union, and to encouraging leadership among those groups. Incidents like the Thomas/Hill hearings, and the beating of Rodney King in Los Aneles, have generated a greater interest in issues of race and gender equality. For its part, the IBT has established a Human Rights Commission, headed up by 1DU member and International vice president Diana Kilmury.

The next major campaign for 1DU will be the renegotiation of the UPS contract 1DU has an extensive and influential network of UPS activists, who will become the “shock troops” of the union’s campaign, just as TDU carhaulers did.

The union’s UPS contract campaign will focus heavily on the need to raise the wages of part-time workers, and increase the number of full-time jobs. The IBT has already indicated that it will use the campaign to raise broader social issues about the casualization of the American workforce, and the need to raise the “lowest up to the top.” UPS management has already shifted into high gear with cooperative management meetings and surveys, as well as ominous references to the “competition.”

‘IDU’s broader challenge for the future is not only to help win the short-term struggles ahead, both for union democracy and against the employers, but, despite all the difficulties, to build the kind of broad class consciousness that will be necessary to advance workers’ interests in the long run. The first step will be to move a core of TDU activists in that direction, who will hopefully then set the tone for the organization as a whole These tasks would be made easier by an overall revitalization of the labor movement and a left political current in the United States.

March-April 1993, ATC 43