During the 1970s, a small slice of the trade union left was able to tap into working-class discontent and workplace militancy in a very enduring way. The result, in the unlikely venue of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), was an on-going “Tea Party” in the best and original sense of that Boston-based organizing against economic royalists. Just as unruly protests against King George III in late colonial America didn’t emerge in a vacuum, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) was the product of a distinct historical period. It has, nevertheless, managed to survive over the last 35 years, and never stopped acting as a much-needed thorn-in-the-side to Teamster tories everywhere.
TDU was launched amid wildcat strikes, contract rejections, and spontaneous worker protests of all kinds. Its origins are vividly described in a new Verso collection called Rebel Rank-and-File, about the much-overlooked blue-collar “revolt from below” that followed the student disturbances of the 1960s (and drew direct inspiration from them). The indigenous militants and campus-inspired “outside troublemakers” who created TDU attacked big trucking companies and their corrupt Teamster helpers, a comprador class well-known for its Mob connections and racketeering ventures. To grow their fledgling reform movement, TDU founders had to overcome the very real doubts and fears of fellow workers at UPS, ABF, Roadway, Consolidated Freight, and other soon-to-be winners and losers in the industry-wide demolition derby triggered by de-regulating Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy.
Back then, most of the Teamsters I met (while barnstorming for a dissident group later merged with TDU) wanted to see the IBT cleaned up and their working conditions improved. But many others, for understandable reasons, thought that our goals were impossible, or not worth the personal risk and sacrifice. If “fighting city hall” seemed hopeless to the citizenry at large, taking on “the hall” — as union offices are called — looked downright suicidal, given the potential for labor-management collusion leading to job retaliation.
Then and now, TDU’s carefully nurtured organizational culture reflects the “big tent” approach, not a small sect attitude. Its black, brown, Asian, and white working-class members come in all political and physical dimensions. (Triple-X has historically been the dominant T-shirt size, but we’ll get to a gender-based exception below). Unlike the right-wing populist network that’s grabbed a great protest movement brand — and run in the wrong direction with it — TDU has never revolved around movement stars. In its four decades, the group has boasted many colorful (even eccentric) characters, very skilled soap-boxers, PR-savvy organizers, and the most effective Teamster president in recent history, the late Ron Carey, who served from 1992-7. But charismatic leaders, big-speech-makers, and media hustlers — of the sort now jockeying for influence within the GOP — are not central to its membership recruitment plan. TDU’s brand of “popular education” and local committee-building stresses self-help, rank-and-file empowerment, and collective leadership development.
TDU’s reform candidate recruiting and training has, on occasion, attracted the overly ambitious or politically opportunistic. This type tends to move on quickly, while the hard-core of TDU members has “been able to endure and make some history, through thick and thin, through victories and defeat,” as their national organizer Ken Paff said at the group’s annual meeting last weekend in Chicago. The basic message of Teamster reform cuts bravely against our societal grain and plainly repudiates top-down business unionism. In TDU, members are told, “we are all leaders!” As Paff reminded several hundred truck drivers and loaders, locomotive engineers, warehouse workers, public employees, and factory hands at the O’Hare Holiday Inn: “A democratic union, a strong union, means an active union. Members have to put skin in the game to win a good contract, a decent pension, or a local union election.”
In Chicago, there was a large contingent of first-time TDU convention-goers, all attending at their own expense and some car-pooling from as far away as Burlington, Vermont. In workshops and plenary sessions, they discussed their own bruising experiences with management and unresponsive union officials. They also traded survival tips with TDU’s many canny old-timers. Among the latter, still on active-duty, were local officers, business agents, shops stewards, and other experienced activists from locals representing about 200,000 out of the IBT’s 1.3 million members. In Chicago, New York, Atlanta, San Juan, and other cities, TDU-backed reform slates are competing this fall in local union elections and contests for 2011 Teamsters convention delegate slots. Despite a grim economy, a badly over-stretched TDU budget, and workplace horror stories galore, the meeting at O’Hare buzzed with optimism and enthusiasm. That’s because 2010-11 offers more than the usual opportunities for Teamster boat-rocking, including the chance to throw some unwanted cargo overboard.
The “load” in question is an overpaid 69-year-old lawyer from Detroit, who is now in his 12th year as Teamster president and wants another five-year term. James Hoffa receives $362,000 year, including a $60,000 “housing allowance” (because he’s never actually moved to Washington, D.C. since his election in 1998).
He’s surrounded himself with a controversial coterie of non-Teamster staffers, delegating any heavy-lifting to them. In TDU’s view, even with professional help, Hoffa “has no plans beyond his next press conference,” which leaves dues-paying members to fend for themselves in local fights with UPS, Waste Management, Coca Cola, and other Teamster employers.
Although Hoffa has a different middle name than his legendary (and still MIA) old man, he is, quite literally, one of many Teamster “juniors.” While lots of IBT affiliates eschew blatant nepotism, a surprising number still operate like the corrupt and thuggish Local 82 in Boston. That badly-run family business-controlled Teamster work at two local convention centers, plus local commercial movers. After years of embarrassing publicity, Local 82 was finally put under trusteeship, per order of the IBT’s court-appointed overseers. The proprietors were a father-and-son team who kept the rank-and-file in line with ex-con muscle, until TDUers rebelled against them.
Hoffa’s original bid for the presidency, in 1996, was sponsored by an extended “Teamster family” of this quality. (Some Hoffa-ites were better than the Perrys in Local 82; others even worse.) With few exceptions, IBT officials detested the militant, member-oriented Ron Carey. To oust him and re-conquer union headquarters, they needed a good front-man, with a famous last name (even though Hoffa, the younger, lacked any experience as a local union officer or national leader and never held more than a summer job as a Teamster). More than a decade later, top Teamster officials are now openly disgusted with their own Pygmalion creation. Fred Gegare, a Teamster vice-president, Wisconsin homeboy, and former Hoffa ally has announced he’s running for IBT president next year. “I didn’t have a famous father or a silver spoon, but neither did anyone else in Green Bay,” says “Fighting Fred” (on a campaign website that stresses his “Midwestern Values” and dislike for Brett Favre too). “And you know what? We were better off having to prove ourselves and make our own way.”
As the always acerbic Paff points out, “Another way a politician knows his support is way down is when his own running-mate jumps ship and retracts his endorsement.” That’s just what Tom Keegel, Hoffa’s long-time secretary-treasurer, did several months ago, when he said good-bye to his Teamster buddies with the following warning:
Continuing down the same road as the IBT has traveled in the last few years will not lead us out of our present difficulties. . . . The IBT should be run by elected Teamster leaders in whom the members have placed their trust and not outsiders or anyone else.
The last time the Teamster old guard splintered in such fashion — blaming each other for the union’s troubles — was 1991, the year Carey got elected in a three-way race against two feuding headquarters insiders. So the question in Teamster reform circles for months has been who should enter the lists in 2011, when similar lightening might strike again? Tom Leedham from Portland, Oregon is one of the best Teamster local presidents in the U.S. With TDU support, he campaigned tirelessly against Hoffa in 1998, 2001, and 2006, garnering between 40 and 36 percent of the vote each time. Last year, this stalwart standard-bearer for reform told me, with a grin, that he didn’t want to go down in history as the Harold Stassen of the Teamsters (or, more valorously and appropriately, as its Eugene V. Debs).
So the grueling job of running against Hoffa this time has fallen to Tom’s running-mate last time, who received 100,000 votes in her 2006 bid to become Teamster secretary-treasurer. Alexandra (“Sandy”) Pope is a most unusual IBT presidential candidate in any election year. She grew up in a Boston suburb and became a labor activist in the mid-1970s after dropping out of Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. She got involved with AFSCME while working at a state mental hospital in Northampton. But soon Ohio — one epicenter of TDU activity within freight, steel, and car-hauling companies — lured her away from the public sector. In 1978, she moved to Cleveland, learned to drive a tractor-trailer, worked as a driver and dock worker, and helped organize a successful month-long strike by her fellow steel-haulers. In 1985, she became a full-time Teamster organizer for Local 407 in Cleveland, a TDU-friendly affiliate whose president later ran on Carey’s slate.
During the Carey years, Pope served as a Teamster national staffer in the union’s warehouse division. She worked with Leedham and other reformers to build aggressive contract campaigns like the membership mobilization effort that culminated in the 1997 strike by 200,000 Teamsters at UPS. In 1999, she went to work for Local 805 in Queens, N.Y. and is now the president of that 1,200-member local. She’s made headlines in recent years for leading Local 805’s ongoing effort to assist hundreds of immigrant workers exploited by Fresh Direct, a grocery provider that fills on-line orders from the Big Apple’s many millionaire “celebrity shoppers.”
In TDU circles, Pope has her own hard-earned celebrity that her backers hope will translate into broader voter appeal among 300,000 female Teamsters. (How could the union’s distaff side not embrace a union sister whose campaign bio reports that she “is a proud mom with two kids, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, whose interests include kick boxing, running, and teaching labor studies”?) Women have virtually no representation in the top ranks of the Teamsters today. Even at last weekend’s meeting of reformers, they were relatively few in number. When TDU’s 54-year old, 5-foot-6 candidate took the stage to rally a roomful of much huskier male supporters, she received a rapturous reception and several standing ovations. Some in the audience were already proudly wearing her campaign jacket, emblazoned on the back with the slogan: “Sandy Pope: A Tough Leader for Tough Times!” Pope paid tribute to her roots in the reform movement. “You are the people I have learned from and leaned on for my entire union career,” she told the crowd. She mocked Hoffa’s own manifest lack of workplace experience, citing her contrasting 20-year record of contract bargaining and even longer history of new-member organizing. “Why is Hoffa so afraid of the members and why I am not afraid of the members?” she asked. “Well, first off, I am a Teamster.”
Pope didn’t soft-soap the many serious problems facing the union, at the national or local level. “Corporate America smells blood,” she warned. “They are moving in for the kill.” Pensions, full-time jobs, affordable health care, and decent working conditions are all at risk. The backward steps Teamster negotiators have taken lately, on all these issues, are just making it harder to rebuild union strength, Pope charged. “If we have all these members out there who are dissatisfied, how can we organize the unorganized? How can we mobilize members for the next contract if the one they have now is not being enforced by the union?”
As she wound up her speech, Pope rolled up her sleeve, displaying a well-muscled bicep and a Bread & Roses tattoo on her right shoulder. She invoked the memory of the great Lawrence, Mass. textile workers strike in 1912, an IWW-led struggle for both higher wages and a better quality of life. The crowd went wild. Before the evening was over, the Teamsters present had raised $52,000 (in cash, checks, and pledges) for TDU and the “Pope for President” campaign.
To get on the ballot next fall, Pope must have the support of 5 percent of the IBT convention delegates who will be meeting in Las Vegas next June. By this Dec. 15, she needs to collect 36,000 member signatures to secure access to the union’s membership list and publish her campaign literature in the “battle pages” of upcoming issues of the Teamster magazine. TDU has been punching above its weight-class, almost since its inception in the IBT. So there’s little doubt that its grassroots network can mount another national campaign that will give Hoffa and Gegare a run for their money (and Hoffa will have a lot of that, having raised over $2.5 million for his last re-election effort). Campaigning without a slate and only against Hoffa has raised a few eyebrows. When Carey won in 1991, a pro-reform majority on the Teamster executive board, including prominent TDUers like Diana Kilmury, got elected with him. Yet he still struggled for the next six years to overcome the continuing political opposition and outright sabotage of at least half the officialdom, at other levels of the union.
Pope and TDU plan to cross that bridge — when and if they come to it. However far she gets toward that destination, with sword or olive branch in hand, Pope is going to have lots of rank-and-file Teamster accompaniment, not to mention many more rounds of grateful applause.
Steve Early is Boston-based labor organizer and journalist who has aided the Teamster reform movement since the late 1970s. In 1992, he worked at Teamster headquarters while on loan from his own union to the newly-elected Ron Carey administration. He is a contributor to Rebel Rank And File: Labor Militancy and Revolt During The Long 1970s (Verso, 2010) and can be reached at <Lsupport@aol.com>.