TDU’s Rank-and-File Convention

Michael Friedman

At TDU’s 2023 convention,UAW President Shawn Fain emphasized the importance of TDU as a model for UAW reformers.

ON NOVEMBER 3-5, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) held its 48th annual Rank-and-File Convention. Having just written that, it overwhelms me a bit that this organization has been around for almost 50 years.

As someone who has gone to all but one of these gatherings, the 2023 convention made me reflect on the stability, growth and success of this movement to create an effective rank-and-file caucus within one of the largest labor unions in the United States.

I think back on the first TDU convention at Kent State University in 1976, attended by a modest cadre of rank and filers, picketed by a phalanx of union goons led by then International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Jackie Presser.

We were tasked with deciding whether to create a more permanent rank-and-file caucus from the modest group of Teamster activists who had spent the previous months building a campaign for a decent national Master Freight contract. Looking back I can only respond, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”

This year’s convention in Chicago had over 500 folks in attendance, a good number of whom were coming for the first time. Clearly the activism that had been built up for the UPS contract campaign — with its early mobilizations, practice pickets, and parking lot rallies months before the July 31 expiration date — carried into this convention.

That activism resulted in a contract that addressed and resolved a range of issues that had been frustrating and motivating UPS activists for years — yet without having to actually strike. The communications and organization of the IBT national leadership during the negotiation process, and the work of TDU and other activists at the local level, let UPS management know that the union was not bluffing and was ready to do what was necessary to secure a contract that met their needs.

The energy of the contract campaign was still evident at the convention, especially in the lineup of the main speakers. Friday’s keynote speaker was Sean O’Brien, General President of the IBT.

His comments addressed the UPS struggle and its overwhelming success, and importantly he noted that having come from the union’s old guard, he had been somewhat skeptical of TDU. In the course of the UPS contract campaign, he had come to see them as a welcome partner in re-building the union’s strength, and he saw that partnership continuing as he spoke of the challenges ahead — winning strong contracts, enforcing them going forward and organizing the unorganized.

O’Brien spoke of the plans for building a campaign to unionize Amazon workers as the biggest organizing initiative and noted that the Teamsters had established an Amazon task force that is already working on this campaign.

Successes and Moving Forward

Saturday’s keynote speaker was Sean Fain, President of the United Auto Workers (UAW), who had just completed successful contract negotiations with the Big Three automakers, using innovative strike strategies to win record breaking gains. Fain spoke about the rank-and-file caucus in the UAW, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), formed in 2019.

UAWD had taken advantage of the corruption charges against a number of the union’s Administration Caucus leaders to push for direct election of international officers, rather than have them be voted on by selected convention delegates.

TDU had also been able to establish itself and grow by winning the right to elect International officers in the Teamsters when the government sued the corrupt old guard leadership. It was very impressive what UAWD had been able to accomplish in just about four years — including things that it had taken TDU about 45 years to accomplish — but pathbreakers often have a much tougher road to hoe than those that follow.

Indeed, Fain expressly recognized that and cited TDU as the template for the success he and the UAWD were able to achieve in the UAW. But Fain, like O‘Brien, did not simply focus on the recent contract successes of their respective unions had, but also on using that success as a springboard for further organizing.

Specifically, he pointed to the increased wages being offered by non-union automakers Toyota and Honda (Kia climbed aboard that bandwagon after the convention ended), and called that a “UAW bump.”

More generally, Fain spoke of the struggles beyond the auto sector, seeing the current rise in union activity as presaging an extended fight between what he characterized as the “working class against the billionaire class.” That message was well-received by those in attendance.

To highlight the struggles being undertaken by other unions, Lindsey Dougherty, the Western Region IBT Vice-President who also serves as Director of the Motion Picture Division, talked about how the IBT had been a force for solidarity in both the writers’ and actors’ strikes by honoring picket lines and building cross-union power. Those strikes were both successfully resolved after the convention had closed.

Activist Workshops

While the speakers were an inspirational focus for this convention, the real work of the gathering was on the extensive workshops available to attendees. Six workshops focused on how to keep developing activism and leadership skills among UPS members, i.e. winning grievances, enforcing the contract, and building power at the base.

As TDU has become more successful, there were also workshops on running for union office, and leadership skills for those who have successfully become local officers. Other workshops included organizing Amazon, general contract enforcement tools, drafting contracts, fighting warehouse production standards, and winning grievances.

The convention also set out, in broad outlines, the strategy for TDU going forward. Having won significant gains in a number of contracts this bargaining round, the key focus must be on contract enforcement. A lot of the above-noted workshops stressed the organizing skills necessary to make the rank and file a key force in this effort.

Next, as has been a continuing focus for TDU, is a renewed emphasis on increasing the number of TDU members elected to union office. Finally, TDU is committed to becoming an essential element in the Teamster organizing drives, obviously the Amazon campaign but also other opportunities both locally and nationally.

To end this overview of the TDU convention by simply praising its size, scope and success seems appropriate, but a bit trite. I will share one thought that struck me over and over again as I listened to the speakers at the various sessions.

Given the fragility of the current political outlook and the upcoming 2024 elections, a rising and powerful union movement can speak to the needs and concerns of working class folks far better than the bloviated grievance-tending of rightwing populism. That cult may speak to valid resentments, but offers no meaningful practical benefits or improvements in the daily struggles of working people.

The union movement can provide those benefits and improvements, and give people the dignity and respect they seek by empowering them to fight and win those things for themselves. Let’s hope the spirit and energy of TDU’s convention will translate into the successes and victories that are needed to have that kind of impact.

January-February 2024, ATC 228

1 comment

  1. Thanks, Mike. Mike listed the workshop on running for local union office. If you are a union member, it is worth going to TDU conventions or Labor Notes conferences for this workshop alone. (TDUers create the template for the Labor Notes version as well, and often chair it.)

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