David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The War in the Teamsters
by David Bacon

PHILADELPHIA (8/24/96) - This November will see, not one, but two national elections which will shape the country's political direction - the general election and the election in the Teamsters Union. While the AFL-CIO has called the defeat of the Republicans a life-and-death struggle, mobilizing its affiliated unions to campaign for Clinton, the Teamsters election may in the end have a greater influence on the survival of the labor movement. And to the extent that a revitalized labor movement will change politics nationally, the effect of the Teamsters election will reach far beyond labor's own ranks.

Since the AFL-CIO convention last fall in New York, the media has treated the renovation of the labor movement like a triumphal march. It has measured its progress in the $35 million spent on an all-out mobilization for November, in the 1000 young volunteers recruited for Union Summer, and in ambitious plans for new organizing drives.

These are significant changes from the era of Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO's previous president, which ended just a year ago. But the most fundamental problem retarding the qualitative growth in the power and effectiveness of U.S. unions can't be cured by spending money alone, or by reorganizing the labor movement at the top. That problem is the ability of rank-and-file members to control their own unions and to determine their direction.

In the Teamsters Union, the struggle for democratic control and more progressive politics has not been a triumphal march. It's been more like a war.

Five years ago, the union was forced by the government to conduct a rank-and-file election to choose its international president. The unexpected happened. With two old-guard candidates on the ballot, the head of the New York local for drivers at United Parcel Service, Ron Carey, was elected directly by membership vote.

The defeat of the old guard was a victory for Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the rank-and-file caucus which began the long struggle to reform the union in 1975. Carey was not a TDU candidate per se, but the organization TDU built up over years of gritty battles in locals around the country campaigned hard for him, and was indispensable to his victory.

The reform movement which swept Carey into office shifted the center of gravity in American labor. Last October the new Teamsters Union threw its support to John Sweeney, who successfully challenged the old guard in the AFL-CIO, and won election as president. Sweeney could not have won without the Teamsters, the country's largest union.

Carey's predecessors would never have lined up with Sweeney. For the past forty years, Teamsters Union presidents were labor's arch-conservatives. During those years when they were in the AFL, and later the AFL-CIO, they would never have sided with an effort from the left to dump Kirkland or George Meany before him, or anything perceived as a change in labor's political direction.

This November, Teamster members will vote again, possibly reversing the changes in their union. Ballots will be mailed to members throughout the country, asking them to choose between Carey and James Hoffa, Jr., the son of Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters' most famous (or notorious) president. Hoffa is the candidate of the old guard, a section of the union which is still very powerful even after five years of Carey-led reform. Calling themselves the Real Teamster Caucus, the essence of their program is reversing the changes made under Carey.

Hoffa Jr.'s supporters paint an idyllic picture of the union's power under his father. Times were good then, in the era before deregulation, they say. While admitting that Hoffa Sr. may have had his faults, they credit him with negotiating good wages and benefits. They attack Carey's reforms for costing the union money, and for upsetting friendly relations with employers. They blame the attack on the standard of living of Teamster members on Carey. They appeal for a vote to return to the past, and their candidate's main strength is the symbolism of his name.

But can you really go home again? And is this popular perception an accurate picture of life in the old Teamsters?

The momentum which swept both Carey and Sweeney into office arose from the crisis of business unionism, the ideology which prevailed in U.S. labor leadership after the disastrous anti-communist and anti-left purges of the late 1940s. Business unionism was based on accommodation to corporate power. Once unions cleansed themselves of communist, socialist and radical leadership, most employers recognized their right to exist. Generally, corporations were willing to bargain for an increased standard of living for union members, so long as unions didn't challenge U.S. capitalism as a system, or deviate from basic corporate economic and foreign policies.

In no union was that policy implemented with a greater vengeance than the Teamsters. Its postwar presidents - Dave Beck, Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Fitzsimmons, and Jackie Presser - all built a union in which they negotiated relatively good wages for some members, while tolerating no dissent from their looting of union pension and benefit funds. Often in collaboration with organized crime, they suppressed any idea that the union should be a social movement fighting for the benefit of workers generally. The union was a business.

In its worst periods, employers used Teamsters contracts as sweetheart protection to prevent workers from joining more militant unions, whether the CIO in the 1940s or the United Farm Workers in the 1960s. While the rest of labor functioned politically as an arm of the Democratic Party, Teamsters leaders even traded support for the most conservative Republican politicians for immediate political advantage.

But the social compact underlying business unionism unraveled in the 1970s and 80s, in the wake of the Vietnam War. Unable to support a rising standard of living and an enormous war machine at the same time, U.S. corporations chose guns over butter. The standard of living of U.S. workers stopped rising just as the war ended, and has been declining ever since. Restructuring and plant closures cost the jobs of millions of workers. In the Teamsters, deregulation stripped away hundreds of thousands of the union's core members - long-haul truck drivers and other transport workers - turning them into independent owner-operators - serfs for the bank. Their income fell, and 18 and 20-hour days behind the wheel became part of normal life. Union membership dropped from 1.8 to 1.4 million.

Teamsters Union presidents bemoaned these changes, but mounted no program to fight to reverse them. Jackie Presser, the last of the line, who by then was working as a stoolpigeon for the FBI inside his own union, was carried into his last convention in a wheeled sedan chair by four men dressed as Roman centurions. The party cost $650,000, while ordinary union members faced growing employer attacks and the erosion of the union's power. Under the circumstances, the spectacle couldn't help but leave a bitter taste in their mouths.

When the Federal government imposed its trusteeship, and gave the rank-and-file the opportunity to vote on their president for the first time, a surprising percentage chose Carey. He was not then well-known in the union - members were clearly voting for change. But not just any change. Despite the fact that his main rival, R.V. Durham also sought to distance himself from the old guard by using the phrase "New Directions," members could tell the difference.

The same general crisis swept Kirkland away as well. Sweeney spoke to the hopes of millions of American union members. After four decades of ineffective national leadership, he promised to organize hundreds of thousands of new members, to broaden the federation's leadership to mirror the diversity of the American workplace, and to challenge corporate downsizing and the erosion of living standards by the global economy.

While Carey supported Sweeney and his program, he has been an independent voice, especially in the area where AFL-CIO policy has changed the least - political action. When Sweeney urged leaders of U.S. unions to make an early endorsement of President Clinton in March, Carey broke ranks.

He was already bitter over NAFTA. Even before Clinton's election, the union actively organized opposition to the agreement, including the Free Trade Express, a truck caravan which traveled throughout the southwest, organizing anti-NAFTA rallies addressed by both U.S. and Mexican unionists.

"I see a lot of our legislators detached from what's right, a lot of wannabe Democrats who talk about the right thing but do something else," Carey commented bitterly at the time. "There's a feeling that we're totally cemented to the Democratic Party, but that's wrong. We can look at Republicans, we can look at independents, we can even look at an alternative like a labor party. Our legislators should be speaking for working people in this country. That's not happening."

When Sweeney made his proposal, it drew immediate fire from other union presidents as well. "There's a difference between whether Bill Clinton has supported some of the institutional interests of unions, and whether or not he embraces an economic policy that benefits working men and women," commented Bob Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. "On the first question, the president's administration has been a wee bit more union-friendly than some other administrations in the past, although not overwhelmingly so. But on the second question, this administration falls short. Bill Clinton can't expect American workers to understand an economic policy which puts their jobs at risk for corporate trade advantages."

When the AFL-CIO endorsement finally came to a vote, Carey and Brian McWilliams of the west coast International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union were the only two against it on the federation's executive council. "We've been disappointed with Clinton's support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and his failure to address growing wage disparities between the rich and the poor," Carey explained.

Despite his clear position, however, some forces still had hopes of getting an endorsement for Clinton at the union's July convention. In the Teamsters, as in most other large AFL-CIO unions and in the federation itself, political operatives move back and forth between union staff and the Democratic Party. They serve as functionaries in Democratic administrations, as assistants to senators and congressional representatives, and carry their party loyalty into the union.

"These people head lots of union departments," says one union staffer, "especially the ones involving lobbying on the hill. Their currency is access, and they get that by making promises to deliver union support."

As the Teamster convention approached, political operatives on the political action committee wrote a resolution which would have given Clinton the Teamster endorsement. Carey, who's never been to the White House or invited to a Presidential function, found out about it. He put his foot down, and the resolution was rewritten. Its final language points out the danger of the Republican congressional program, and calls for replacing it "with one more responsive to the needs of our members," but pointedly stops short of giving Clinton the union's endorsement.

"We're going to get information to our members and their families," Carey said afterwards. "We're not going to tell them how to vote." This was quite a change from the union which became notorious in the 1970s and 80s for endorsing Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Under Carey, the Teamsters Union has been much more willing to strike to defend its contracts. Carhaulers, long distance truckers, food processing workers, and many others were supported by the international union when they chose to fight their employers to defend their wages and conditions. On picketlines and in organizing drives around the country, it's not uncommon to see Carey t-shirts and buttons. They're not the places one is likely to see support for Hoffa.

When the United Parcel Service tried to impose new job requirements which endangered its employees' health and safety, Carey backed UPS workers in a mid-contract walkout. The union's old guard kept the UPS locals under their control at work during the strike. He mobilized the whole union for four years to defend another strike which began under his predecessor, at the huge Diamond Walnut plant in Stockton, California. The international made it the national symbol for the campaign to win legislation prohibiting the permanent replacement of strikers.

In the last four years, the Teamsters have become one of the few U.S. unions to reach across the Mexican border. Cooperating with the independent United Electrical Workers, the Teamsters forged a new relationship with the only Mexican union federation which opposed NAFTA, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT). The union sponsored FAT organizing drives in Irapuato, where Green Giant relocated production from its big food processing plant in Watsonville, California, and at a Honeywell plant in Chihuahua. Both were runaways which cost the jobs of hundreds of Teamster members in the U.S.

Carey restructured the Teamsters' organizing department, giving it a more strategic orientation, and a greater commitment to unorganized workers. Union drives now focus on industries where the union already has contracts. A national campaign has gone from terminal to terminal at Overnite Express, which competes against Teamster-represented UPS. In the west, immigrant workers are the backbone of campaigns focused on the food processing industry. All these campaigns have lifted the conditions for newly-organized workers while defending the contracts and jobs of long-time members. Making a final peace with the United Farm Workers, the unions have begun joint drives, with the Teamsters organizing workers in the sheds and the UFW in the fields in the same industry.

And Carey has gone after the mob. In local after local, the international has moved to replace leaders accused of misusing members' dues money to line the pockets of themselves and their friends.

This process of change has been anything but peaceful. For five year s, members have fought over control of local unions and district councils. The union's structure is already very decentralized compared to many unions, which has allowed Hoffa supporters to maintain control over a number of councils and conferences. Nevertheless, Carey has used the power of the international to remove corrupt leaders, as well as to enforce new policies.

The union has been racked by struggles to eliminate multiple salaries for union officers and to trim excessive expenses. The 1991 convention voted a huge increase in strike benefits, with no corresponding increase in dues, before Carey took office. As a result, the strike fund was exhausted, and only recently were benefits reinstated at the old, lower level.

In mid-July, eighteen hundred delegates gathered at the Teamsters national convention in Philadelphia to battle over an attempt by the old guard to gut the power of the international union. The struggle was so bitter that the convention's opening day was disrupted and the hall cleared. At the end of five days, Carey had successfully turned aside those efforts.

Leaving the convention, both sides declared victory, and began marshaling their forces for the coming rank-and-file ballot for president. The election will be a watershed. Once the votes are counted in December, Carey will either come out of it more clearly empowered to carry through the reform program and changes in political direction, or the process will be reversed.

But even if Carey is defeated, it will not put the genie back in the bottle. Hoffa may call for returning to the old social contract underlying business unionism, but employers aren't interested in that deal anymore. They don't need a tame union when they think they can have no union at all. Looking for those old friendly relationships with employers will only demobilize the union instead of increasing its ability to fight.

On the other hand, the demands raised by the reform movement in the Teamsters - democratic control of the union, political independence, a militant defense of living standards, organizing and diversity, ending corruption, and support for global unionism - are now supported even by many of those who oppose Carey.

These ideas represent the thinking of a growing wave of American workers. It is their pressure from below that is changing the face of the labor movement.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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