The Teamster Revolt Against the Hoffa Era
After years of givebacks and autocratic leadership under James Hoffa Jr, the power of the Teamsters has withered. But rank-and-file activists are mobilizing against contract concessions, taking over local unions, and building a coalition to transform the union.
Willie Ford listened to the conference call in disbelief from the cab of his tractor trailer on I-95 as the Teamster election monitor announced the results of the contract vote covering 250,000 workers at UPS.
Ford, a leader of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), and rank-and-file activists like him, had spent months organizing the UPS Teamster United campaign to win contract improvements.
But UPS management and top Teamster officials agreed to givebacks, including a two-tier wage scale for drivers, and spent millions on a coordinated campaign to promote and push through their concessionary deal.
Now was the moment of truth.
In a monotone voice, the election official announced the results. By a 54 percent majority, UPS workers rejected the givebacks. Dissident Teamster activists had done the impossible. Their Vote No campaign had won.
But it wasn’t over yet. The very next speaker on the conference call reversed the rank-and-file victory. Citing an obscure loophole in the Teamster Constitution, Denis Taylor, the union’s chief negotiator at UPS, declared the contract ratified. Just like that, two-tier concessions at the largest union contract in the United States were imposed over the no vote by the members.
“I almost swerved off the road. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Ford said.
Sixty-three percent of UPS workers in Ford’s local union in North Carolina voted no, only to be stuck with givebacks.
It was like déjà vu. Two years earlier, 81 percent of the same Local 71 members voted for TDU-backed candidates in the International Union election, only to see incumbent president James P. Hoffa retain power by a razor-thin margin of 6,000 votes in a union of 1.4 million members.
“It seemed they had us no matter what we did,” Ford said. “I’ve spent the last ten years organizing for change in this union, and I had just about had it.”
From Vote No to Vote Them Out
Ford geared up for one more organizing campaign. He called up angry UPS Teamsters in the Carolinas who had coordinated the Vote No effort, from the big hub in Charlotte to suburbs and small towns like Monroe and Kannapolis to Florence, South Carolina.
They met in the back room of a Showmars restaurant with drivers and dockworkers from freight companies Yellow Roadway Corporation Worldwide (YRCW), ABF Freight System, and Holland Freight.
Over fried fish and crinkle fries, they planned a grassroots campaign to unite Teamsters who were fed up with being on the losing end of austerity—wage freezes, two-tier pay, pension cuts, low-wage part-time work—and build a movement to take over their local union.
It worked. On January 1, Willie Ford and the Rebuild 71 slate assumed leadership in their local union. In last fall’s election, members chose Ford over the incumbent president who backed Hoffa and his concessionary contracts, by a nearly 3-1 margin.
Working Teamsters in North Carolina aren’t the only ones who are moving from Vote No to voting for change.
In the last year, members have elected rank-and-file activists to lead Teamster local unions in New York City, Dallas, Richmond, Maryland, the Quad Cities, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia.
Elsewhere, insurgent candidates came close, suffering narrow losses in San Diego, Memphis, Toledo, and Madison.
Fresh off the UPS Teamsters United campaign, seven thousand UPS workers in New York elected a slate of Vote No activists into office.
“We voted no against the UPS givebacks by 95 percent, but you can’t win when you’re fighting the company and your own union at the same time,” said Eugene Braswell, a UPS Teamster and national TDU Steering Committee member from New York Local 804.
New Local 804 leaders couldn’t do anything to change the imposed national contract. But in a supplemental agreement covering UPS workers in New York, the new local leadership negotiated a $400-per-month pension increase, more full-time jobs for part-timers, and double-time pay for all Sunday work when UPS begins Sunday deliveries.
The union has joined with community-labor coalitions like the campaign against Amazon.
“The biggest difference is on the shop floor,” Braswell said. “Our old executive board just rolled over for management. Not anymore. The fight is back in our local, that’s for damn sure.”
Organizing at the Bottom to Win at the Top
Now, the Teamster rank and file is taking aim at the International Union with the goal of transforming the leadership of the 1.4-million-member Teamsters Union.
At the TDU Convention in November, activists voted to endorse the O’Brien–Zuckerman Teamsters United slate and to join a coalition campaign to replace the Hoffa administration with new International Union leadership.
Ballots won’t be mailed to Teamsters until November 2021, but the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) election starts now.
An election supervisor will be appointed in March, and the campaign will begin in earnest in June, with a national Teamster-to-Teamster petition drive to collect 100,000 signatures to make the Teamsters United Slate officially accredited candidates.
In an age of digital campaigns and online organizing, Teamster elections are old school, grassroots, and personal. Petitions are signed in person in break rooms and employee parking lots.
“To get 100,000 signatures, you need to have 150,000 worker-to-worker conversations,” said Nick Perry, a TDU cochair and petition drive veteran. “That means recruiting volunteers, training them, building local committees. We’re not just collecting signatures. We’re building a network and an organization.”
A year from now, activists will test their organizational muscle when members will vote in a separate election in every local union to choose delegates to the Teamster Convention. Delegates will officially nominate candidates and vote on reforms to the Teamster Constitution, like eliminating the Two-Thirds Rule — the loophole that was used to impose contract concessions at UPS.
The delegate races are also a trial run for rank-and-file activists who are looking to take on old-guard local officers in local union elections.
“We ran for Convention Delegate, and we beat our local union officers. We built up a network that lasted long after the election,” Ford said, reflecting on the 2016 Teamsters United organizing in Charlotte.
“That long-term organizing is why we were able to vote down UPS givebacks and why members elected us to lead our local,” Ford said.
“We need rank-and-file organization to win this election, but we also need it to build worker power after we win,” said Frank Halstead, a grocery warehouse Teamster and TDU cochair from Southern California. “To really take on corporate power that’s going to take a lot more than voters. That’s going to take an army of rank-and-file fighters. The election campaign is boot camp. The real war hasn’t even begun.”
The Teamsters United Slate is led by Sean O’Brien, an International Union vice president formerly aligned with Hoffa, and Fred Zuckerman, the TDU-backed candidate for Teamster president on the Teamsters United ticket in 2016.
The slate is still in formation. Only six candidates have been named so far, including Juan Campos, the militant president of Chicago Teamsters Local 705, and Matt Taibi, a TDU leader and principal officer of Rhode Island Local 251.
The incumbent Teamster general president, James Hoffa, will almost surely not seek reelection. Old-guard Teamster officials are wrestling over who will assume his mantle, including Hoffa slate members Ken Hall and Kevin Moore, both associated with concessionary contracts; Rome Aloise, a Bay Area Teamster power broker who is coming off a two-year suspension from office for corruption; and Terry Hancock, a Hoffa ally who took over the Chicago Joint Council after another Hoffa power broker was indicted for taking employer payoffs.
Whoever emerges from this scrum, the TDU-endorsed O’Brien–Zuckerman Teamsters United slate enter the campaign as the early favorites to be elected the next leadership of North America’s most powerful union.
From Economic Crisis to Organizing Comeback
No one could have seen this coming. Flash back ten years. The economic crisis that followed the housing bubble was wreaking havoc in the Teamsters.
Overwhelmed by debt at the very moment that credit and business dried up, the union’s largest freight employer, YRCW, avoided bankruptcy by slashing workers’ wages and pensions.
The Teamsters’ largest pension fund, Central States, lost billions in the Wall Street crash. Union pension fund officials teamed with employers to back a plan to cut the earned pensions of four hundred thousand Teamsters and retirees.
The Hoffa administration responded to the crisis by going along with every employer austerity initiative, from concessions to pension cuts to speedups.
Opposition inside the Teamsters was growing, but it was also divided. In 2011, Hoffa won a three-way election with 60 percent of the vote. The TDU-backed presidential candidate, Sandy Pope, was a longtime TDU leader with impeccable reform credentials. With few officer allies and no running mates, Pope ran as an independent candidate and finished third.
“That was a tough time,” Halstead said. “We were able to come through it because TDU is about a lot more than elections. We never stop bringing members together, taking on fights, learning lessons, and organizing rank-and-file power.”
Over the next two years, TDU activists waged rank-and-file campaigns to stop health-care cuts and raise part-time pay at UPS, oppose concessions in freight, and save workers’ pensions.
Some Teamster officials who had opposed Hoffa in the 2011 election retired or fell back into the Hoffa fold. But some began to ally with the rank-and-file movement. Most important among these was Fred Zuckerman, the leader of Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville, one of the largest local unions representing UPS workers and one of the most strategically important.
Ten thousand Local 89 members handle up to 8 million UPS packages per day — roughly one in eight that UPS delivers nationwide — at the company’s mothership facility, called Worldport.
Zuckerman and TDU initially made unlikely coalition partners. For years, they butted heads. TDU members ran against Zuckerman in local union elections in Louisville; nationally, TDU opposed contracts Zuckerman negotiated covering Teamster carhaulers.
But beginning in 2013, Zuckerman and TDU began working together to build Vote No campaigns against contract concessions at UPS, UPS Freight, and the national carhaul contract.
A new coalition was formed to challenge Hoffa — uniting TDU and activists with Zuckerman and local union officers who opposed Hoffa. Teamsters United was born.
Teamsters United and the 2016 Election
The 2016 Teamsters United slate was originally headed by Tim Sylvester, a reform officer in New York. When Sylvester lost his local union reelection campaign in 2015, Zuckerman became the Teamsters United presidential candidate.
The number of local officers supporting Teamsters United was small — less than 10 percent of officials backed the slate — but the presence of some local officers in the coalition strengthened the campaign’s credibility and broadened its reach.
Most important, Teamsters United tapped into the anti-givebacks mood in the rank and file.
Strengthened by coalition and backed by a national network of TDU and Vote No activists built out of years of grassroots organizing campaigns, the Teamsters United nearly won the 2016 election.
Forty-nine percent of members voted for Teamsters United, including a majority in the United States. Teamsters United elected six regional vice presidents, carrying 57 percent of the vote in the South and 59 percent of the vote in the Central Region.
An incredible 70 percent of the 300,000 Teamsters who work under the union’s signature national contracts in freight, carhaul, UPS, and UPS Freight voted against Hoffa.
A majority of rail and airline Teamsters voted for Teamsters United, too. In fact, every national unit of Teamsters voted for the opposition to Hoffa.
Ironically, Hoffa was saved by the votes cast by the members who know him the least. Teamsters who work under contracts negotiated by local unions, not the International Union, have limited contact with the rank-and-file movement and have low voter turnout. But they make up a large pool of 1 million voters, and most followed the lead of their local officers and voted for Hoffa.
The results exposed a gaping divide between Teamster ranks and their elected leaders. While nearly half of Teamster members voted against Hoffa, more than 90 percent of their local union officers backed him.
It is nearly impossible to take power in an International Union over the opposition of 90 percent of union officials; it is completely impossible to run an International Union on that basis — a challenge for the Teamsters United opposition as it looked ahead to the future.
The Hoffa administration faced the opposite dilemma. How do you lead a union when you are opposed by the majority of the members who work under every national contract that you negotiate?
Coming out of the 2016 Teamster election, both sides looked for a way out.
Building a Majority Coalition
Still reeling from his narrow election escape and UPS contract negotiations approaching, Hoffa turned to the only member of his slate with militant credentials and proven support among members at UPS.
Hoffa appointed Sean O’Brien to head the union’s Package Division and lead contract negotiations with UPS. O’Brien carried an overwhelming 63 percent of the vote in New England in 2016.
O’Brien had proven anti-TDU credentials. He was briefly suspended from union office in 2013 for making threatening comments against TDU members who ran for office — and won — in Rhode Island Local 251.
But in a hyper-polarized Teamsters Union that had been defined by a civil war between old guard and reformers for decades, O’Brien did something unheard of: he reached out to his political opponents.
In 2017, as part of the lead-up to contract negotiations, O’Brien visited Teamsters United–aligned locals. In Louisville, he attended a mass meeting of UPS stewards. “He said, ‘Ask anything you want’ — and they did just that,” said Local 89 steward and TDU leader David Thornsberry. They peppered him with questions, including his role in imposing the 2013 Louisville Air Supplement.
“To his credit, Sean answered frankly and said, ‘I’m not that guy anymore.’ He said he had learned from that experience and certainly would not be part of imposing any contract. He impressed me, and I think a lot of the stewards.”
“Sean came to our local and told our members straight out: ‘Mistakes have been made, and they won’t be repeated.’ That showed us a lot,” said Matt Taibi, the TDU leader who was elected principal officer of Teamsters Local 251 despite O’Brien’s previous efforts.
“Sean wasn’t running for office at that time. He was working for Hoffa. He reached out to build unity to take on the employers — and we took the olive branch. Since then, we’ve stood shoulder to shoulder to win strikes, organizing drives, and contract campaign,” said Taibi.
O’Brien appointed Teamsters United leaders to the UPS bargaining committee. But when he insisted on appointing Fred Zuckerman and on running a rank-and-file contract campaign, Hoffa fired O’Brien.
O’Brien immediately came out in opposition to Hoffa and continued building ties to local officers who opposed givebacks. While TDU members and other rank-and-file activists organized to defeat UPS givebacks nationally, O’Brien led a Vote No campaign in New England. Nationally, UPSers voted no by 54 percent; in New England, members voted no by 83 percent.
Last year, O’Brien and Zuckerman announced they would run a Teamsters United ticket with O’Brien in the top spot.
“When I first heard the news about O’Brien taking the top spot, I was shocked,” said Rob Atkinson, a construction Teamster and TDU activist in Pittsburgh. “But I talked with other Teamsters, and we know that going it alone means going nowhere. I want to be in a coalition that will take on the bosses and change this union.”
TDU Members Endorse and Look Ahead
It’s November 2019 and 300 activists and leaders gather at the TDU Convention in Chicago to strategize about what’s next for the rank-and-file movement.
O’Brien and Zuckerman are there to address the national organization of Teamster grassroots activists.
At the Convention, they released a 10 Steps Toward a Stronger Union flyer in line with the program backed by Teamsters United in 2016, including grassroots national contract campaigns at employers and coordinated strategic campaigns that link organizing and bargaining.
Tens of thousands of Teamsters work for multinationals like Waste Management, Republic Services, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Frito-Lay, First Student, and Sysco, under hundreds of separate local contracts that are negotiated with little coordination, let alone coordinated action.
Last year’s strikes that paralyzed Marriott in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston offered a glimpse of a more promising model for the Teamsters and all of labor.
O’Brien also backed democratic reforms, including protecting one-member, one-vote elections for top Teamster officers without adding restrictions supported by Hoffa to keep opposition candidates off the ballot and ending the Two-Thirds Rule — the loophole that allowed union officials to impose contracts that were rejected by a majority of the members.
He mocked Hoffa running mate Ken Hall for never missing an opportunity to brag about the $240 million in the union’s strike fund. “Well, no shit, we haven’t struck anyone since 1997,” O’Brien said to a standing ovation.
An International Union leadership that embraces the strike weapon would be a major U-turn for the Teamsters.
The labor movement has seen more strikes in the last two years than at any time in the last thirty-five — from teachers to grocery warehouses to hotel chains to General Motors, but the Teamsters have largely been on the sidelines of the strike wave.
While some Teamster locals use the strike weapon — including, with frequency, Zuckerman’s Local 89 and O’Brien’s Local 25 — the International hasn’t won a major national strike since 1997 at UPS, two years before Hoffa took office.
Outside workshops and in the bar, activists talk and debate. Back home, activists slug it out on social media. Some blasted O’Brien for his past actions and criticized TDU for backing a former Hoffa ally.
“Some people were concerned, and I get it,” says Dave Bernt, a UPS driver and veteran TDU activist. “We had a lot of the same concerns about Fred Zuckerman five years ago. We built a partnership through joint action, and look at everything we’ve accomplished.
“Some on Facebook have suggested that the endorsement meant the death of TDU. I think they have it exactly backward,” Bernt said. “TDU is an organization of action. We can’t stand on the sidelines and abstain from an election that can change the Teamsters and the labor movement. That is what would be the death of TDU.”
The vote itself is anticlimactic and overwhelming. TDUers voted to endorse the slate with only two votes in opposition.
TDU activists voted to approve a resolution to maintain the movement’s independence and rank-and-file approach. The Teamsters United slate is abstaining from local union elections. But the TDU Convention voted to prioritize helping rank-and-file activists “run for local union office and succeed in building progressive locals after they win.”
Transforming the Teamsters won’t happen without tackling the issue of race. Only one out of twenty-seven members of the International Union’s executive board is African American. Of the more than 400 Teamster locals, only twenty are led by African-American principal officers.
A year ago, that number was sixteen. TDU supported black-led slates in Charlotte, Maryland, Richmond, Philadelphia, and Memphis — winning four of the five races.
The TDU Black Caucus organized a national Black Leadership Conference in 2019 and is planning a national summit at the upcoming Labor Notes Conference.
“If we’re going to unite the ranks to stand up to corporate power, we need leadership that looks like the members. That means more African Americans, Latinos, and women at every level of leadership — from the General Executive Board to our local unions to shop stewards,” said Willie Hardy, a retired freight Teamster from Memphis and the coordinator of TDU’s Black Caucus.
TDU members are gearing up and planning organizing meetings, education conferences, local union election campaigns, activist trainings, contract campaigns, and on-the-job actions.
“Winning the International Union election is just a part of it what we’re about. Our goal is not just different leaders, but more leaders and a more activist union,” Willie Ford said.