The Other Big Election

The upcoming Teamsters election is a chance to unseat James P. Hoffa and reverse the union's managed decline.

With 1.3 million members, the Teamsters are the largest transportation union in North America. As the US economy continues to reshape itself around the sprawling logistics industry, whoever is elected the next Teamster leader will face the daunting task of organizing this vast, nonunion workforce — one that will determine much of the future of the labor movement.

Teamsters will make that decision this October, in an election contest that pits the seventeen-year incumbent general president James P. Hoffa against challenger Fred Zuckerman, the president of the fifteen-thousand-member Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, and his Teamsters United reform slate.

Zuckerman’s local is one of the largest Teamster locals in the country and represents eight thousand workers at the United Parcel Service’s mammoth air hub “Worldport,” where hundreds of daily flights take off to deliver packages to 220 countries around the globe.

Worldport’s continued expansion means that Zuckerman’s Local 89 will be the biggest Teamsters local union in the near future.

Zuckerman was Hoffa’s director of the Teamsters’ carhaul division (the workers that get the brand new cars from the assembly line to your local showroom) before he was fired by Hoffa for opposing concessions.

He has since been banished by Hoffa from any significant leadership body outside his local union despite his local’s importance in the UPS system and his expertise in carhaul.

The seventy-five year-old Hoffa has wide name recognition in and outside out of the union, in part thanks to his father, Jimmy Hoffa Sr, who entered prison in 1967 and is presumed dead since his disappearance in July 1975. Hoffa thinks everything is just great with the union — couldn’t be better.

“Everybody wants to be a Teamster!” he boasted from the stage in front of mostly adoring delegates at the recent Teamster convention in Las Vegas.

He pointed to the three hundred thousand workers that joined the Teamsters in the past decade — a number that sounds impressive without closer inspection.

In 2011, for example, twenty thousand correctional, probation, and parole officers with the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) joined the Teamsters. They were previously members of the Police Benevolent Association and were one of the largest groups of workers to affiliate to the Teamsters in years.

Hoffa also highlighted the affiliation of 13,500 public employees formerly represented by the San Bernardino Public Employees Association, and 1,700 San Diego nurses and medical technicians, who are formerly members of the United Nurses of Children’s Hospital.

This “organizing” is more like old-fashioned raiding. Rather than bringing unorganized workers into the labor movement, the Teamsters have in these cases simply shuffled already unionized members from a series of small unions to the IBT.

How this will lead to the unionization of the logistics industry is unclear, if not an outright distraction. The Teamsters have to decide what type of union it will be — a transportation and logistics union or a catchall general workers’ union.

The Teamsters were the most powerful in the postwar era when they organized the freight industry, which was at the center of the American economy.

Their future is in organizing the logistics industry, which is now at the center of American industry — not in scattershot organizing across industries as varied as health care and corrections officers.

Those workers have joined a union that has lost significant ground in its core industries. The National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA), once the jewel in the Teamsters’ crown that covered four hundred thousand workers with some of the best wages, working conditions, and benefits in the labor movement is now a ghost of itself.

It covers less than seventy-five thousand workers and continues to shrink because Hoffa negotiated concessions and bailouts to the remaining unionized freight companies that have weakened the union.

Meanwhile, Amazon now employs nearly ninety thousand workers at its warehouses (“fulfillment centers”) — all of which are nonunion — and continues its building spree.

With an expanding, unorganized logistics industry and significant ground lost in key unionized industries, the Teamsters are in a state of emergency.

But Hoffa and his supporters don’t want to hear about it. They are not only contemptuous of any criticism of his leadership but have publicly declared the election a waste of time.

The hostility to democracy was best summed up by Hoffa supporter and delegate Bernadette Kelly in a bizarre statement from the floor of the convention:

I have a point of privilege, Mr. Chairman [Hoffa]. I have worked with you since 1994 in lock step to rebuild this union, and I’m impressed with the breadth and the depth of the success of the IBT and the power of the Teamsters. And the incredible leadership of Jim Hoffa and Ken Hall is on display for all of us to see, and the unity is from coast to coast and from Canada to Puerto Rico.

Yet this union is threatened by a small minority. They’re trying to force the IBT to spend millions of dollars that could go to organizing and other programs to bring this union forward in a futile attempt to gain office.

I’m appealing to you. I’m appealing to those people to join with us to move this union forward instead of attempting to divide us for the next five months!

Several Hoffa delegates were more than verbally contemptuous and physically threatened and intimidated reform delegates at the Las Vegas convention.

Indianapolis Teamster leader and Hoffa running mate Brian Buhle had two members of his entourage threaten reform delegate Tim Carroll when he spoke on the convention floor in support of Teamsters United. They bumped into Carroll, threatening to “kick his ass” and to “mash [his] head in.” Buhle was fined by the Teamster election supervisor for their actions.

There are few places in the world where democratic elections are openly denigrated, reformers openly bullied, and a cult of personality praised without there being loud protests and sanctimonious statements from the US State Department and major media outlets.

Such behavior would be quickly denounced as outside of democratic norms. Yet when it comes to the Teamsters, it is ignored.

A Strategy of Surrender

Teamsters democracy should be treated as a precious thing after so many decades of mob rule. It remains one of a handful of major unions that elect their top officers by a membership vote, stemming from the 1989 federal-court-monitored consent decree between the Teamsters and the Department of Justice that forestalled a federal government trusteeship of the union.

Among the provisions of the consent decree were the rank-and-file election of convention delegates and top officers of the union including the general president and general secretary-treasurer.

The upset victory of Ron Carey, the first reform leader of Teamsters, was a product of the first federally mandated elections in 1991.

In an interview this past spring, when asked why he was running for the union’s top leadership, Zuckerman responded,

Because I couldn’t stand it anymore. Every day, Teamsters are paying the price because Hoffa and Hall [Hoffa’s running mate] refuse to stand up to the employers and refuse to stand up for the members. Real wages are going down. Part-time throwaway jobs are going up. Hundreds of thousands of Teamsters face the threat of living out their retirement years in poverty because of pension cuts . . . Surrender isn’t a strategy.

Zuckerman’s comments resemble Ron Carey’s vivid description of Hoffa as an “empty suit and a front for the mob.”

Carey, a former UPS driver and a local New York Teamsters officer, attempted to root out the widespread corruption in the union and famously led the 1997 national UPS strike that was considered labor’s biggest victory in three decades.

UPS, the other freight giants, and their allies horrified by the Teamsters’ victory mobilized all of their political muscle to paint Carey as “corrupt” in light of Teamster election campaign finance wrongdoing by several of his political advisers.

Carey was subsequently driven out of the Teamster leadership in 1998 by a Republican-led witch hunt to quash the newly reinvigorated Teamsters.

Hoffa’s favorite congressman for many years was Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra, an anti-union fanatic who proclaimed in March 2000, “I am convinced that if this Subcommittee [oversight and investigations] had not acted, Ron Carey would still be president of the Teamsters.”

Carey was later found not guilty in federal court on the charges that led to his ouster from office soon after 9/11. Though he died in 2008, Carey’s image is long overdue for rehabilitation within the Teamsters.

This is Hoffa’s sixth run for Teamster general president. He has won four times. He tried to run for general president in 1991 but was ruled ineligible (he was not considered a member in good standing).

In 1996 Hoffa led a virtually solid alliance of old-guard figures determined to halt Carey’s reforms. Carey defeated Hoffa in a brutal, close election, winning 52 percent to 48 of the total vote — Hoffa’s only election defeat.

Hoffa has largely drawn his support from the officers and staff of the union who were deeply opposed to the democratic reforms mandated by the federal government and the aggressive posture towards the employers taken by Carey.

The old guard has a deep, fanatical hatred focused on the group that has led the campaigns for reform and democracy over the last four decades, the Detroit-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). They continue to refer to TDU as “Tear Down the Union.”

TDU puts out a monthly Teamster Voice and has an active website to document the latest old-guard sellouts, corruption investigations, and changes in the industries that impact Teamster jobs. Its annual convention attracts hundreds of rank-and-file members from across North America.

TDU has its roots in the radical rank-and-file movements of the 1970s. It survived through the difficult years of the 1980s when deregulation destroyed the Teamsters’ previously strong position in the freight industry and led to massive layoffs.

The old guard constantly verbally and physically assaulted the reformers. The notorious Brotherhood of Loyal and Strong Teamsters (BLAST), an old guard–organized goon squad, attacked TDU conventions and activists.

TDU backed Ron Carey’s insurgent campaign for president in 1991 and reelection in 1996, and has supported every major reform candidate to challenge Hoffa, including Sandy Pope, one of its founding members, in 2011 — the first woman to run for the top spot in the Teamsters.

TDU is now supporting Zuckerman and his running mate for general secretary-treasurer, Tim Sylvester, a former president of Ron Carey’s old Local 804 in New York, in a coalition of anti-Hoffa forces. Sandy Pope has joined Zuckerman’s campaign slate.

Managed Decline

Despite the image of the Teamsters as a “tough” union, it has also been one of the most compliant over the last three and half decades with employer demands for concessions despite their ballooning profits.

The old guard prefers accommodation to the freight and logistics giants, not confrontation. UPS has been especially grateful for windfall concessions negotiated by the Teamster old guard and Hoffa.

In the early 1980s, for example, the Teamsters agreed to a two-tier wage structure at UPS that cut starting pay by four dollars per hour in most places to eight dollars per hour, where it remained for the next thirty years. Hoffa negotiated in the last UPS national contract (due to expire in 2018) a major health-care concession called Teamcare.

Despite promises that nothing would change in the previous benefits levels for UPS, Teamsters are discovering costly concessions in the new health-care package — while UPS had made record profits.

Ken Paff, TDU’s national organizer, says about Hoffa’s record: “Hoffa has presided over the union for seventeen years of managed decline. National contracts and strong pension funds — the hallmarks of Teamster power that his father understood well — have been given away.”

Until recently, Zuckerman was little known within the Teamsters except in his home state of Kentucky, where he mobilized the labor movement and defeated right-to-work legislation two years ago.

He has gained greater recognition inside the union over the last three years due to his opposition to concessions granted by Hoffa to the immensely profitable UPS during the ratification battle for the 2013 national UPS contract.

He also played a crucial role in temporarily halting the catastrophic cuts proposed to retirees of the four-hundred-thousand-member Central States Pension Fund.

What are Zuckerman’s chances? In the last Teamster election in 2011, Hoffa’s opponents ran in separate slates, with Sandy Pope running alone for general president and former Hoffa ally, Wisconsin Teamster leader Fred Gegare — a longtime opponent of TDU — running his own slate.

Together, they received nearly 40 percent of the vote, while Hoffa’s vote declined from 175,000 in 2006 to about 140,000 five years later.

Is this enough to defeat Hoffa? It will undoubtedly be the biggest challenge to him in his seventeen long years in power. The election will be largely out of sight for the public, as it will be fought out by campaigning at freight barns, railroad depots, UPS hubs, construction sites, hospitals, and the myriad other workplaces that the Teamsters represent across North America.

The main battleground will likely be UPS, the largest Teamster employer with 250,000 members, the largest private-sector unionized employer in the United States, and one of the top ten largest private-sector employers in the country.

Whoever wins this election will set the agenda for the future organizing of the burgeoning logistics industry and national negotiations with UPS in 2018.

What the future leader of the Teamsters does or doesn’t do during their next five-year term of office will shape the lives of millions of American workers outside the union’s membership for years to come.