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Teamsters, Hells Angels, and Self-Determination

Photo Source AFL-CIO America’s Unions | CC BY 2.0

Just as the prettiest flower didn’t get to choose its color, the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) membership doesn’t get to choose its contract language. Not in the strictest sense. Not without union leadership having the final say. Or as the president of an industrial International (not the Teamsters) once confided to me, “You can take this democracy bullshit only so far.”

Over the years, I’ve dealt with a number of Teamsters. While there is no denying that the IBT has contributed greatly to the advancement of working people (not so much lately as previously), this union has also been burdened with a negative public image—some of it deserved, some of it careless and unfair.

In fact, for convenience sake, a cadre of fellow officers from my own union (I was president) had begun to regard the Teamsters—in style and temperament—as being roughly similar to the Hells Angels “outlaw” motorcycle gang. [Note: the name “Hells Angels” has never included a possessive apostrophe]

Consider the similarities. Both are notorious. Both are excessively masculine (Has there ever been a woman officer?). Both rejoice in being considered “dangerous.” And by the 1980s, both had been domesticated, co-opted, beaten down, and diluted to the point where they were largely living off their reputations.

Some years ago I was conducting Shop Steward School for a group of newly elected stewards. Our class was set up in the conference room of a Southern California hotel—the same hotel where, coincidentally, we learned later, a group of Teamsters were holding contract explanation meetings for union officers.

Apparently, a couple of their guys had become disoriented, because they barged into our room (the door was open) by mistake. Both were wearing shiny Teamster jackets, emblazoned with the large, instantly recognizable IBT emblem. Even the bitterest union critic had to admit that those jackets (made in the USA) were gorgeous.

Seeing a dozen unfamiliar faces, one of the Teamster guys asked me tersely, “Hey. What room is this?” The way he said it was almost accusatory, as if I were somehow responsible for whatever mix-up there was. This will sound like a stereotype, but the guy doing the talking, a beefy, vaguely thuggish man, fit the image perfectly. Even though this was Southern California, God help us, he seemed to have affected a New Jersey accent.

The instant I gave him the room number—and, in the same breath, made a point of mentioning the name of our union just to let him know he was among friends—the two of them turned around and left. Just like that, they were gone. Not that I expected an elaborate, three-part solidarity handshake, but I thought an “Oops, our mistake” might have been in order. But there was nothing, not a word. Clearly, being a Teamster means never having to say you’re sorry.

Interestingly, the moment they left the room, there was noticeable stirring and smiles among our group of starry-eyed stewards-to-be. They were clearly impressed. This “Teamster sighting” struck me as the reaction one might expect if a couple of Hells Angels, dressed in full regalia, had walked in. No question about it, the Teamsters are unique. There’s never been a union quite like them.

The IBT was in the news recently, and not in a good way. After having concluded representing 200,000 workers in contract negotiations with UPS, Teamster leadership recommended ratification. Standard procedure for most unions, not just the IBT. But there was a problem with this offer. Included in the proposed contract was the dreaded “two-tier” configuration.

The two-tier is a hideous arrangement invented by management to save money and, in the process, sabotage union integrity. The way it works is to allow a portion of dues-paying members (the upper tier) to continue receiving higher wages and better benefits while condemning another portion of dues-paying members (the lower tier) to lower wages and inferior bennies.

The two-tier format has been anathema to organized labor ever since it was introduced, back in the 1970s, beginning with the auto industry. Nothing erodes union solidarity quicker than installing an unequal wage and benefit formula, which effectively pits union member against union member. Brother vs. brother.

But instead of ratifying the contract, as recommended, 54% of those voting wisely rejected it. They saw the two-tier for the abomination it was, and voted accordingly. Unfortunately, this is where fifty years of Teamster logic and Teamster muscle come into play.

It turns out that there was a loophole in the bylaws. IBT bylaws prohibit the membership from voting down a recommended contract when fewer than 50% of eligible voters actually vote. And in this instance, only 92,604 of the 200,000 had cast ballots.

But here’s the Teamsteresque part. These same bylaws allow members to ratify a contract even with less than half the membership voting. In other words, the rank and file is allowed to ratify but not reject a contract offer. They’re allowed to agree, but not disagree. Very slick.

After the votes were counted, and the offer rejected, IBT leadership announced to management that the contract had nonetheless been ratified. The company was pleased to hear it. The dreaded two-tier was now part of the UPS labor agreement. And the beat goes on.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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