Teamsters Notebook: TDU Convention Attracts Militants

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By CHARLES WALKER

 

Contingents of brewery workers, flight attendants, and meat-packing workers inspired and animated the 400 delegates and guests attending the Teamsters for a Democratic Union’s 24th Convention last month. The workers addressed the meeting’s main sessions, as well as workshops.

Their message was as similar as their daily jobs are different: Teamsters President James P. Hoffa is running a public relations scam. Hoffa is claiming historic victories over the bosses, while he is pushing workers into accepting weak or concessionary contracts. Focused on putting tough issues “to bed,” the Hoffa administration is providing no fight-back leadership, and is denouncing local union officials and rank-an-file militants who don’t want to give up.

Teamster meat packers are suing Hoffa to get back control of their local union. Hoffa took it over just days after a 30-day strike ended against IPB, a national meat processor. The flight attendants want to take strike action against Northwestern Airlines during the upcoming holiday period, after decisively turning back Hoffa’s heavy-handed lobbying of them to accept a contract that didn’t reflect the workers’ bargaining power.

And Budweiser brewery workers are building a company-wide e-mail network, considering public mock trials of Hoffa, and picketing the IBT’s Washington headquarters. Since the convention, Florida Budweiser workers have put up informational picket lines in front of the brewery.

Coming out of the convention, TDU is kicking off a national rank-and-file campaign to halt UPS from subcontracting long-haul trucking, known as feeder work. For months, UPS has bypassed the contract, increasingly shipping packages with non-union carriers.

The loss of their work has stirred up the feeder drivers who will be asked to join in a petition campaign demanding that Hoffa take action to end the sub-contracting. There is no direct connection with the loss of feeder work, but it should be mentioned that in mid-November Hoffa-backed incumbents at a huge Los Angeles UPS local union lost their reelection bid to a full slate of oppositionists, led by a rank-and-file UPS worker.

Tom Leedham, who headed the reform slate’s 1998 ticket, was the featured speaker at one of the main sessions. The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that Leedham’s message was that “Hoffa has resurrected the philosophy of the union’s so-called old-guard officials: “Talk tough, settle short, and declare victory.”

Leedham mixed easily with the delegates, addressing workshops and having low-key one-on-one discussions. At this point, Leedham remains the reformers’ choice to oppose Hoffa in the union’s 2001 elections.

The convention began the group’s preparation for the IBT’s general elections and the important local union elections to IBT’s 2001 Convention, where the nominations for the union’s top posts will take place. TDU hopes to contend for hundreds of delegate slots.

Well-attended workshop classes were presented on how to run and win. A policy statement was adopted that provided, “We will reach out to draw in those Teamsters who may have voted differently from us in the last IBT election, or not voted at all, but who share our desire for a strong democratic union.”

The delegates also called for an “impartially supervised election with democratic rules,” and pledged to “counter attempts to undermine that process.” In effect, that means that TDU continues to seek federal supervision of the union’s election, despite the Fed’s assertion of its right to prevent the ranks from voting for the candidates of its choice, as when the election overseers removed Teamsters President Ron Carey from the 1998 ballot.

On the final day, a last-minute resolution from the floor called for a “TDU campaign to end the federal government’s oversight of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.” A single opposing speaker argued that without federal oversight the ranks would immediately lose their right to directly elect convention delegates under a “snapback” provision in the union’s constitution, and that Hoffa would be the main beneficiary. A hand vote showed that an estimated 15-20 percent of those voting supported the resolution.

The convention will be a disappointment to anyone who thought or hoped that TDU would collapse following Hoffa’s election. Not only was the meeting as large as last year’s, the attendees donated over $40,000. More significantly, for nearly 20 percent of the participants it was their first TDU Convention.

 

Hoffa Attacks Carey

The Philadelphia Daily News (Nov. 16) reported: “A squad of Hoffa’s agents arrived at 5:30 a.m. at the union headquarters,” and Secretary-Treasurer John Morris, “the feisty 73-year-old leader who opposed International President James Hoffa’s election last year, was removed from office.”

“Working quickly,” the paper said, “the agents gained entry to the offices and immediately changed the locks. They posted on the door a five-and-a-half-page notice signed by Hoffa that announced that Local 115 had been placed into trusteeship.

“Morris, one of 12 children whose family’s labor roots date back more than a century to the coal country’s Molly Maguires, was deposed … because of a ‘pattern of erratic behavior,’ Hoffa said.”

“In the trusteeship papers Hoffa accused Morris of ordering local union funds to be used to purchase two shotguns, 20 stun guns, and a supply of pepper spray. Morris is known to carry a handgun at the local’s offices for which he does not have a permit. These purchases were in preparation for what Morris describes as the ‘war.’ He has caused Local 115 to convert the offices of former local 513 … into a barracks with sleeping quarters for approximately 30, a fully equipped kitchen, and a mess hall to accommodate 160 at one time.

“At his direction, Local 115 has purchased uniforms for over 100 members, purchased combat fatigues, boots, socks, gloves and hats …. Morris has caused the local to purchase four additional cars and two campers to be used when the ‘war comes.'”

Morris, noted the Philadelphia Inquirer (Nov. 16), “has been at the head of numerous picket lines and political rallies over the years. His reputation for hard-nosed tactics has been balanced by an aura of incorruptibility.”

Morris said, the paper wrote, “that rather than preparing for a war, he was trying to protect his people. Without confirming each purchase, Morris said he bought equipment to help workers who must picket in bitter weather or in emergency conditions.

“The pepper spray was for women on the picket line who are endangered, he said, and the shotguns were bought after someone shot the local’s dog. … He said that showers were installed in the basement and other changes made for members to use during strikes.”

Reportedly, dozens of members on the night of the takeover protested Hoffa’s action, demanded that he return the local, and claimed that “Hoffa is the mob.”

Morris said, “We’re going to meet with our lawyers. We’re going to look at their charges. And we’re going to sue. I plan to defend our integrity and our reputation. If it takes me the rest of my life that’s what I’m going to do.”

However, on Nov. 18, Morris lost his bid to have a judge issue an emergency order reinstating him and ousting Hoffa’s trustee. Now Morris must wait until Dec. 15 for a hearing on a federal lawsuit he filed challenging Hoffa.

Hoffa also alleged that Morris “caused his daughter Nancy to be hired as a clerical employee of the legal fund, removed two officers of the local, and caused members to be fired” because they or their relatives “were suspected of unspecified disloyal acts against Morris.”

He charged that Morris assaulted several people (including his own daughter), and alleged that there is an “atmosphere of fear among the members preventing them from exercising their rights.”

Hoffa’s press releases rightly point out that Morris collected $184, 423.50 in multiple union salaries in 1998 ( $86,284 from Local 115 and the rest from the IBT and Joint Council 53.) Hoffa seems to be implying that he opposes the practice of high salaries and multiple ones as well. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Four of Hoffa’s supporters are the union’s highest money-makers, including the notorious Frank Wsol at $292,454. Hoffa successfully fought at the union’s 1996 convention to regain Wsol’s return to the union, after Ron Carey ousted him for ganging up with UPS against a fired worker.

In 1991, Morris was the only candidate elected to the IBT’s Executive Board not on the Carey Slate. Nevertheless, Morris backed Carey on all major issues, including national strikes and reducing the bureaucracy’s privileges and power over the ranks.

Morris didn’t support Leedham in 1998, but never joined the hundreds of officials who have opportunistically moved to Hoffa’s side.

On a Sunday in mid-November, several thousand workers rallied in the California Salinas Valley town of King City to support 750 striking Teamsters at Basic Vegetable, the world’s largest processor of dehydrated onions and garlic.

Basic Vegetable forced the strike when it demanded that a new contract allow them to cut daily hours, and contract out some year-round jobs. Since then, the bosses have also demanded that new hires permanently be paid $3 an hour less than the other workers, and that they self-pay $180 a month for medical coverage. Further, they propose that the workers exchange their Teamsters pension plan for a substandard company plan.

The bosses said that they needed the concessions in order to meet the competition. Having already closed three plants, they threatened that the King City plant could close, too. At the start, the bosses hired scabs and soon after announced that the striking workers had been permanently replaced.

Out since July 7, the strikers see no end in sight. It’s clear that the strikers need all the help and solidarity they can muster. But as important as Solidarity Days and cash and food donations are, they rarely tip the scales in strikers’ favor-scabs or no scabs. That especially seems to be the case when the union’s central strategic premise is to wage a relatively passive “war of attrition,” simply hoping to hold out one day more than the bosses.

Certainly that’s true in the four-year strike and lockout of the Detroit newspaper workers. The exceptions, such as the 18-month-long 1985-86 Watsonville cannery strike, are far too few to offset the losses that union leaderships have used to urge workers to forgo strikes and to give concessions.

If the strikers expected that the rally’s speakers would propose a different course than the one followed since July, they were disappointed. Politicians spoke of their failed attempts to get the Basic Vegetable bosses to listen to reason. Labor officials brought words of encouragement and promises to stick by the strikers until they win.

The day after the rally, the strikers once again dealt as best they could with the scabs. And tens of thousands of Teamsters within a 50-mile radius of the picket lines returned to their jobs- some speeding past the freeway exits for King City.

Of course, if bosses knew that trucks might not roll, that stores might not be restocked, that trash might not get hauled , simply because Teamster strike strategy was based on the premise that an injury to one is an injury to all, then (who knows?) the Basic Vegetable workers too might have been back on the job, unless their brothers and sisters down the road needed their solidarity.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of active and retired Teamsters nationally are walking picket lines at Overnite Co. terminals and following Overnite trucks, discouraging shippers from using the nation’s largest carrier of consolidated cargo without a union contract.

While the daily press mostly ignores the strike, the internet provides evidence that Teamster volunteers are getting the bosses’ attention with stories of Teamsters from down the block who show up drinking coffee in front of driveways, and gray-haired old men who aren’t shy about telling customers what to do with their holiday business.

As the strike enters its sixth week, both sides are claiming that it will outlast the other. Overnite is a subsidiary of Union Pacific, a railroad giant with deep pockets and extensive political clout.

The Teamsters won the support of rail unions who pledged to strike should Overnite transfer its cargo to trains. To date, there have been no reports of rail shutdowns related to the strike.

The Teamsters claim to represent approximately 45 percent of the firm’s 8000 drivers and dock workers at 37 Overnite terminals, including the five largest. The union has said it will picket all 166 Overnite sites.

Recently, the AFL-CIO announced it will donate $100,000 to the strike, while the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees donated $25,000. Hoffa announced that the union will pay the strikers (not the volunteers) $100 a week.

The Teamsters have filed notices with the National Labor Relations Board of more than a thousand violations of labor law by Overnite .

In a sworn statement, a former Overnite manager charged that the company had compiled “hit lists” of workers who supported the union, and had a hidden operation that unlawfully targeted and illegally fired hundreds of union supporters for infractions fabricated by the company. The manager told union officials, “After being responsible for firing more than 40 union supporters, I had a change of heart. I came forward because I was upset at how Overnite is treating employees.”

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa says, “This strike is the bitter fruit of Overnite’s unrepentant and unrelenting violation of the laws that protect America’s working families. … All Americans should rise up in indignation at the unmerciful conduct of this rough labor law scofflaw.”

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