While much of the media focused in late May on another failed search for Jimmy Hoffa, the long dead former leader of the Teamsters union, the living members of the Teamsters had to contend with a union increasingly in disarray under the leadership of his son — James P. Hoffa, Jr.
The current problems center around, as so many of them have in recent years, United Parcel Service (UPS), the largest transportation company in the world and the largest Teamsters employer in the country. UPS is easily recognizable for its brown delivery trucks and its “What can Brown do for you?” television and radio commercials. Last year, UPS bought Overnite trucking, the largest non-union freight company (and sixth largest freight company overall) in the United States. It was a bold move to get control of a large share of the traditional freight industry, which UPS had been chipping away at for years. It was also a very clear attempt to build up the non-union wing of UPS in preparation for contract negotiations in 2008.
It is a well-known and documented tactic of American employers to slowly de-unionize a company by downsizing its unionized wing, while simultaneously moving work into a newly created non-union wing of the same company. This will go on for several years to the point that the union wing of the company no longer exists. This most famously happened several years ago at Consolidated Freightways (CF), which at one time was one of the “Big Three” freight companies along with Roadway and Yellow Freight (both of which are now one company). CF created a non-union operation called Con-Way and shifted all its operations there. On Labor Day 2002, CF declared bankruptcy and 15,000 Teamsters lost their jobs. This is clearly what UPS is up to with its purchase of Overnite, now known as UPS Freight. The added bonus for UPS — with its purchase of Overnite — was that it easily defeated the Teamsters in a stillborn strike that began in 1999 and lingered on until it was officially called off by the union three years later.
Ever since the purchase of Overnite/UPS Freight, Hoffa has continually hinted at a “possible deal” with UPS to bring the new UPS Freight workers into the Teamsters. Just recently he sent his emissaries to select Teamster locals across the country confiding to local officers that “something is in the works.” In a union known for the hot air of its officers, this empty posturing was too much. It was greeted with yawns and raised eyebrows. However, UPS caught wind of Hoffa’s attempt at creating a mirage of a deal and struck back. On May 12, all UPS Freight employees received a letter and DVD from UPS Freight division president Leo Suggs, who personally organized the defeat of the Teamsters in 1999, saying that the company was committed to remaining “union-free.” The letter was filled with lurid attacks on the union. While such tactics by management are part of any organizing drive, this blew away Hoffa’s private assurances to his officers about a deal.
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In response, Hoffa didn’t call informational pickets at UPS Freight to appeal directly to the workers, but instead wrote a letter to UPS Chairman and CEO Mike Eskew. Hoffa’s letter can only be described as one long whine. “I am both shocked and disturbed by this aggressive action of United Parcel Service,” he declared. He reminds Eskew that he and Mr. Hoffa have had a good relationship in the past. He then goes on to complain, “For you to now turn around to the newest members of the UPS family and misrepresent the Teamsters Union in a display of anti-union propaganda and invective is neither productive nor reflects the true values of our union.” You wouldn’t know from Hoffa’s letter that UPS is one of the most vicious, right-wing, anti-union companies in the country that has long been committed to busting the Teamsters. You wouldn’t know that it has one of the largest Political Action Committees in Washington, D.C., which regularly contributes two-thirds of its cash to the Republican Party; that UPS has pioneered the use of part-time work in its operations that has now come to dominate large sections of the U.S. economy; and that it has a cult-like management style that makes daily life on the job extremely difficult for union members.
Hoffa’s blunder at UPS Freight is only made worse by his baffling attempt at what he calls forcing “early negotiations” with UPS. The current National Master UPS agreement and locally negotiated contracts in Chicago are not scheduled for expiration until August 2008. All 220,000 UPS/Teamsters received a contract survey in April asking their input on bargaining issues. Hoffa in his letter to UPS/Teamsters says that his motivation for early negotiations is to deal with the “concerns of the members,” particularly the pensions of long-time employees. Aside from the obvious point that UPS would only agree to early negotiations if the Teamsters were prepared to make major concessions to UPS, it should be kept in mind that the Teamsters at the moment are in no shape to take on such a behemoth of a corporation like UPS. It has been nearly a decade since the historic 1997 strike against UPS led by the Teamsters’ first reform general president, Ron Carey. Since then, the union has been ravaged by a federal government purge of Carey from the union and the ascendancy of Hoffa and his corrupt ilk, who have brought the union to a new low. All of Hoffa’s dithering with UPS lately clearly demonstrates that Teamster headquarters in Washington is an empty palace.
This disarray takes place against the background of the 2006 international election of the Teamsters that will elect the top officers of the union. Recently, Tom Leedham gained the 5 percent of the delegates necessary to be nominated to run against Hoffa for Teamster general president. The Teamsters convention will meet in Las Vegas from June 26-30. Leedham, who ran against Hoffa and lost in 1998 and 2001, hopes to unseat him with his “Strong Contracts, Good Pensions” slate this fall. Leedham is backed by the long-standing reform organization, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. While this election is the best chance for reformers to win the top spots in the union in a decade, it is by no means a shoo-in. Hoffa will use every dirty trick to stay in office. While Leedham was able to make up for the loss of supporters driven out of the union by Hoffa, most notably the former Local 2000 at Northwest Airlines, he suffered defeats in delegate races in Chicago and Seattle that he won previously in 2001. It’s going to be a hard-fought campaign this fall.
Joe Allen is a member of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago and a longtime member of the International Socialist Organization. He is the author of “Death Row at the ‘Castle’: Inside the U.S. Military’s Judicial System” (ISR 47, May-June 2006 ). His three-part series on the history of the Vietnam War can be found at www.isreview.org. This article was also published in the ISR 48 (July-August 2006).