Reformers Producing Fierce Challenge to Longtime Hoffa Leadership of Teamsters Union

Eyes will be on the presidential race this fall, but another election with wide-reaching implications will be here soon enough as well. Elections for the General President and the General Executive Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters will have an impact on 1.2 million workers in the United States and the wider labor movement. Ballots will be mailed out to all members of the Teamsters this October.

The elections come at a pivotal moment for both the Teamsters and the U.S. labor movement. This will be the first direct election in Teamsters history that will not occur while the union is under the direct supervision of the federal government. The Teamsters had been under such supervision from 1989 to 2015 as part of a settlement of RICO charges brought by then U.S. Attorney for Manhattan Rudolph Giuliani. The federal government is satisfied with the union's internal democratic reforms and no longer believes the Teamsters are under the influence of organized crime, but that does not mean the Teamsters are free of corruption or a thriving union.

The future of the Teamsters and concerns about corruption make the upcoming elections in October a referendum on the continued presidency of James P. Hoffa. Hoffa, son of the legendary Jimmy, has been the Teamsters' president since 1998. He won a special election in 1998 that was a rerun of the 1996 executive elections. Federal investigators found that the campaign of Hoffa's predecessor Ron Carey had illegally raised $700,000 for the reelection campaign. Carey was personally exonerated of any wrongdoing, but was expelled from the union.

The Teamsters that Hoffa took over looked to be on the upswing. Membership was growing from a postwar low of 1 million in the late 1980s that was created by the deregulation of the trucking industry. The Teamsters had also just won the 1997 UPS strike.

"The high of that era was the 1997 strike, the biggest labor victory in two decades, that raised the hopes and expectations of the entire labor movement," says Joe Allen, activist and author of the new e-book The Package King: A Rank and File History of the United Parcel Service. "I remember in the days following the UPS strike, 'FedEx is next, right?' The federal government sponsored witchhunt, led by congressional Republicans like Rep. Pete Hoekstra and Clinton's Justice Department, drove Carey out of office and set the stage for Hoffa to take over. This resulting 17 years of concession and stagnation is the product of the attack on the Teamsters."

Hopes of a "new labor movement" never came to be. While Hoffa managed to boost the Teamsters membership to as high as 1.7 million in the early 2000s, by 2014 it had dropped to 1.2 million. Corruption scandals mounted, culminating with the recent Independent Review Board charges against international vice-president and Hoffa ally, Rome Aloise. It's widely expected that Aloise will be expelled from the Teamsters to protect Hoffa and his slate.

One of the charges against Aloise include accepting tickets worth $9600 to the Playboy Superbowl party from Southern Wine and Spirits, which was in negotiations with a Minneapolis Teamster Local that would eventually settle for a subpar contract.

While Hoffa has faced challengers before to his presidency, he has managed to survive multiple challengers at once that prevented a unified anti-Hoffa front from being formed. 2016 looks to be different. There is now a unified opposition slate to challenge Hoffa—Teamsters United. This slate has also won the backing of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the famous rank-and-file organization of the Teamsters that emerged during the rank-and-file movements upsurge during the 1970s.

The united opposition to Hoffa came together as large swaths of the Teamster members and officials found themselves on the same side against Hoffa and his executive's decisions.

"We found that some officials who had never been part of TDU or worked with TDU, such as Fred Zuckerman started to move against these concessions," says Ken Paff, National Organizer for TDU. "Fred became outspoken against the concessions so we started working with him and teaming up on common issues in industries like automobile hauling, freight, UPS, grocery and on pensions. As we worked together, the slate came out of that. This is a broader slate, one that can win. We need to admit that in the past that Hoffa beat us."

Fred Zuckerman, president of Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville, KY, is Teamsters United candidate for general president. He doesn't mince words when talking about why he opposes Hoffa.

"I've been a Teamster for 37 years, and I don't like what I see," says Zuckerman. "Our union is weak, it's still filled with corruption, the current leadership is more in bed with management than it is standing up for the membership, we need to change our organizing. We're doing everything wrong and we to turn it around or we just won't survive."

Alongside corruption, Teamsters United has been also campaigning strongly on the issue of concessions made in recent contracts. "Just a couple years ago, they negotiated a deal with UPS. Now UPS had just posted profits of $4.5 billion. Now the leadership negotiated concessions but the membership turned it down, then they [Teamsters leadership] imposed the contract on them," says Zuckerman. "That's not what we do. We need to stand up for the members and get something that will make their lives better."

Teamsters United promises to do away with the ability of leadership to force a contract on a membership that has rejected it by a vote.

Zuckerman is also promising a renewed organizing push. "Hoffa's doing it all wrong. All he's doing is stealing workers from other public sector unions [known as union raiding]. That's not increasing our density, it's not helping our core industries," says Zuckerman. "When you organize in the core industries it helps us and our pension funds. These public sector workers already have their own pension funds. Our pension funds are hurting because we are not organizing more people into them. We're going to start organizing in trucking, in grocery, in warehousing, and in construction. We're not going to give up on the public sector, but we're certainly not going to steal employees from other unions."

The Teamsters' relation to the broader labor movement and to politics will also see an overhaul under Zuckerman. In 2005, the Teamsters along with other major unions like the SEIU, UFCW and UNITE HERE came together to form Change to Win which offered itself as an alternative to the AFL-CIO in an attempt to revive the labor movement. As of today, only the Teamsters, SEIU and the United Farm Workers remain in it. "Change to Win has been a disaster. Leaving the AFL-CIO has been a disaster," says Zuckerman.

Zuckerman has also yielded political results. His own Teamsters Local 89 is affiliated to the Kentucky AFL-CIO and works closely with it. Zuckerman highlights the March 8 special election in the state that saw the majority in the State House switch to Democrat from Republican. "Now the governor cannot get right-to-work or repeal the prevailing wage," Zuckerman says. "If you look around our region, we [Kentucky] are the holdouts. West Virginia just passed right-to-work. We're not going to write any politicians a blank check, we're going to make sure they work for our union members and work for the middle class."

The outcome of the elections in October for the Teamsters have do have an impact on the future of the whole labor movement in the U.S. because of the industries that it organizes. "We're a service union in growth industries," says Paff. "Turns out you can't export truck driving and warehousing to China, or operating rail trains. There will be more truck drivers than there are now, next year. There will be more deliveries next year than this year. This is where a union can have power because you're in the supply chain."

Navigating the U.S. economy in a post-industrial era where services and logistics play an essential role will be vital if the labor movement is to win better conditions in these jobs that often lack living wages and benefits. The Teamsters could play a major role in making this happen.

"To begin to match these and coming changes will require not only a radical restructuring of the Teamsters and train thousands of rank-and-file member to be organizers on the job and for the huge non-union logistics industry," says Allen. "The Teamsters can be the union of the future, but it will require political will to transform everything from top to bottom."

We will begin to get an idea if the Teamsters can be that union of the future when the ballots are counted in November.


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