The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
The "New Teamsters" – What Are the Limits of Militant Unionism?

Jul 31, 1994

In early February, the leadership of the Teamsters Union called UPS (United Parcel Service) workers out on strike, despite the fact the union had just signed a new contract with UPS, and despite a court injunction forbidding the strike. Two months later, in early April, the Teamsters Union called a nation-wide strike in the freight industry. The Teamsters leadership said wages of current full-time workers were not the main issue, but that it was determined to stop the company's use of part timers hired in at much lower pay and with few benefits. The leadership said that this increasing use of part-time workers was tied to the worsening situation afflicting all American workers.

These strikes are notable because there have been few strikes of any kind in recent years, much less nationwide strikes. Other big unions have certainly been willing to accept substandard conditions for future workers. And these developments are all the more remarkable because for years the Teamsters Union was the most corrupt in the country, and its apparatus was more than willing to give in to every demand of the companies for concessions.

At any rate, this was the case until two years ago, when a slate headed by Ron Carey threw out much of the "Old Guard" that had headed the Teamsters Union which, with 1.55 million members, is the largest union in the country.

A Decade of Concessions

Like other workers in this country, Teamsters have suffered under the capitalist offensive of the last decade or so. The union itself lost 750,000 members in 12 years, mostly as the result of layoffs and company closings.

The 1980 "deregulation", pushed through by Jimmy Carter, paved the way for vast changes in the trucking industry: thousands of small companies entered the industry, most of them non-union and low wage; the unionized big freight companies opened up their own non-union, low-wage subsidiaries. The number of workers covered by the Master Freight Agreement declined from 500,000 workers, when it was established in 1964, to 120,000 today. The unionized companies took advantage of this situation to take concessions in wages and benefits from their union drivers and other workers. The unlimited cost of living allowance was given away in 1982. Teamster leaders allowed the widespread use of "casuals", who are paid $5 per hour less in wages and benefits. The union allowed companies with 20,000 workers – those which were supposedly losing money – to operate at lower wages. The higher-paying companies then used this as a battering ram to try to lower the wages of their workers. The right to permanent status after 30 days of work was removed from the contract.

The situation for workers at United Parcel Service illustrates what has been happening. There are 170,000 Teamsters covered under the UPS contract, making it the second biggest union contract with a single company (after General Motors). In recent years, UPS has enjoyed a rate of profit much above that of U.S. industry: 20.6% after taxes in 1992, and 18.1% in 1991 – increases achieved at the expense of the workers. Facing strong intimidation, many UPS workers today skip lunch and work "off the clock" before and after work. Full-time drivers received $17.70 per hour at the end of the old contract, but this was a 7.8% decline in real wages from 1982. A very large proportion of the inside sorters are part-time, low-paid workers, many of whom would like to work full time. One wrote, "We get harassment, injuries, speedups on top of already back-breaking work, for just around $100 a week." In various cities, UPS feeder drivers who drive trucks across the country were put on four 10 hour days a week.

Most Teamsters have suffered deterioration in their standard of living and working conditions. Take for example, the contracts accepted at Marvin Herb's Coca Cola bottling operation which is the biggest independent bottler in the country. Only Coca Cola itself is bigger. Workers there had 7 to 10 year contracts imposed on them with increases in some cases as low as 10 cents an hour. Meanwhile Herb accumulated more than 200 million dollars in profits over a decade and a half. With the big grocery chains involved in competition with each other to maximize their own profits and buy up smaller competitors, Teamster grocery warehouse workers have faced years of employer attacks and union concessions. And it's common to see many unionized Teamsters working for companies which set up lower-wage, non-union subsidiaries. For example, Ryder with 40 percent of all car hauling business, set up Quality Auto Transport. Leaseway Transport, another big car hauler, has its own non-union subsidiaries, too.

… And Corruption

For decades, gangsters have dominated the Teamsters Union, from the International's Executive Board down to the local apparatus in at least a hundred of its locals. Many local officers were outright mobsters. Some mobsters, having established small companies to launder their criminally derived funds, recognized the Teamsters Union and effectively appointed one of their men as business agent at their own company, effectively keeping control of all sides of the operation. Trucking companies learned to contact the mob to arrange a deal with the top union officials for a cut-rate contract, in return for a cash consideration. The decades of mob control led to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars drained out of the Teamster pension funds as "loans" which were never repaid. Over the past two decades, there were twenty murders, and numerous shootings, bombings and beatings.

Teamsters officials were paid well for their favors. Roy Williams admitted to a U.S. District Court that he had been paid $1,500 a month for years by a mob-run corporation; in exchange, he "loaned" union pension funds to the corporation.

In 1974, before he became national IBT president, Jackie Presser invested $134,000 in a theater, only to be bought out a year later, by the mob, for one million dollars. In the 1970s, he got $300,000 in kickbacks from Hoover-Gorin, a Las Vegas PR firm paid to rehabilitate the Teamsters' image.

Besides outright racketeering, many Teamster officials found strictly legal means to enrich themselves at the expense of the workers. Barry Feinstein of New York City Local 237 received a salary of $191,247. But, as was usual with the Teamsters, his salary was only the beginning. Since his 6.7 acre retreat in Clinton, New York was far from his work, the local paid for a Manhattan penthouse, including a barbecue grill, landscaping, Oriental rugs, and furnishings. The local also paid for a maid, and spent $304,821 from 1984 to 1991 for building maintenance. It paid for a chauffeur to drive his Mercedes and reimbursed the driver for his daily newspaper. The local also maintained a "house account" at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, and paid for trips to China and Ireland. Finally there was a $99,341 interest- free loan.

Other local officers benefitted from similar situations, and equally outrageous salaries. In 1991, Arnie Weinmeister, received "piggy back" salaries from Local 117 in Seattle, from Joint Council 28, from the Western Conference, and from the International, totaling $553,721. In 1990, William Hogan Sr. and his son Bill Hogan Jr., plus his brother James and his son Robert took in a total of $580,853, just from Chicago Local 714. Bill Hogan Jr. bragged, "I am living proof that nepotism works."

This kind of corruption was endemic to the Teamsters Union.

But There Was Also Ferment in the Ranks

While this corruption and the worsening of the workers' situation continued over several decades, neither was accepted without challenge by the workers. Starting in the 1970's, there was a growing number of rank-and-file militants active in the union.

In 1979, there was enough ferment in a series of local unions over the Master Freight Agreement, that International President Fitzsimmons eventually called 73 of those companies out on strike. The trucking companies subsequently locked out all the workers, transforming it into a nationwide strike. There were wildcats at UPS in that same year. Some of the militants active in these actions joined together to form TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), whose aim was to form a permanent organized opposition in the union. In subsequent years, a majority of Teamsters voted against proposed contracts among car haulers, UPS and freight. Many courageous militants stood up in mob dominated locals to fight for the workers' needs and to challenge the local leaderships, and some of them paid a heavy price for doing so.

While TDU was certainly not the only force to oppose the leadership, it was the best organized. By the late 1980's, TDU claimed 10,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. It tried to mobilize workers to attend union meetings, campaigned to amend undemocratic local union by-laws, ran candidates for delegate to International conventions, as well as for local union offices. It organized campaigns around the major contracts in freight, UPS, car hauling and grocery warehouses. It also pushed, through legal avenues, for a direct election of the national union president.

Facing a court suit which might have led to more criminal prosecution, the Teamsters' Executive Board eventually agreed, in exchange for the suit being dropped, to establish a mail ballot vote by rank-and-file Teamsters for the top officers of the union. This opened up the possibility for Ron Carey, the long- time president of the Queens New York UPS local, to take over as Teamsters President.

The "New Teamsters"

Carey appears to have been an honest local official without ties to the mob, contrary to allegations made against him by the top Teamster officials he ousted. Early in his presidency of Local 804, groups of workers directly responded to management attacks in a series of brief wildcats, apparently encouraged to do so by Carey. In 1970, Carey himself openly led his whole local in an eleven-day illegal strike, for which he was personally fined. In 1974, he led a twelve week strike, during which a striker was killed on the picket line, and Carey was subsequently arrested for blocking an entrance with his own car. He negotiated one of the highest Teamster pensions for workers in his local – $2,000 per month; and this attracted the attention of Teamsters in various cities where the local unions controlled pension funds that were being looted by the mob.

In 1982, 1985 and 1987, he travelled around the country to UPS locals, trying to campaign against the proposed UPS contracts. In 1987, workers voted down the contract by a 53-47 margin. But Presser declared it passed, using a union rule that contracts had to be turned down by a two-thirds vote. So Carey decided to sue, and he wrote to UPS workers around the country, asking them to each give $20 for an ad hoc group called Teamsters for a Fair Contract. Facing the possibility of a suit, the Executive Board of the union changed the rule. Not having spent most of the money, Carey sent out refund checks of $15.74 to everyone who had mailed in money – which, in the context of Teamsters Union corruption, must have seemed a miracle! Carey became known to Teamsters around the country, to whom he seemed like an honest and militant union official, quite different from the corrupt officials they either had to deal with in their locals or heard about in the media.

Carey directed his election campaign to the long-standing dissatisfactions among the Teamster membership with their worsening situation. He said, "I'm not a great believer in cooperation and concessionary bargaining. Our priorities are in the opposite direction. Those agreements are bad agreements. If a company makes money, we're entitled to some of it." He spoke of his vision: "... a change in image, decent agreements, building the Teamsters through a positive plan of organizing." Carey's first ad in the International Teamster said that those at the top of the union had given themselves multiple salaries, supported politicians who served the greedy corporations, negotiated concessionary contracts with two-tier wages, inadequate pensions and kangaroo-court grievance procedures.

Carey had the enthusiastic support of the members of his own local, who paid for a large portion of his campaign costs and actively campaigned for him. Workers in other cities saw that Carey's supporters were workers like themselves, and their praise of Carey for his honest and militant leadership made an impression on them. Carey's campaign was greatly assisted by activists of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Many other workers throughout the country who had never before been involved in organized protest joined in.

The mail voting took place in December 1991. The vote was small, 424,000 Teamsters or only 28 percent of the total membership. Another 17 percent of the members were delinquent in dues or had a bad mailing address and weren't eligible to vote, according to a poll taken by the Carey forces before the election. This still meant that 55 percent of those eligible to vote didn't. Carey received 189,000 votes or 48.5 percent of the votes cast in a three-way election, where the Old Guard was split between two factions. Doug Mims, a Carey Vice Presidential candidate said, "Carey had that part of the membership who reads the newspapers and magazines. Fifty percent wanted a change from the old guard to the new. They didn't vote for Carey. They voted against the people in there. That conclusion stems from my visits to the barns." Obviously, the anger of the rank-and-file against their old leadership was deep enough to push out the "Old Guard". But what Carey could do was still in question, as shown by the number of votes the "Old Guard" still could attract, and above all by the number of abstentions.

The Fight for Democracy

Carey has now had two years to tackle the corruption and lack of democracy in the Teamsters Union. This had been one of the main points in his electoral platform. His election itself obviously got rid of those bureaucrats who remained at the top who had been most openly tied with the mobsters, even if there are still some left at lower levels.

The new leadership took a number of symbolic steps to trim the bureaucratic perks of top union officials. They sold off the union's jets for 11 million dollars a year in savings, and got rid of the stretch limousine. Carey voluntarily reduced his own salary from $225,000 to $150,000. And by insisting that no one should piggy-back different positions in order to draw multiple salaries, he reduced the salaries paid out to the top officers by 53 percent.

In order to fulfill his promise to put the union under the control of the members, but probably also in order to win the support of the rank-and-file against the "Old Guard", Carey began to appoint rank-and-file Teamsters to bargaining committees that up to that time had been dominated by full-time local officials. He and the General Executive Board passed model local by-laws that called for the election of stewards by the workers they serve; for union officers' salaries to be approved by the members; and for workers to be notified in advance of what was in proposed contracts before voting on them. Workers took advantage of this model to wage campaigns in various local unions to impose the changes.

On the other hand, as the election showed, Carey didn't come into office free to do what he wanted, nor even with the active support of the majority of the Teamsters. Old Guard officials remain very much entrenched in hundreds of locals. Faced with this situation, Carey apparently decided to try to get along with those leaders of various locals and those on the grievance panels who would cooperate with him, pledging not to campaign for or against local incumbent officials. But these officials refused to cooperate and fought Carey in every way possible. Eventually, Carey began to fight them, and a fierce battle continues between them to this day. This weighs on the union's actions and its ability to fight. For example, in the UPS strike action, the Old Guard officials did everything they could to prevent workers from following the call to strike.

Facing the Pressure for Concessions

As soon as he came into office, Carey had to deal with the demands of companies for more concessions. The old leadership had been in negotiations with the car hauling companies, bringing in a proposed contract which had already been rejected by the membership. The Carey forces set up so-called "informational" pickets at the consumer rental offices of Ryder trucking company, one of the major car hauling companies. Those locals tied to Carey came out to picket and leaflet. In other locals, the Carey forces tried to get rank-and-file workers to come out, with some success. The contract that Carey eventually negotiated was approved by a 93-7 margin. Whether this means satisfaction with the contract, or simply with the change in leadership, it's not possible to say from the outside.

Three weeks after taking office, Carey was presented with a demand by executives from North Penn, a trucking company, that he approve a 22 percent pay cut for North Penn's three hundred workers or the company would close. Carey refused their proposal. The next day the company closed. Carey said he hated to the see workers lose their jobs, but "I am not in favor of concessions. [They are] another way for employers to stick their hands in the employees' pockets."

At Northwest Airlines, the Teamsters represent 9,000 flight attendants, who had threatened to pull out of the union just as Carey took office. He immediately waged a successful campaign to keep them in the union. But then, Northwest, burdened under the debt of a leveraged buyout by the old managers, and facing the threat of bankruptcy proceedings, demanded pay cuts from the mechanics, the pilots and the flight attendants. Other major airlines, like United, were making the same demands on their unions, who negotiated similar concessions. The three unions at Northwest – the Machinists, the Pilots and the Teamsters – all agreed to give up concessions in exchange for stock ownership and a position on the board of directors of the company.

UPS: Test of Strength

The first big contract Carey negotiated was at UPS. Carey built on the more than a decade of organizing he had done among UPS workers around the country. Furthermore, UPS workers, both full time and part time, have formed numerous links between each other around the country. The union won "Innocent Until Proven Guilty" on most disciplinary actions. But the union didn't close the gap between the top wages and the much lower part-time wages, and it signed a four year contract. The contract was settled without a strike, and ratified two to one by the rank-and-file. Again, what this ratification means we have no way of knowing.

The interesting thing about the UPS situation, however, is what happened almost as soon as the contract was signed. The company unilaterally announced it was requiring workers to carry up to 150 pounds, instead of the 75 pound limit of before. The union found out about this from a letter the company sent to customers. It used the few weeks until the new regulation went into effect to organize a response. Early in February, the International called for all UPS workers to strike. The company got an injunction against the strike, and called up every worker, threatening to fire those who struck. The Old Guard leadership worked against the strike, immediately ordering workers to stay on the job, threatening those who might walk off, announcing it would do nothing for any workers who were fired. Nonetheless, in many cities, UPS workers struck, sometimes for the first time ever. Even the opposition to Carey admitted that some 25 percent struck, which means at least 42,000 workers. At the end of the day UPS agreed that no one had to handle more than 75 pounds while the issue was negotiated. This strike was a major victory over the company. On the other hand, encouraged by the actions of the local leaders who opposed the strike, the company immediately went into court, suing the Teamsters for 50 million dollars in damages.

Figuring UPS would immediately break the new agreement, the union organized a "Save Our Backs" or "S.O.B." campaign at UPS locations around the country to coordinate the filing of grievances, defend fired workers and dramatize back injuries sustained even after the strike.

It's common for companies to begin violating the contract immediately after its signing. What is unusual at UPS was that the union leadership refused to accept an attack on the workers and organized a fight against it, even when it might be "illegal": moreover it tried to keep the workers mobilized, without relying completely on the contract it had signed with the boss.

National Freight Agreement – Needed Class Solidarity

The main issue today for workers in the U.S., other than wages, is to defend their jobs. This along with the two-tier wage system, were the main issues which came up in the freight conflict. Wanting to move a considerable amount of their shipments by rail, the big companies threatened to displace thousands of drivers each year. The new leadership, correctly, says no, and it was ready to wage a fight on this issue. But by saying simply "No railing", it didn't put the workers in the best situation to fight. "No railing" keeps the struggle within narrow limits: between the freight drivers and their bosses. It reduces the issue of lost jobs, which is actually one which concerns the whole working class, to an issue in which only the freight drivers are concerned.

To pose the issue this way is not the best way to attract sympathy and active solidarity from the rest of the working class; it certainly does not lay the foundation for a common fight. The Teamsters need solidarity, without which they remain more isolated and weaker in front of the big companies. Of course, the lack of class consciousness in this country today makes it more difficult for one group of workers to gain the support of others. That's all the more reason why militant unionists must stand for a policy of class solidarity. And even though getting workers to support each other is difficult, this doesn't mean it's impossible. Take the example of the rail workers. Sometimes the rail and truck carriers are even the same. The very big non-union trucking company Overnight is owned by Union Pacific railroad, which is entirely unionized. In any case, the railroad workers, too, are under attack by their carriers. To win the rail workers to the idea that the Teamsters' fight is also their fight would be a reinforcement of the strike. But in order to do that, the slogan of "No Railing" is surely not enough.

Just as this article was completed, the new Master Freight Agreement was brought in. Exactly what it contains is unclear. But certainly the Teamsters got more than they would have if they hadn't struck. On the other hand the differential between wage rates for permanent employees and "casuals" increases, even if not as much as the bosses had demanded. Will the workers accept this? We have no way of knowing. Carey effectively says it's the best they can get under the circumstances. And given that the New Teamster leadership does not have the perspective of a broad working class fight, that may be true.

Without such a perspective, it's really difficult for any group of workers to establish the relationship of forces which would let them refuse concessions. What happened at Northwest Airlines shows the same thing. It's true the company was losing money and was being squeezed by its creditors. In this case, the courts are drawn in to impose concessions; it's even possible that if the Teamsters and other unions at Northwest Airlines had simply said no to concessions, the airline might have closed, "reorganized" or been taken over by another one, or even definitively closed. So how can the unions oppose concessions?

To have any chance of forcing the Northwest bosses to back off, workers there would have to start from the perspective of making a general fight of all the airline workers, and be ready to threaten such a fight. In fact, what they need to aim at is a fight spreading into other sections of the working class, which are under the same kind of attacks.

Obviously this was just a few months after Carey took office: The workers involved were the flight attendants who had just wanted to pull out of the union; and this is a time period when the workers generally can't imagine a confrontation with the boss beyond the framework of their own company. Under these conditions, it would have been exceedingly difficult for Carey to have successfully carried out such a fight. But even if it was impossible for Carey to consider such a fight in the case of Northwest Airlines – or even today, two years later, with the Master Freight Agreement – it was not impossible for the Teamsters to say they are in favor of such a fight, that they think it is the only solution for the workers, both in the long run and the short run. They could have carried on a campaign for such a policy, not only towards the fight attendants, but also towards all Northwest Airline workers; towards workers in the other airlines, towards the whole working class. The Teamsters could have made this a main point of their platform and their policy. But that is not what they did, neither at Northwest nor in the Master Freight Agreement.

The Limits of Militant Unionism

What is new about the Teamsters is that there seems to be an honest, militant leadership in charge. They aim to negotiate the best contracts they can for the workers. They aim to give good representation to the workers. They are ready to fight back and strike when necessary, when the bosses don't meet the legitimate demands of the workers. But they stay within a precise framework which aims at defending the members of the Teamsters, and organizing the unorganized into the Teamsters Union. The farthest they go is to say that good union members should honor other unions' picket lines and show solidarity. But as far as we can judge, until now, they don't have any concept that a struggle by one section of workers is part of the fight of the whole working class.

There were many union officials in the past who started out honest and militant in defending their members within the general framework of unionism in this country. They had the general philosophy that Carey expressed back in 1989, "If a company makes money we're entitled to some of it." Unfortunately, this also means, at least implicitly, that when the company doesn't make money – or pretends not to make money – there is little the workers can do to avoid concessions and sacrifices. What these militant unionists didn't have was a conception of classes: the understanding that the bourgeois class as a whole is exploiting the whole working class and defends its right to makes money from the labor of the whole working class. Nor did they understand that when this capitalist system is in crisis, as it has been for 20 years now, the working class must fight against that system if it is to defend itself. In too many cases, these former honest and militant labor leaders started by confronting the bosses within the framework of capitalism, but ended up working together with the companies, to tell the workers that in times of crisis, gains were no longer possible, that, in fact, workers had to give up concessions if they wanted to keep their jobs. These earlier honest and militant labor leaders entered down the long, slippery slope that led to the current debacle of unionism in this country.

The other major limitation of the old militant unionism was not to see that the fight of the working class, because it is a fight against the bourgeois class and its government, in fact is a political struggle. Not understanding this has led most unionists to accept the two-party system, and to accept the idea that the Democrats are more or less the friends of the workers, or at least more susceptible to the unions' pressure. But the Democrats are just as much a capitalist party as are the Republicans; they are just as ready to attack the workers who struggle, to heap new taxes and sacrifices on all the workers them while showering gifts on the capitalists.

Like these earlier militants, Carey does not see the political aspect of the workers' struggle. He endorsed Clinton for President and various other Democrats for other offices. He says a new party for workers would be a good idea, but meanwhile the union supports and works for Democrats. This repetition of what we have seen for more than 60 years of U.S. labor history is not a good omen for the future.

Even TDU seems to accept this purely unionist stance. For more than a decade, they have been the most radical minority in the Teamsters Union; but they have stayed completely within the framework of the union, refusing for instance to take a stand on the political level. This has its own logic. For example, now that TDU has 10 members on the General Executive Board of the Union (a majority) and shares the responsibilities of office, they are more trapped than before within what seems to be possible inside that framework. Did that lead them, for example, to change their position on the Master Freight Agreement which allows 15 percent pay cuts for companies losing money? TDU had long opposed it. Once Carey took office, TDU's Convoy said in its June/July 1993 issue about Article 6, "It has become institutionalized, and may be difficult to remove from the contract."

Today the Teamster leadership appears – and is – different, because for so many years too many union leaderships in this country have been unwilling even to fight the bosses, and have acted openly as their agents in selling concessions to the workers. The working class won't get out of the trap it's been in for decades unless it begins to see the necessity of struggling to defend itself. And for this, it certainly needs leaders prepared to fight. But even more than that, it needs a clear consciousness of its interests as a class, of the kind of class-wide struggle it must carry out.

That still means, as it always has, that there must be a revolutionary current in the working class ready to fight for such a policy. A large part of the militant and honest unionists could certainly be won over to this policy...if those who today understand the need for it work to create this revolutionary current in the working class.