Multinational Monitor

MAR 1997
Vol. 18 No. 3


We'll Close! Plant Closings, Plant-Closing Threats, Union Organizing and NAFTA
by Kate Bronfenbrenner

Democracy on Trial: South Korean Workers Resist Labor Law Deform
by C. Jay Ou

A Referendum on Union Democracy: Teamsters Vote to Stay the Democratic Course
by Martha Gruelle

Nike Does It To Vietnam
by Jeff Ballinger

Conflict in the Strawberry Fields
by Cece Modupé Fadopé


The Bhopal Legacy
an interview with
Dr. Rosalie Bertell



Behind the Lines

Class War in the USA

The Front
Indian Labor Activist
Shot - Toxic Deception

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Their Masters' Voice

Names In the News


A Referendum on Union Democracy: Teamsters Vote to Stay the Democratic Course

by Martha Gruelle

On the first day of the vote count for Teamsters international officers in December, Ken Paff says he saw his life pass before his eyes. Paff, international organizer for the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), expected that the TDU-backed candidate Ron Carey, the incumbent Teamsters president, would easily win in Tennessee.

But the votes of the first local unions out of some 600 to be counted over the next five days were from a small Tennessee local that went heavily for Jimmy Hoffa "Junior." Junior is the son of the infamous Teamster president who is well remembered in the union for building a master freight contract and for a web of mob connections.

For Paff and the hundreds of TDU members who had put their hearts into reelecting Carey, it would be a long five days. Not only was the future of the Teamsters at stake, but so potentially was that of a recently awoken U.S. labor movement.

The election was close. When the votes were all counted, Carey had won in Tennessee and enough other areas to overcome Hoffa's lead in the midwest. The Teamster rank-and-file revolution that Paff and his allies had built for 20 years cleared another hurdle on December 14. Carey won 52 percent of the votes to opponent Jimmy Hoffa Jr.'s 48 percent.

Hoffa's strong showing in the midwest won his slate members five regional seats on the Teamsters' 27-member executive board.

Business vs. social unionism

In some ways this election was a rematch of the historic 1991 election. Forced by the Justice Department as part of the settlement of a racketeering lawsuit against the union, the 1991 election was the first time Teamster members could vote directly for the union presidency. Members this year were essentially casting ballots either to endorse that reform or to return the union to old-guard leadership.

In a nod to the popularity of union democracy, Hoffa forces did not argue against reforms, but charged that Carey, after his surprise 1991 victory, had mismanaged and weakened the union. Carey and TDU pointed out that Hoffa's backers were among those most ardently fighting against the democratic process itself and for the maintenance of an array of payments and perks with which Carey interfered. TDU's Paff called Hoffa's candidacy a "counter revolution."

But the 1996 election campaign was substantially different than the 1991 contest. The anti-Carey forces united behind a single candidate instead of backing two competing candidates as they had in 1991. And they had learned from TDU -- the backbone of Carey's 1991 campaign -- to campaign directly with the rank and file rather than to rely solely on local officers to deliver the vote. The legend of Hoffa's father meant instant name recognition among Teamsters and easy access to U.S. and Canadian news coverage. Hoffa started campaigning early, and worked hard at it.

And Jimmy Hoffa Junior, probably not consciously, framed his message in terms of one of the great questions now facing U.S. unions: the choice between "business unionism" -- viewing the union as an insurance policy, a service provided by a few experts focused exclusively on bread-and-butter issues -- and the TDU model, which organizes rank-and-file members to benefit their own pocketbooks -- but also to fight for the broad interests of all working people. Junior, who bragged that he could personally negotiate a superior contract for freight drivers because he had "learned well at his father's hand," produced the clearest articulation of business union philosophy heard in years.

It was an attractive prospect for many Teamsters. "Most members want the same thing: a tough union leadership that will fight the greedy corporations," says Gillian Furst, a Minneapolis TDU leader. "People voted for Hoffa thinking he'd do that."

The vote haul

The turnout in this election was higher than in 1991: approximately 34 percent of eligible members in 1996, versus 28 percent five years earlier. Carey won about 44,000 more votes than he did in 1991, when he faced two old-guard candidates.

Voter turnout was lower among the majority of Teamsters who work under contracts that are negotiated locally, usually with little influence by the international union. Members covered by the big nationally negotiated contracts for freight workers, UPS employees and car haulers -- about 25 percent of the union -- are more involved and influential in Teamster regional and international politics.

Carey won the vote heavily among UPS members, and won marginally among freight workers, according to TDU analyses. Hoffa fared better among members covered by local contracts and says he won the freight vote.

Carey led a UPS local before his election to the International and has always been popular among UPS workers. He won heavily among freight workers in 1991, but Hoffa capitalized on the union's relative weakness in the freight industry to cut Carey's margin there. Deregulation of the freight industry in the 1980s, coupled with the old guard's decades-long failure to either resist attacks on working conditions or to organize in the growing non-union trucking sector, led to a declining standard of living for freight workers. The Carey administration's efforts -- the ongoing organizing of non-unionized freight workers and the 1994 national freight strike -- were a good beginning. But in the short term, these steps had little effect on the dock workers' insecurity and overwork. Teamster truckers familiar with the growth of the union's power in Hoffa, Sr.'s day hoped Junior could repeat history.

The vote totals also varied regionally. Carey and his vice presidential candidates won strongly in Canada and in the southern and eastern regions of the United States, including in dozens of New York City locals that had gone through trusteeships to clean out corrupt officials. Hoffa dominated the central region, including his base in Detroit.

Carey's allies narrowly won the western region vice presidential spots. The votes from mostly Latina/Latino cannery workers (which were counted late because the seasonality of their work made it harder to determine their eligibility) gave Carey slate members all three seats.

Hoffa's garnered 55 percent of the vote in the 13 states comprising the Teamsters' central region, partly due to support from the old-fashioned union bosses who maintain a grip on the region. Nearly half of Hoffa's midwest advantage came from Chicago, home of about 110,000 Teamsters in 22 locals. Chicago has a well-entrenched old-guard leadership that TDU has had a difficult time challenging.

Some openings have been provided by Carey's clean-up efforts, however, and reformed locals tended to vote for Carey. Chicago Local 705, for example, was trusteed by the international in 1993 for problems including embezzlement by its former secretary-treasurer. Before the trusteeship, "there were 84 people being paid over $60,000 a year," says Furst, who helped the Teamsters Ethical Practices Committee investigate the local. "That is a good army to have to protect that privilege."

Generally old-guard local leadership "have a whip hand on jobs," she adds. "That's almost more important than physical violence."

After emerging from the trusteeship in 1995, Local 705 voted 3,800 to 3,300 for Carey.

Chicago Local 710, on the other hand, is an old-guard stronghold. The local was represented on the Hoffa slate by its $200,000-per-year local vice president -- after the Local 710 president became an embarrassment for helping UPS fire a rank-and-file Teamster who had criticized him. Local 710 voted heavily for Hoffa.

Future destination

It is not clear whether Hoffa's allies will remain a force in international Teamsters politics. They may retreat to their local union strongholds and prepare for retirement. Or perhaps the five central region vice presidents will organize another attempt to retake the union. In either case, there are enough different viewpoints among the Carey slate members now on the board to provide plenty of friction should Carey's leadership become any less dynamic and aggressive than in the past.

A bigger question for the future of the Teamsters lies in the future of 20-year-old TDU. No other rank-and-file-based reform movement in U.S. labor history has survived its own success as has TDU so far. But TDU aims higher than cleaning out corrupt and self-enriching union bureaucracies.

"We have to build an organizing-model union that shows the rest of labor that democracy works -- it makes our union stronger and puts money in the members' pockets," TDU's Ken Paff says. "TDU needs to lead the way."

That message may be harder to get across than the anti-corruption theme, says Mike Ruscigno, a New York City business agent and long-time TDU leader. Hoffa's message was appealing, says Ruscigno, because "people want to say `Here's my dues, you take care of it.'" Hoffa, trading on his father's tough-guy image, promised to do just that. With the TDU democratic organizing model of social unionism, "You have to put effort into being a union member," says Ruscigno.

Even many TDU supporters (who number many times more than the organization's membership of about 10,000) were motivated by the belief that Hoffa could not or would not "take care of it" for them, and have not contemplated the philosophical differences underlying the campaign.

Taking on Big Brown

A chance to see a rank-and-file empowerment approach to bargaining could come this summer when the Teamsters contract covering 170,000 UPS workers is up for renegotiation.

Big Brown is known for an efficiency obsession, to the point where the company tells package delivery drivers on which finger they should carry their keys.

UPS also pioneered the use of lower-paid part-time labor, a practice that now dominates service and retail industries. About half of UPS' Teamsters are part-timers, and they are less active in the union.

Dave Staiger, a UPS part-timer in Detroit, has been organizing to get co-workers involved in the contract campaign that the International initiated last fall. Staiger says Carey's victory will ensure that rank-and-file activists will continue to get support from the International, "which will help us to close the wage gap at UPS [between part-time and full-time jobs] and create more decent full-time jobs."

And, says Staiger, having the right to vote is helping the contract campaign. "One UPS part-timer told me that the Carey campaign had helped to bring the union to life for part-timers at his center."

Indeed, this bitter, contentious election helped make the Teamsters Union very much alive.

Martha Gruelle covers the Teamsters for the Detroit-based monthly Labor Notes. She worked for the Teamsters for a Democratic Union from 1989 to 1993.


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