JUNE 1993 - VOLUME 14 - NUMBER 6
L A B O R S T R A T E G I E S
The New Teamsters
Taking On the Old Guardby Martha Gruelle
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) is moving in a new direction. And the victory of the reform slate led by Ronald C. Carey as the successful candidate for General President marks the most outwardly visible sign that the new IBT is shedding its image as a violent, corrupt and autocratic union.
The vast majority of the 1.5 million members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) are honest and hard-working, but between 1959 and 1972 Teamster officials were the subject of federal investigations revolving around charges that they had ties to organized crime organizations, that these officials had used the Teamster's Central States Pension fund to make improper loans for hotels, shopping centers and Las Vegas casinos, and that several IBT officials had embezzled or misused Teamster funds.
The patterns of abuse by Teamster officials, which continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, led to the government filing a sweeping civil suit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). In its June 28, 1988 complaint, the government alleged that IBT suffered from rampant corruption and La Cosa Nostra domination. On March 14, 1989, just before the trial was scheduled to begin, the IBT and the government entered into a Consent Decree. Under the terms of the Consent Decree the court appointed an Independent Administrator, an Investigations Officer and an Election Officer. Many of the responsibilities and much of the power of the General President was vested in these court--appointed officers. Moreover, the consent decree provided for the first direct rank and file secret ballot for electing IBT officers. On January 22, 1992 the court--appointed election monitor certified the results of the International Officer Elections and the Carey slate took power.
The changes in the IBT, however, have roots in the organizing that began in the early 1970s with Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the rank and file caucus for reform that had been organizing within the Teamsters since 1976 and the Professional Drivers Council for Safety and Health (PROD). The slate of reformers who swept every position they contested (16 of the 19 member Executive Board positions) owes its wins more to this organizing than to the government intervention.
Seeds of Discontent
Rank and file concerns about the corruption within the IBT was matched by concerns about deteriorating working conditions and stagnant pay levels. Many union members perceived union officials as willing to give in to employers' demands, either in return for payoffs or simply out of laziness. (Until 1988, it took a two-thirds majority for members to reject a concessionary Teamster contract.) Unfortunately, a combination of constitutional hurdles, dirty tricks, and old fashioned intimidation kept rank and file members from having any significant voice in their union.
Turning the Battleship
Immediately after the Carey Slate's February 1, 1992, inauguration, some noteworthy changes were made. On that day, Carey invited several thousand rank and file members to enter the union's headquarters, known as the "Marble Palace," symbolically reclaiming the union.
Carey sold off the IBT's limousine and jets and its luxury condominium in Puerto Rico. The February 1991 sale of the Teamster's jets netted $11 million, which was allocated to hire new Teamster's organizers. Carey reduced his own salary by $50,000 (to $175,000 per year) and vowed never to take advantage of Teamster presidents' constitutional right to unlimited, expense-paid vacations.
The Teamster magazine was also revamped. What had been pure puffery for the leadership has become an organizing tool, with a significant increase in articles about union campaigns and rank and file concerns. Letters from members now appear in the magazine on a range of issues and not all complimentary of the International leadership.
The Teamsters also switched political parties. The old IBT leadership endorsed Reagan and Bush; the new leadership endorsed Clinton - but noted that Clinton needed to improve his stance on certain issues, and that the IBT would organize "to hold [his] feet to the fire" after the election. On March 3, 1993 the Carey administration turned up the heat on the Clinton administration and delivered to the White House over 200,000 "Teamstergrams", postcards from members calling for a single-payer health program, renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and labor law reform.
In March of 1991, Carey was faced with the national carhaul contract, covering about 16,000 Teamsters who truck new cars to dealerships. Proposed settlements had I been rejected twice by the ' members, before the December 1991 election.
Carey's team targeted Ryder, the largest corporation in the national master carhaul contract, for public demonstrations and leafleting, involving Teamsters from other industries and even consumers. Thousands of people leafleted potential Ryder customers at more than 500 Ryder rental outlets nationwide. As a result, Ryder agreed to landmark language against double-breasting, the practice of shifting union work to non-union subsidiaries. That, along with acceptable pay and benefits increases, resulted in the contract being approved by 93 percent of those voting.
The new International leadership followed the carhaul contract win by embracing new strategies and effective corporate campaigns coupled with membership mobilization aimed against Safeway Stores, Diamond Walnut, Hasbro Toys, Fischer Scientific and others.
The Tightest Ship
A major test for Carey and the teamsters will be negotiation of the national contract with the United Parcel Service (UPS) and the negotiation of the National Master Freight Contract .
The national contract between the Teamsters and United Parcel Service covers about 175,000 members; it expires August 1, 1993. Carey's national negotiating committee is a mix of rank and file activists including TDU members; and local union officers. It is led by IBT Vice President Mario Perrucci, who has become one of the most articulate campaigners for a new militancy in the Teamsters. In October 1992, Perrucci told TDU members about dealing with UPS, "We've inherited problems since 1980. ... The only way to straighten things out is to take the company on, and the only way to do that is a concerted effort."
Negotiations have begun, with the union presenting proposals based on meetings and discussions with the members, and on an extensive membership survey.
UPS is a highly profitable and expanding company that is known for its "Big Brother" attitude toward employees. Nearly two-thirds of Teamster survey respondents said the company demands more than a fair day's work for a day's pay. With the changes at the top of the union, and the knowledge that Carey is from a largely UPS local, members' expectations for improved conditions are high.
Carey's and TDU's challenge is making sure the members take seriously their own role in getting a good contract. The International is publishing informational UPS contract bulletins (a first), and TDU is using its network to distribute its own information on the UPS negotiations. Meanwhile, the company sponsors meetings and produces literature to convince Teamster employees that they are in a precarious position in the competitive trucking industry.
Have the Teamsters Turned the Corner?
At TDU's last annual convention, about nine months after the Carey board took office, hot topics included discussions of how directly Carey should take on the old guard; whether in a decentralized union like the Teamsters, the rank and file members can expect to get anything done if virtually no local officers cooperate; and the possibility of getting any cooperation on programs that can threaten the officialdom's salaries by empowering the rank and file.
Ken Paff, the elected national organizer of TDU, says, "We're trying to do something that's never been done before in American labor: build an independent rank and file movement that's not aimed at throwing the top officers out."
While several TDU members were elected with Carey to the Teamster General Executive Board, and others have since been appointed to some posts, TDL remains organizationally separate from the union structure. "TDU members feel they're involved in a cause - rebuilding the union - far bigger than the Carey election," says Paff.
But having succeeded in getting Carey elected, TDU's continued growth may depend on Carey's success at acting on his and TDU's shared principles. If Carey does not make gains against UPS, the freight and other companies, he must at least give the members the sense that the union is putting up a good fight and that the members are part of it, according to Paff.
Martha Gruelle is a staff member of the independent monthly labor magazine Labor Notes.