The Election’s Broader Impact

Against the Current, No. 79, March/April 1999

Mike Parker

THE HOFFA VICTORY in the Teamsters may be a bigger defeat, and in the long run potentially more disorienting, for the reform forces in the rest of the U.S. labor movement than in the Teamsters.

The Teamsters have a well-organized internal force at the core of reform.  Unlike reform struggles built solely around election campaigns that disappear after the vote, TDU is stronger and more visible now. The post-election strategy meeting of TDU leadership in late January was larger than expected and ready to continue the struggle to rebuild the Teamster union.  The reform movement remains a sturdy pole in the Teamsters even without access to the union’s International offices.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the rest of the labor movement.  The Hoffa victory shifts the balance of power in the AFL-CIO official councils and is a further blow to the Sweeney reforms that require corresponding motion from below to succeed.  That Hoffa advocates a “bipartisan” political strategy embracing the likes of Orrin Hatch, champion of anti-minimum wage Senate forces, and Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), sponsor of such anti-labor gems as “paycheck protection,” will only push further back any real motion for labor political independence.

But the real blow will be the vacuum of leadership.  The Teamsters, with Ron Carey at the helm and in uneasy coalition with the internal rank-and-file reform movement, were a force for the labor movement as a whole.  It was the leadership provided by action of critical parts of the union-a different way of dealing with the members, a different way of dealing with the employers.  Certainly there are still champions of these methods within other unions and even the leadership of some smaller unions.  But the Teamsters just went from being a union on the leading edge of the movement to one that’s switched its power into reverse.

The United Parcel Service strike electrified the labor movement for a combination of reasons.  The union took on one of the most powerful companies in the United States and won cleanly, decisively, and without major losses or exhausting the membership.  Despite the fact that almost everybody felt its inconvenience, and UPS tried to magnify this by stories of the irreparable damage to poor mom-and-pop flower growers, the strike had overwhelming popular support.

The strike issue touched a chord for all working people feeling “betrayed” by modernizing capital: the loss of decent jobs and specifically the use of disposable, temporary and part-time workers to destroy the American dream for working people.  The UPS strike also demonstrated the power and importance of international solidarity as well as cooperation with other unions, particularly the Independent Pilots Association.

The strike was by no means a sure victory.  Major UPS hubs are in right-to-work states, the company had bloated management with plans for management to run the critical operations with what it hoped would be sufficient number of workers ignoring the union strike.  Many part-timers have very short-term interests in the job and little interest in the union.

Yet the strike held solid, because of a yearlong internal contract campaign that identified issues and built unity and organization.  Also critical was that for several years the Teamsters had effectively blunted management’s attempts to divide, weaken, and brainwash the workforce through its campaign against UPS’ team concept.  None of these factors, by themselves, are silver bullets.  They all went together and were only possible because of the reform effort in the Teamsters.

At one labor conference a labor media expert attributed the victory to the “successful spin” of playing up the part-timer issue.  But that issue-i.e.  winning full-time jobs with full-time benefits-wasn’t spin at all but a real policy, one which represented a 180-degree reversal of the direction of the old-guard Teamsters.

For years union leadership had found it politically expedient to provide for the powerful sectors of the union at the expense of the weakest: Win a wage increase for those already working in exchange for a lower starting wage and longer catch-up period for those yet to be hired.  The very “political cleverness” of this approach is how the Teamster old-guard created the part-time problems at UPS in the first place, and why the divisiveness cancer is spreading in other unions.

Democracy-Who Needs It?

The reformed Teamsters paid less attention to “spin” and more to reversing the fundamental dynamics within unions.  The connection of the UPS strike with ordinary working people was also possible because it wasn’t a traditional PR job relying on official spokespeople.  Throughout the contract campaign and the strike itself the union worked at involving members.  The bargaining committee included rank and filers.  The union or TDU (when local union leaders ignored or sabotaged the program) trained members and encouraged initiative.

Thus when the media went to interview regular UPS workers, they found solid support for the union and articulate discussions of the issues.  Union leaders who believe in keeping bargaining information secret and viewing members as nothing more than recipients of marching orders can’t make that kind of connection, no matter how professional the PR.

In fact it is questionable whether any other major union can today pull off a successful in-plant contract campaign given its other policies.  The Teamsters are one of the few International unions (with the APWU, OCAW, UE) to have stayed out of the mad embrace of labor-management partnership and the team concept programs that corrode unionism at its base. The Teamsters understood that it was not possible to organize members for a bitter fight with the employer while embracing a “new relationship based on mutual interest and trust.” Indeed its educational program produced model material to challenge and defeat the UPS team concept plan.

The approach to the UPS strike paralleled a revitalization of other areas of the union.  The Teamsters put both union resources and rank-and-file support into cross-border solidarity with Mexican and Canadian unions.  The Teamsters indicated the possibilities of cooperative organizing and concern for the labor movement in its alliances with the Farmworkers.

Deepening such alliances with the Teamsters at a member-to-member level is vital since Teamster influence on delivery and shipment in the just-in-time world can make a big difference on whether a non-Teamster company can successfully use scabs.  Indeed the potential for more unified action in the whole labor movement, though never fully developed, was moving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, Hoffa’s victory party in a non-union hotel reveals where the labor movement fits in his framework.  Instead of cooperation among unions, we may well see the kind of sweetheart contracts and vicious union raiding that were the hallmarks of the old-guard Teamsters whose image Hoffa would like to resurrect.

Not only is the Hoffa victory a loss to the leadership-in-action reform trend in the labor movement, in a bizarre way it has rescued the ideology of the trade union bureaucracy: “We officials know what is best. We’ll get results if the members just do what they are told.”

In a curious article in Dissent magazine (Summer 1998), Steve Fraser argues that maybe democracy is not such a good thing for the labor movement.  Maybe it would be better to rely on those “tactically creative and militant and who’ve achieved remarkable success” labor leaders “who don’t care a rat’s ass for democracy [and] consider it an actual hindrance.”

Not only did democracy elect Hoffa Jr. but, as Fraser sees it, the mass support for Jr. drove Carey to make the arrangements which would lead to his own downfall.  Fraser’s arguments don’t quite square with the history.  It was membership struggle that succeeded in reforming the union when attempts by the AFL-CIO officialdom to encourage some cleanup were a total failure.

The bottom-up process was far from complete.  It was Hoffa’s base among union officials, still “protected” from their membership, that made him a threat.  And it was Carey’s attempt to distance himself from the organized activist base, and emulate instead the professional, media-savvy, Democratic Party-insider trade union leadership-the very brand that Fraser promotes-that chained Carey to the forces that brought him down.

But the sad truth is that Fraser-like arguments against democracy wouldn’t even have a hearing among intellectuals were it not for Hoffa’s victory.  Now we are forced once again to defend union democracy as a vision and principle.  But as Joe Hill and the Northland Poster Collective remind us, our task here is neither to mourn nor whine but to organize.

We need to understand what we have lost and what we need to do. In the Teamsters the struggle continues to remake the union into a force capable of taking on modern management.  It continues also in the rest of the labor movement, but without the visibility and leadership of a powerful international.  Here and there it bubbles into the open again, the important victory of reformers in the Atlanta Transport Workers being the most recent example.

When there are fewer official resources available we have to use what we have and rely more on ourselves and unofficial networks for ideas, coordination, and inspiration.  Jobs with Justice, Labor Notes, the Labor Party, labor studies programs and ad-hoc campaigns like those against sweatshops, as well as unnamed networks, become still more important.  We need these in building the kind of union culture that can cross industry, national, union and historic divisions and blossom into a real movement of labor.


For an excellent detailed description of the UPS strike see the pamphlet by Dan LaBotz, The Fight at UPS, available from Solidarity, 7012 Michigan Ave, Detroit MI 48210, $1

On Team Concept see Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter, Working Smart, a Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering, Labor Notes, 1994.

On Team Concept and the UPS strike see Labor Notes, November 1997.

Fraser’s article is reprinted in New Labor Forum Fall/Winter 1998.  For replies see Stanley Aronowitz in the same issue of New Labor Forum, and Kim Moody in New Politics, Winter 1999.

Mike Parker is co-author with Martha Gruelle of a new Labor Notes book: Deocracy is Power: Rebuilding the Unions from the Bottom Up.  (Order from Labor Notes, 7435 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, MI  48210.  $20 including shipping.)

ATC 79, March-April 1999