Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the New Labor Insurgency

The Teamster rank-and-file movement is spreading worker power and making the most of labor’s movement moment, writes longtime Teamsters for a Democratic Union organizer Ken Paff.

UPS workers raise placards at a rally held by the Teamsters on July 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, California, ahead of an August 1 deadline for an agreement on a labor contract deal. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the forty-seven-year-old rank-and-file organization within one of the country’s largest and most important unions, is having a “movement moment.” TDU, where I worked as an organizer for many years, is helping propel Teamster militancy and a broader labor insurgency.   

TDU’s theory of change is that reforms that open up the labor movement to member involvement build worker power. It’s a participatory democracy model that has sometimes been a hard sell both with workers and on the Left. But now this model is spreading.

In 2021, United Auto Worker (UAW) militants took a page from the TDU playbook. In the wake of a major corruption scandal among union leaders, UAW members won the right to vote for their leaders, elected new leadership, and took on the Big Three automakers. UAW president Shawn Fain told the TDU Convention in November 2023, “There is no stand-up strike without TDU.”  

In March, TDU members launched a campaign to win direct elections in the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWE) in the rail industry. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members are planning to launch a similar drive.

TDU won the right to vote for top union officers in 1989, and we have used it twice to join a coalition and successfully elect new leadership in the 1.3 million–member Teamsters: first in 1991, with the victory of Ron Carey in the first-ever one-member-one-vote election, then again in 2021, with the election of the Teamsters United slate headed by Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman.

But TDU is not primarily about electing top leaders, cheering them on, or criticizing them. TDU is fundamentally an independent movement that builds worker power from the bottom up by opening up the union to member participation, developing organizers and leaders, and organizing grassroots campaigns. We call this approach rank-and-file power.

In 2021, we won structural changes to the Teamster Constitution that open up the union, including:

  • Majority rule on contracts. Previously, Teamster officials had the power to impose concessionary contracts unless they were rejected by two-thirds of the members. Now a simple majority’s vote against a contract is enough for it to be rejected.
  • Rank-and-file members on all contract bargaining committees. This reform helps end back-door deals and opens up contract negotiations to the members.
  • Higher strike benefits. Members formerly had to wait until their eighth day on strike to receive strike pay. Now strike benefits are paid on day one. This reform spread to the UAW.

TDU has fought for these reforms for years. It took the support of a broad coalition led by O’Brien and Zuckerman to finally get them passed.

New Strategies Take Root

Under new Teamster leadership, strategies for building worker power through rank-and-file power are spreading through the union, including vigorous contract campaigns; practice picketing; coordinated bargaining; the lining up of multiple contracts to maximize worker leverage; picket line extensions to build strike solidarity across Teamster locals; and organizing in core industries with member organizers; to name a few.

In UPS bargaining last year, the union implemented a nationwide contract campaign. The bargaining committee had over one hundred members, twenty-five of them rank-and-file workers. TDU leaders were on the committee, along with Teamsters across the union’s political spectrum.

The union refused to use the normal approach of keeping the gains won in bargaining secret until a final deal is in place. Instead, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) reported the tentative agreements to the members as they were secured. The defeat of two-tier driver pay, a key victory, was reported several weeks before the final agreement. This kept the heat on the company, and on the union leadership as well, to deliver on the full spectrum of priority contract demands.

The UAW used a similar open-bargaining approach to great advantage in dividing the Big Three auto companies, and the union credited the Teamsters as the model. The UPS contract was ratified by a record-high 86.3 percent.

The IBT’s UPS contract campaign mobilized tens of thousands of workers in a year of escalating actions that culminated in nationwide practice picketing. That tactic and the slogan “Just Practicing for a Just Contract” is spreading and helping revive the strike in other Teamster industries.

Workers at DHL’s largest US air hub organized into the Teamsters and struck for a first contract, which was won when the IBT extended picket lines to fifteen cities nationwide, creating chaos in the company’s delivery network. The victorious strike at DHL inspired 4,500 Amazon workers at the massive nearby KCVG fulfillment center to explore organizing with the Teamsters. The cover story in this month’s Labor Notes, “Rolling Picket-Line Extensions Power Teamster Strike,” shows how extended picket lines are being used to win contracts and organize the unorganized in the food distribution industry from US Foods to Sysco.

Employers are getting the message. The IBT used the threat of a strike and picket line extensions at UPS to win the right to organize five thousand techs and specialists under a neutrality agreement.

TDU’s New Reach

You might think that new leadership and a new direction in the Teamsters would diminish the audience for TDU. But the opposite has happened: member participation in TDU is way up.

With militancy and member mobilization on the rise, members are turning to TDU to learn and share strategies for organizing and building rank-and-file power. Over twenty thousand Teamsters participated in TDU’s online and in-person workshops and strategy meetings in the past year. The TDU Convention in November was the largest, youngest, and most diverse ever. The members present donated $101,000 there to fund their rank-and-file movement.

At UPS, TDU launched its own contract campaign parallel to the IBT campaign. Rank-and-file leaders acted as force multipliers in local unions where the IBT campaign was strong and filled the gaps in locals where officers sat on their duffs. When officers let contract campaign materials pile up at the local union hall, TDU members distributed bulletins, held parking lot rallies, and organized practice picketing.

While the vast majority of Teamster officials support the O’Brien-Zuckerman leadership, many are still more practiced in business unionism than building rank-and-file power. Members are seizing the opportunity for a different kind of union. Some are running for local union office and winning. TDU members won office in Indiana Local 135, one of the largest locals in the Teamsters, where members are winning contract campaigns, strikes, and organizing drives. TDU member Alano De La Rosa, who now leads Des Moines Local 90, will speak at a plenary at this month’s Labor Notes Conference.   

TDU’s coalition with the International Union leaders is also creating more opportunities for coalition in local unions with TDU members leading contract campaigns, member education programs, and organizing at the local level. TDU members are helping to lead organizing efforts at Amazon in areas across the country. As full-time organizers, volunteers, and “salts” in Amazon jobs, TDU members are digging in to build a union in the belly of the beast.

Decades of Organizing

TDU members have organized for decades to have this impact. It would not be happening if TDU had not joined the O’Brien-Zuckerman Teamsters United coalition and helped elect new Teamster leadership.

But TDU is not the Teamster leadership. We are an independent, rank-and-file movement and the junior partner in a coalition with top leaders. TDU members and leaders wrestle with the challenges and opportunities this poses while doing the hard work of actual worker organizing.

Some critics of TDU measure our success or failure by how frequently and loudly TDU denounces the IBT leadership. They say TDU has gone from “watchdog to lapdog.” If that were true, militant Teamsters would be leaving TDU in droves. But in reality, they are joining in record numbers and building it. Social media is built on hot takes and flame wars. Rank-and-file movements are not. TDU’s focus is on building worker power in action, not issuing report cards or attacks against our coalition partners.

TDU members and Teamsters in general have strong opinions, and they debate them. The Teamster leadership’s meeting with Donald Trump as part of the union’s endorsement process sparked controversy and discussion both in and outside the union. TDU members and other Teamsters have a range of takes on this strategy. Some members were furious to see Trump milk these appearances for media attention. In Portside, long-time labor organizer Peter Olney argued that far from being a prelude to a Trump endorsement, the meetings were an effort to influence Trump supporters in the union’s ranks — something the entire labor movement needs to wrestle with.

When the IBT settled a discrimination lawsuit filed by Hoffa-era organizers who were fired when the new leadership took office, TDU reported the facts: O’Brien and Zuckerman ran on a platform of cleaning house, and the thirteen fired organizers were part of a larger group of 136 IBT staff who were replaced by the new leadership. We also made clear that our union needs to hire and develop members of color, women, and LGBT Teamsters at every level and remove barriers that keep them out of leadership.

As always, actions speak louder than words. TDU and our black, Latino, and women’s caucuses help members develop as leaders in the TDU movement and in our union. TDU members have organized to help elect five African American principal officers — increasing the number of the black-led Teamster locals by 25 percent in the last few years. But we have a long way to go. Building an anti-racist, inclusive labor movement isn’t just the right thing to do. It is the only way to organize and unite and build power for a multiracial working class.

The Movement Moment

TDU members discuss and debate, but we aim for unity in action. The annual TDU Convention passes a resolution each year to guide the organization and its elected steering committee on its tasks for the coming year.

Many TDU members are politically active around issues like organizing for a cease-fire in Gaza. But we do not try to convert TDU into a political vehicle.

From early on in TDU, we have tacked hard against this impulse. TDU’s goal is not a narrow, perfect program. It is to have a wide, deep impact in the Teamsters and in the labor movement.

TDU is based on a broad program and principles of building rank-and-file power. That’s what has enabled us to build a united movement of working Teamsters, who may not share the same opinions on US politics but are united against contract givebacks, health care cuts, and income inequality.

TDU members work in their local unions, community coalitions, and political organizations to take on issues that fall outside of what we do as an organization.

Every task requires the right tool. If you try to use a torque wrench to pound in nails, it will make a lousy hammer and you’ll ruin your wrench in the process.

At a time when the political life of the United States is below miserable and many progressive groups are in retreat, a bright spot is labor’s movement moment, much of it coming from below. TDU members and leaders are well aware the present favorable climate may not last long, and that the Teamsters Union cannot realize its potential without being part of a broader movement.

This week, I will be at the biggest gathering of labor activists, hell-raisers, and radicals in decades: 4,500 of us at the Labor Notes Conference (which would be a couple thousand more but Labor Notes had to close registration six weeks early due to space limitations). Present will be some of the labor leaders taking on the fight, like Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants, Sean O’Brien, Fred Zuckerman, Jon Schleuss of the NewsGuild, Stacy Davis Gates of the Chicago Teachers Union, Shawn Fain, and others. More importantly, the future of the workers’ movement will be there — the militants, stewards, organizers and active workers ready to learn, organize, and lead. Some 350 international unionists will be there, including one hundred from Asia.

Dozens of TDU leaders will be speaking or leading workshops, sharing experiences, and coming away with new ideas, new energy, and new friends. They’ll be networking with two hundred active Amazon workers attending. They’ll be hosting a reception, co-organized with Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) and with hundreds of Teamsters, supporters, and labor leaders. It’s all the culmination of our recent organizing since O’Brien’s election — and our nearly half century of organizing for reform in the Teamsters before that.

As the resolution from the recent TDU Convention said, we have “a generational opportunity to work with others to build working class power and a new labor movement.” TDU members are in the thick of it.