Base Teamsters reformers bid for union leadership
Last weekend, nearly four hundred Teamsters from across the country gathered in Chicago for the 46th annual Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) convention. Members dropped into the Crowne Plaza Chicago West Loop, a unionized hotel near the city’s O’Hare International Airport, wearing sports shirts and jackets with the distinctive double-horse insignia of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). With this year’s official Teamsters convention hosted online, the excitement at the TDU convention in person was palpable.
When they got down to work, it was to discuss grassroots organization within the IBT just before the November elections which will determine the new international union leadership. The agenda included workshops and conversations on union leadership, the election of TDU-backed candidates, membership activation and the existential threat posed by Amazon.
Over the years, TDU, a reform group of a few thousand members, has had a disproportionate influence on the IBT, which represents 1.4 million union members in sectors such as logistics, health care, construction, transport and communications. âWe don’t call ourselves a caucus. We call ourselves a grassroots movement, âsaid TDU national organizer Ken Paff. Jacobin.
In 1989, as union leaders faced charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and in the midst of discussions to bring the union under federal trusteeship, TDU waged a successful campaign that won the members the right to vote directly for union leaders. . With the resignation of IBT general chairman James P. Hoffa after twenty-three years in office, the November election marks the first time a list of reforms has been in a position to win international leadership since the former chairman Ron Carey (1991-97) saw his election overturned on false accusations of embezzlement of union funds.
The current election boils down to two lists: Teamster Power, which is backed by Hoffa’s old guard, and Teamsters United, a coalition group backed by TDU. Hoffa’s departure will also mark the first time that an IBT president has voluntarily left office and is not arrested or charged, Teamsters Local 804 president Vinny Perrone of New York said. “For him it’s impressive,” said Perrone, who is posing as a director on the Teamsters United ticket. âBut it’s been about twenty years of concession contracts.
During the convention, attendees called Hoffa “asleep at the wheel”, “in bed with management” and “setting the stage for concessions with Amazon.” A base United Postal Service (UPS) driver called his administration a “gossip with the company” and “negotiating deals.”
With approximately 340,000 UPS employees represented, the Teamsters oversee the largest private collective agreement in the United States. The Teamsters United roster candidates are running for leadership on a platform to fight for a strong contract with UPS (current contract expires in 2023), are working with locals to confront employers, and are organizing Amazon, the second largest employer in the United States. . âI hope to see an environment in which we can fight for a better union with the support of our international,â said Fernando Figueroa, a part-time package manager at UPS and a member of Teamsters Local 512 in Jacksonville, Fla. .
Asked about the biggest issues they face at work, every grassroots Teamster who spoke with Jacobin mentioned two issues: harassment at work by management and the existence of the 22-4 – a new classification of drivers, operating on a system that was negotiated in the last contract – which many say created a system to two gears among truck drivers.
“Management will harass workers for all kinds of little things,” Figueroa said. âShowing up thirty seconds late for a shift, not producing as UPS wants us to produce, not respecting quotas, even though our contract specifically states that there are no production standards. They will harass people to the point of driving home to see if they are home on the days they call.
Figueroa added that UPS management has sanctioned workers with disabilities for showing up one minute late for their shift when they could not drive and were dependent on other means of transportation. He said management also intimidated drivers for signing petitions, harassed elderly employees for working too slowly and fired a pregnant employee because she had a baseless suspicion that she had helped someone steal in the business.
On the harassment issue, Derek Correia, a UPS driver with Teamsters Local 542 in San Diego, said, âSpeed. They want you to go faster on routes, overtime, especially during COVID. We worked almost seventy hours a week. Since starting work in 2002, Correia has said harassment has increased and he is blaming some of the blame on his local. âThey are in collusion with the management. We had no protection, no support, no representation of any kind, âsays Correia. “I’m looking for a more militant group, which I think we have in Fred Zuckerman and Sean O’Brien” running on the Teamsters United roster for Secretary-General and President, respectively.
âI think there is already a formula based on the organization at the base,â Perrone said of negotiating the next UPS contract. âIn my local, I’m already telling people to start putting money aside for a strike because I think that’s the only thing the company is actually going to understand.
TDU’s organizational model focuses on activating a militant minority within the grassroots. New TDU national organizer David Levin said the purpose of their annual conventions was to “make you a better-armed troublemaker when you return home to your people.”
The TDU, which has traditionally served as a splinter group in opposition to international leadership, would finally have, as one supporter described it, a âseat at the tableâ under new leadership. But conference attendees were not unanimously enthusiastic about the top candidates. O’Brien and Zuckerman have historically opposed TDU. For example, Zuckerman had a “TDU Sucks” vanity tag on his car in the past. The two candidates have since formed a coalition with TDU, which they see as a vital asset.
Despite past controversies, some consider winning Zuckerman and O’Brien a victory for TDU. “The ticket we have is a perfect reflection of today’s society in the sense that popular movements, struggling workers, communities struggling to improve their own conditions are in fact pushing everything in the system further to the left. “said Figueroa. âIt’s a real reflection of how the involvement of members in unions can really change the structure from the bottom up.
The results of the upcoming election have huge implications for the approach the Teamsters will take to Amazon. âWe need a serious strategy to organize the Amazon workers in our union, and I think we have a chance to do it under the leadership of Sean O’Brien,â says Gabriella Killpack, parcel car driver UPS with Teamsters Local 222 in Salt Lake City, Utah. .
At an Amazon workshop during this weekend’s convention, organizers mapped out the company’s operations in great detail. Joe DeManuelle-Hall, organizer and editor at Working notes, explained the redundancy built into Amazon’s distribution model. For this reason, he explained, a strike at a facility would have no impact on the company’s bottom line because algorithms can locate products within a network of distribution centers and deliver the products to customers without interruption.
From 2015 to 2020, the percentage of Amazon packages the company delivers itself – rather than relying on outside delivery companies – increased from 3% to 67%. As of this year, Amazon represents the fourth largest courier service in terms of market share in the country (UPS is the first) despite entering the market only in 2013. DeManuelle-Hall described Amazon’s strategy as ” an attempt to build a parallel network “.
A grassroots member involved in the campaign to organize Amazon described his local operation as “the scaffolding of a union campaign”. Organizers have requested that specific details regarding tactics and strategy not be shared publicly, although TDU has offered a number of potential organizing tactics, including a massive “salting” program that would encourage organizers to take jobs at Amazon with plans to “build the power of the Interior Workshop.”
âThe old guard has let the Amazon organization go under the radar for too long,â says Killpack. To those who wish to join the fight, she says, âI strongly recommend that they contact the local Teamsters union to see if they have an active union campaign.