By CHARLES WALKER
“I am a hands-on president. I intend to be involved in all our major negotiations.”
-James P. Hoffa, June 1, 1999
Two weeks before their contract was set to end, carhaul drivers and mechanics, yard workers, and office workers gave Teamsters President James P. Hoffa a rock-solid mandate to deliver the goods. On May 31, 96 percent of those voting authorized Hoffa to strike their bosses on their behalf, signaling their readiness to fight.
On June 2, Hoffa announced a tentative agreement covering 12,800 workers at 17 unionized carhaul firms. So how did the 57-year-old son of the legendary Jimmy Hoffa do when the rubber hit the road?
Did Hoffa get everything the ranks are strong enough to win, did he leave anything behind? At the table, did he back-up those who were prepared to back him up on picket-lines?
One thing is clear, the proposed settlement is not a breakthrough agreement. Hoffa didn’t put one over on the bosses. In fact, the deal Hoffa cut with the companies contains something not in the past two contracts: Concessions demanded by the bosses!
In 1995, with Ron Carey calling the shots, all the carhaul bosses’ concessionary demands were defeated by a 31-day strike. That strike resulted in a landmark work-preservation agreement, that helped curb the companies from transferring work to their own non-union subsidiaries.
Moreover, Carey was also fighting General Motors, which was egging on the carhaul companies to wrest concessions from the union in order to lower its carhauling costs. At the same time Carey’s actions were being sabotaged by his political opponents within the bureaucratic officialdom.
An analysis by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union determined that under the past two carhaul contracts negotiated during the Carey regime, the wage agreements were better, on a percentage basis.
Hoffa’s concessions consist of:
1) Permitting employers in the union’s Southern region to work newly hired mechanics on Saturdays and Sundays at straight time, and to work drivers in the Western region a Sunday to Thursday night-shift workweek.
2) Allowing the company to pay a first-year signing bonus, rather than an increase in the base pay. One estimate is that individual Teamsters will lose roughly $2000 in each of three years, before calculating lost overtime pay.
That means that the individual worker will lose at least $6500 in straight hourly pay, after deducting the bonus.
Of course, if the workforce faced an unfavorable relationship of forces, that might well cause even a militant leadership to back off, waiting for a better day. But by all accounts, even Hoffa’s, the union’s strength relative to the carhaul firms was bolstered by a near record year for car sales.
According to The New York Times, “The auto industry is on an expansion binge, building new factories and expanding or modifying existing ones….” If Hoffa gives up concessions during an industry’s banner year, what can he be expected to do when the bosses plead poverty? And what can he be expected to do, if he’s not under the pressure of a virtually unanimous strike vote?
Concessions aside, the ranks can be expected to ratify the agreement, but their heart may not be in it. That’s because the wage increases are paltry, and won’t keep pace with the inflated cost of many consumer items.
However, many of the senior workers will like the pension package. Except for the Western and Eastern regions, the new pension money allows workers to retire after 25 years with a monthly $2500 pension, provided they are 55 years old. Previously, that benefit kicked in at age 57.
And there will be first-time prescription benefits for retirees on Medicare. However, the increased pension money and benefits apply only to future and not current retirees.
On the other hand, those Teamsters who petitioned Hoffa for 25-and-out at any age will be disappointed. And the deal does not provide for an increase in good, well-paying union jobs. As a matter of fact, the unionized workforce has been shrinking for nearly 25 years, due to deregulation of the freight industry, the shift of work to railroads, and the union bureaucracy’s seeming indifference to the growth of the non-union sector of the industry.
Predictably, Hoffa called the proposed settlement “historic,” while one of his vice-presidents, Chuck Mack, found the deal “astounding.” No doubt the bulk of the union’s officialdom will publicly, if not always privately, agree with Hoffa.
However, leaders of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union said, “the heavy lifting in terms of new protections was done in 1992-1995 [the Carey years], while Hoffa … caved in on some issues where we [the Teamsters] held firm in ’92 and ’95.”
The Associated Press called the deal “a relatively unremarkable settlement.” The news service also observed that Hoffa, not the negotiations, seemed to be the main attraction at the bargaining site.
And apparently, Hoffa wanted his deeds recorded for posterity, because the press reported that with Hoffa’s agreement “a documentary film crew trailed him throughout the talks.”
When union and company negotiators put on an act to lead the members to infer that actual hard-bargaining is going on and that the union’s officials are really fighting for the rank’s best interests, it is called a “dog and pony show.”
When done well, it’s hard for the ranks to tell the difference, because like a dress rehearsal it looks like the real McCoy. It takes an expert to detect the chicanery, unless a person is in on the game.
I don’t claim to be an expert, and I certainly wasn’t privy to inside information; but consider this: If Hoffa had planned to exert the union’s united power and resources in the interests of the carhaul workers, you would think that he would scrape together every buck the union could lay its hands on, in case of a strike. Makes sense, right?
Well, on the eve of Hoffa’s last-minute entrance into the negotiating sessions (two days before the expiration date) , the union returned to the auto and communication workers unions the loans that Carey borrowed to back-up his strike action against the freight bosses.
Of course, that’s not a smoking gun that can’t be argued with. But chew this over: Transport Topics, a mainline freight industry journal, believes that “despite the new Teamsters rhetoric about restoring union power, indications are that the Hoffa administration will be more pragmatic and less confrontational than his predecessor [Ron Carey].
“Phil Young, national freight director for the union, said during an interview at the [inaugural] reception that the Teamsters will take a different approach in negotiating with employers. ‘We’re not going to threaten the world. We will deal with employers as honorable trade unionists,’ he said. ‘It’s important to have a decent relationship.’
“Young said there is ‘plenty of room in the middle, where labor and management can work together to help unionized companies thrive.’
“‘The last thing we want is a strike,’ he said. ‘We won’t do that unless we have to. We will not strike for the sake of a strike. That’s not what our members want.'”
But, if they do, the ranks better not count on the likes of Young to lead them, and Young was put in his new freight post by Hoffa.
One final point. The negotiated wage package just gets in under the union’s constitutional wire to trigger an automatic, no-vote dues increase in each of the next four contract years.