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Serve the Membership

Teamsters Make a Run at the Transport Workers

by DAVID MACARAY

There are two ways to look at a so-called “raid” of one union by another. We can see it as treachery, as an unwarranted assault, as a selfish attempt to undermine already fragile working class “solidarity” in return for increased revenue or power, or we can see it simply as another rough-and-tumble aspect of organized labor’s natural evolution.

Of course, because these internecine battles usually involve boisterous, working class exchanges at union halls, and not the hushed tones of hallowed board rooms, the mainstream media can be depended upon to portray them in the crudest terms possible.

This is partly because the media are immersed in century-old union stereotypes, and partly because, when it comes to working people, they see themselves as aristocrats. They’re snobs. They’re what superannuated Marxists might call the “petite bourgeoisie.” The unhappy irony is that many of these anti-union media people are, themselves, union members, a fact that drives labor aficionados up the wall.

Consider: If this were Wall Street instead of organized labor—if, for example, the stockholders of JC Penny’s had lost confidence in their board of directors and voted to replace them with the board of, say, GE or Kimberly-Clark—the decision to change leadership would not only be approved by the media, it would be universally applauded.

That’s because there’s a glaring double-standard at work here. One sees evidence of this double-standard even in the competing semantics used in reporting the stories. While the media practically gush over “company executives,” they can barely conceal their contempt for “union bosses.”

Currently, there’s an attempt underway by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) to get the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) to leave home and join up with them. While the IBT withdrew from the AFL-CIO in 2005, the TWU still belongs to the federation. Understandably, this little detail has been the source of some major heartburn. Also, given how tough it’s been for labor unions across the board, no one wants to see a civil war.

Speaking as a former president and chief negotiator of a union, I’ve never resented attempts to poach on our turf, so long as the attempts were done legally and in earnest. Either you’re able to defend yourself against these raids or you aren’t. Moreover, the welfare of the membership must always trump union politics or protocol or empire-building. Sometimes a change of scenery is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Indeed, a change of scenery why baseball teams fire the manager and not the players? On the other hand, there are numerous examples of the rank-and-file swapping unions and instantly regretting it. In many instances, what looked from the outside to be a perfect marriage turned out to be sheer misery (just like some actual marriages). Unfortunately, you never know if it’s the right move until you’ve already made it.

Although I’ve never had any official ties to the IBT, I’ve always been an admirer of the Teamsters, impressed with their unsentimental view of labor relations. The Teamsters figured out long time ago that success at the bargaining table is all about one’s ability to resist. Resistance is everything. While management pretends to respect the working class, the only entity they truly respect is muscle. Everything else is rhetoric.

In 1993, I contacted a Teamster regional officer in Southern California and broached the subject of leaving our AWPPW International and joining up with them. Because my effort was strictly pro forma (at that point in time I had no real intention or, for matter, authority to change unions), I needed to withhold my name and union affiliation.

What I wanted to do was shake up the management team with whom we’d be entering into contract negotiations the following year. Attitudes on both sides of the table had gotten complacent over the last several bargains, and they needed shaking up. It was my hope that hearing we were considering affiliating with the Teamies would put the fear of God in the company.

The Teamster guy was good enough to accept my conditions: no names, no affiliations, no nothing. The two things I wanted to know were how difficult it was to swap unions, and how long such a procedure would take. When he asked why we wanted to leave our present union, I answered honestly. I told him I wanted to stir the pot by introducing the dreaded Teamsters. While he wasn’t too thrilled at being a “prop,” he understood.

Interestingly, I learned that it was fairly difficult to change unions. Even if I’d been dead set on doing such a thing, it would been complicated The move would’ve required the approval of the top guy himself, who, at the time, was Ron Carey, president of the International.

To their credit, the Teamsters weren’t going to allow some half-cocked union local to decertify and join up with them on a whim. Leaving one union for another was a huge move, and the Teamsters knew it. Just as they know this run on the TWU is a huge move. But union affiliation isn’t about protocol. It’s about serving the membership.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.