Why are the Teamsters Courting the Far Right?

Rep. Josh Hawley (R-MO) with General President Sean M. O’Brien. Photo courtesy Teamsters Facebook.

Since the ratification of the UPS contract in August, the media coverage of the Teamsters has dropped off significantly, overshadowed by the UAW’s historic strikes against the auto industry. However, Teamster General President Sean O’Brien did make a brief media comeback when Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R.-OK) challenged him to a fight when he testified before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, chaired by Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately, the Mullin incident served as a distraction from far more worrisome political developments that were not reported by the media. Sean O’Brien boasted on the Teamsters Facebook page of his meetings with two far right U.S. Senators: Ohio’s J.D. Vance and Missouri’s Josh Hawley in early November. By any political measure, Hawley and Vance should be treated like pariahs by the labor movement.

Political Pariahs

Vance is an admirer of such authoritarian figures as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, as well as being a proponent of the Nazi-inspired Great Replacement Theory, which puts forward the conspiracy theory that a “cosmopolitan elite”—almost always Jews—are orchestrating large-scale, non-white immigration to replace white people. Replacement theory has inspired racist mass murderers in the United States and around the globe. Vance is as close to being an outright fascist as you can be, right now in U.S. politics.

Josh Hawley encouraged the January 6th attack on the Capitol Building in Trump’s failed bid at a presidential coup. He also fled the armed mob that ransacked the building that threatened to lynch Vice-President Mike Pence’s. Hawley was later one of the “Seditious Six,” who attempted to block the certification of Joe Biden’s election. Hawley’s goal is to turn the Republicans into a “working class party,” which we should see as further effort begun by Trump, to distract and misdirect blue collar workers.

To boost his blue collar credentials, Hawley touts his record during last year’s Rail negotiations, when he voted against the Biden administration’s preemptive strike breaking and for sick days for Rail workers. Hawley, at the time, declared:

“Today the Senate had the chance to stand up for railroad workers who frequently risk their lives and health on the job, just trying to support their families. Instead, the Senate sided with Joe Biden. Workers were asking for a handful of sick days per year. Biden and the Senate said no. I’d like to know how many of the White House staff, and how many members of Congress and their staff, are still ‘working remotely,’ all while they deny railroad workers more than one day of sick leave a year.”

Hawley represents an effort by  part of the far right in the United States that seeks to emulate the most successful European far right parties that have recast themselves as parties of the forgotten blue-collar worker. While former President Donald Trump blundered during the UAW strikes, Hawley made clear his support for the strikers, and is now opposed to anti-union Right-to-Work laws. Hawley also said doesn’t take corporate PAC money.

This is a sharp political turn for Hawley. According to the Intercept:

“While he is rallying against the Big Three now, he has previously received campaign contributions from the automakers. During his first run for Senate in 2018 and through 2020, Hawley’s PAC received $8,500 from GM’s PAC, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission. His Senate campaign received $3,500 from Ford’s PAC and another $1,000 from a GM executive during that same time period. His PAC and campaign received an additional $13,000 from PACs associated with Toyota, a Japanese company notorious for running non-union shops in the United States.”

Hawley is playing the long game of politically reorienting the mainstream rightwing in this country. He has already endorsed Trump for president, who currently leads President Joe Biden in five of six battle ground states including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where there are large numbers of industrial workers and union members, and retirees. I warned last year in wake of the Rail fiasco:

“Biden’s blatant strike-breaking will have dire consequences for the rest of us. He handed the mainstream and paramilitary far right a huge gift, four weeks after many people breathed a sigh of relief that the Republican victories in the midterm election were limited. The fact that no one in Biden’s cabinet threatened to resign over the decision goes to show how far removed from the lives of working-class people they are and the dynamics of U.S. politics today.”

This is not to defend the labor movement’s support for President Joe Biden or its slavish devotion to the Democratic Party. Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini perceptively wrote recently:

Biden may have been the first president to stand on a picket line, as he did with striking UAW workers in Michigan in September, but the visit felt more like a distant echo of the party’s tone in the 1970s and 1980s than a reflection of where the Democratic coalition is today.

Last year’s U.S. Senate race in Ohio proved to be an example of how not to fight the likes of J.D. Vance, when candidate Tim Ryan—who had a long pro-labor record in Congress—attempted to out “China-bash” Vance. It failed. Vance comfortably beat Ryan by seven points in a state with many union members and retirees.

Teamsters and the Far Right

The Teamsters have their own off—and—on history of connections to the mainstream and far right going back decades, including despicable xenophobic policies directed at Mexican workers. In the 1950’s during the notorious “Operation Wetback,” when the “normal” Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower deported nearly 1.3 million Mexican workers, the Teamsters amplified the anti-Communist undercurrent of the deportations. “100 Communists A Day Invade U.S. By Wetback Route” screamed The Teamster magazine for March 1954.

In the 1970’s, the Teamsters acted as leg-breakers for the big growers forcing the largely Mexican workforce into sweetheart deals, in an effort to crush the United Farmworkers Union (UFW). The Teamsters, under General Presidents Frank Fitzsimmons and Jackie Presser, employed a bizarre, violent, fascist cult the U.S. Labor Party, led by Lyndon LaRouche to smear the new reform movement led by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and the Ralph Nader-inspired PROD. According to Teamster historian Dan LaBotz:

“LaRouche and his followers performed many services for Teamster officialdom, acting as spies for the Teamsters, infiltrating PROD. They also produced propaganda pamphlets such as The Plot to Destroy the Teamsters, which attacked TDU and PROD with the preposterous claim that the Teamster reformers were part of a conspiracy involving President Carter, the Rockefellers, Ralph Nader, the CIA, and the AFL-CIO, and others.”

The reform years under Ron Carey saw a welcome break from the policies of the mobbed-up old guard, including the historic victory over UPS in 1997. Yet, Carey failed to break with the Teamsters’ longstanding hostility to Mexican workers, vilifying Mexican truck drivers. Xenophobia has always been a gateway to far right politics.

Connections to past unsavory far right connections continued, however, as one of LaRouche’s former top Lieutenants Richard LeeBove became a campaign consultant to Carey’s chief rival James R. Hoffa, Jr., who was elected Teamster General President five times. Upon taking office, Hoffa paid LeeBove handsome consulting fees out of the union’s treasury. Hoffa also leaned on services of the fascist-loving, anti-Semite Pat Buchanan to campaign against a U.S.-China trade pact in 2000, though Hoffa refused to endorse him for president.

Early on during Trump’s one term presidency, Hoffa was close to Trump. In late 2019, I wrote:

Despite having endorsed Hilary Clinton in 2016, Hoffa who earned a reputation as one of President Donald Trump’s most reliable union supporters on trade and infrastructure projects, including the environmentally disastrous Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines and the ongoing trade war with China.

Hoffa admitted in an October interview that many Teamsters voted for Trump in 2016. Hoffa also predicted that many “Teamsters are likely to vote for Trump again in 2020, regardless of who the Democratic nominee turns out to be.”

Hoffa later soured on Trump, and despite the significant amount of support that Trump had in the Teamster membership, Hoffa issued a belated public statement—three days after the attack— that denounced the January 6th assault on the Capitol Building. Hoffa said.

“This past week we witnessed an unprecedented assault on our democracy, as a mob of extremists stormed the sacred halls of the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to thwart the will of the people and prevent the certification of the Presidential election. This unconscionable attack on America was incited by President Trump and is the culmination of more than five years of hate, division and lies sowed by the President.”

In August 2017, after fascist violence resulted in scores of injuries and the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, Fred Zuckerman, the current General Secretary-Treasurer of the Teamsters, condemned on his Facebook page, the “hate, racism, and bigotry” displayed at the now infamous “Unite the Right” rally. He received a lot of support for his stand but also a lot of push back from Teamster members, too.

During the past year, Sean O’Brien held rallies with Vermont’s independent Senator and “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders and other progressive labor leaders, such as Sarah Nelson, to drum up public support for the 2023 UPS contract campaign. He was projecting progressive image to the Teamsters, in sharp contrast to the years under his predecessor James P. Hoffa. Yet, he is now courting Vance and Hawley, who are a far more serious threat to the labor movement than Mullin, who is a clown.

This presents, at best, a confusing picture to many people of the political direction of the union, and at worst, lends credibility to the people who should be clearly treated as political pariahs. All Hawley and Vance have to offer the Teamsters—which is two-thirds African-American and Latino—is hate, racism, and bigotry.

JOE ALLEN is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service.