Thousands of delegates, members, and guests gathered in Las Vegas in late June for the 28th International Convention of the 1.3-million-member Teamsters union. The assembled delegates were given a dazzling spectacle of a show that was fit for the city of sin. The incumbent Hoffa administration spent millions of dues dollars for a show that included a motorcade of Harleys on the convention floor, paid celebrity appearances, professionally produced videos beamed on jumbo trans, and a series of speeches and resolutions praising the current leadership and touting their accomplishments.
The delegates, mostly local officers loyal to the administration, turned what is supposed to be the union’s highest decision-making body, where delegates bring the concerns and ideas of the members they represent to be democratically discussed, into a multi-million-dollar pep rally.
However, all the theatrics in the world cannot hide the fact that the Teamsters rank and file are under attack from employers and have received little support from the international. In the union’s traditional industry, freight trucking, membership is at an all time low. Members at the union’s largest freight employer, YRC, have taken 15% wage cuts and indefinite suspension of employer pension contributions.
While the overwhelming majority of freight trucking remains non-union, Hoffa has done little to organize this critical sector. The only major organizing victory in freight under Hoffa’s watch has been UPS Freight, a company created when UPS purchased the non-union carrier Overnight, a company the Teamsters formerly had attempted to organize, only to be routed when in 1999 Hoffa called a disastrous premature strike that blew up the organizing campaign. After UPS purchased Overnight, UPS agreed to card-check neutrality with the IBT in exchange for massive concessions in the national UPS contract.
In addition, UPS Freight workers are under a contract below the standards of the National Master Freight Agreement, undermining not only the strength of Teamsters at UPS Freight, but in the entire freight industry as UPS Freight underbids other union freight carriers with its lower wage and pension obligations.
The NMFA was negotiated by Hoffa Jr’s father in order to establish pattern bargaining that would prevent companies from engaging in such practices. As it stands today, the NMFA is barely worth the paper it’s written on, with Hoffa allowing concessions every time employers cry wolf.
At the union’s largest employer, shipping giant UPS, Hoffa granted massive concessions, including allowing UPS to withdraw from the union’s largest multi-employer pension fund, the Central States Pension Fund, despite the company’s record profits. UPS workers in the central states now have an inferior company pension, and the Teamsters still in the multi-employer plan have a pension fund on the brink of insolvency after losing its largest contributing employer.
In UPS negotiations Hoffa sold out on full-time job creation and left starting pay frozen at only $8.50 an hour. The only UPS Teamsters who have seen a raise in starting pay under Hoffa are in Washington state, where the minimum wage recently was raised to $8.67 per hour.
Meanwhile, UPS continues to violate existing language with no response from the international, including layoffs of full-time inside workers. In a conference call with UPS stewards, Hoffa running mate Ken Hall told participants that “it wasn’t the right time” to enforce the contract. This is the Hoffa-Hall response while UPS made $5.8 billion in after tax profits in 2010. The same scenario is playing out across all Teamster divisions, with a laundry list of concessions.
Not all the delegates at the Las Vegas convention, and certainly not most rank and filers, are drinking the Hoffa kool-aid. In fact, thousands of rank-and-file activists across the country are organizing to dump Hoffa and elect reform candidate Sandy Pope as the next Teamster general president; 130 elected delegates nominated her in Las Vegas, and 50,000 members have signed petitions in support of her candidacy.
Sandy Pope, president of New York Local 805, will face off against Hoffa and another challenger, Fred Gegare, a former Hoffa loyalist. Pope is supported by the rank-and-file caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and is a veteran reform activist in the Teamsters union. Unlike Hoffa, Pope spent years working as a Teamster in the warehouse and freight industries. She helped organize a successful month-long strike of Teamster Steel haulers in 1979. After Ron Carey ousted the old-guard Mafia-controlled leadership and won the Teamster presidency in 1991, he appointed Sandy International Representative assigned to the Warehouse Division.
In 1999, Sandy went to work for Local 805. In 2004, the union’s president cut a deal with employers to slash members’ pension accrual to zero. Sandy united with rank-and-file members to take back the local. They won, and Sandy has served as Local 805 president ever since. She has negotiated contracts that have protected members’ health benefits and pensions and mobilized members and joined forces with other Teamster locals and community groups to take on nonunion competitors who are threatening good union jobs.
Sandy Pope brings a different vision of how the union should work than Hoffa’s concession-machine model. She calls for the mobilization of the members to negotiate strong contracts and organize the nonunion competition. It is to be expected that as Teamster president Sandy Pope will take a hard line in negotiations with employers and back it up with a rank-and-file organized to take action. This was the type of leadership the Teamsters had under Ron Carey, who led the successful 1997 national strike against UPS.
In her acceptance speech Sandy said, “I was in Canton, Ohio, when Teamster steelhaulers voted to strike rather than accept a substandard contract. Waves of Teamsters poured out of their union hall to hit the pavement, stop every steelhaul truck and shut the industry down. That was Teamster power! It wasn’t declared in a press release. It was built by Teamster members standing shoulder to shoulder. I have never forgotten the lesson taught to me by those steelhaulers and freight Teamsters in Cleveland—that Teamster power comes from members in action…
“Hoffa didn’t come up through the ranks. He’s a career union politician who rode into office on his father’s last name and on the shoulders of other Teamster leaders. And that’s why Hoffa is so threatened by Teamster members and by local officers who have their own ideas. Where I see Teamsters, I see leadership and power. Hoffa sees a threat to his job.”
The labor movement today is in crisis mode. Employers are on the offensive against all unions. As in the Teamsters, the response from union leaders, with rare exceptions, has been to lay down and accept concessions. Transforming our weakened unions into effective vehicles to fight back against the bosses offensive will require many struggles, especially a revival of the strike and the formation of a Labor Party. Advancing democracy in the unions and engaging the rank and file are necessary for such battles. A Sandy Pope presidency in the Teamsters would represent a major advance in this struggle.
> The article above was written by David Bernt, and first appeared in the August 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.