What’s Really Going on with the Teamsters and with TDU?

UAW president Shawn Fain. Photograph Source: 42-BRT – CC BY-SA 4.0

As Shawn Fain has acknowledged, Teamsters for a Democratic Union helped to inspire and provide a model for the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) caucus and for the United Auto Workers membership more generally. TDU’s more than forty-year history of rank-and-file organizing, opposition to corrupt union officials, and struggles for union democracy and alternative leadership provided the playbook. TDU had won the right to one member, one vote, rather than a rigged convention, and Fain and the UAW also fought for and won that right too. Both of us, the authors of this article, are proud of our years in TDU, of the contributions we made to the organization, and we admire the rank-and-filers who continue that work today. We’re glad to see that it has had a positive influence on the UAW and on some other unions as well.

All of this makes us even more disturbed and concerned to see TDU’s recent change over the last few years as it has subordinated itself to Sean O’Brien’s administration. TDU has called this relationship a “coalition” and suggested that it has made possible progressive developments, represented above all by the election of O’Brien and the 2023 UPS contract. So argued Ken Paff in a recent article in JacobinWe disagree. We believe that O’Brien represents a continuation of the Teamster old guard, a business unionist who seeks labor peace, and a leader who is a threat to a democratic and militant labor movement. His UPS contract left many behind and he has misled and deceived the members. Beyond that, O’Brien’s gestures of support for Donald Trump and other MAGA Republicans, suggest a turning away from the democratic, egalitarian, and inclusive values that inspired TDU.

In 2021, there were two Hoffa administration Teamster vice-presidents running for president of the international union: Steve Vairma and Sean O’Brien.  After a very close election in 2016, in which the Teamsters United Slate led by Fred Zuckerman and Tim Sylvester actually won the U.S. vote but lost by a few thousand votes when Canadian ballots were added, it was more than obvious that Hoffa would not run again. The story told by O’Brien, and repeated by TDU, was that he was removed by Hoffa as head of the UPS negotiations in 2018, because he wanted to be more aggressive with UPS and Hoffa did not. We’re to believe it was a coincidence that he then found himself in the enviable position of running as an insurgent against another of Hoffa’s lieutenants, Steve Vairma. Vairma as Hoffa’s “anointed one” found himself in the unique position of having to defend the 2018 contract, that he had nothing to do with while Sean O’Brien railed against the agreement that he was largely responsible for.

The hookup with Fred Zuckerman was hardly by accident, the 2016 campaign had given Zuckerman national name recognition and a bridge to TDU, that had previously considered O’Brien among the very worst of the old guard. TDU provided a critical structure and member access for any potential national challenge. Zuckerman, who had never wanted the top spot on the slate, including in 2016, was quite satisfied with the second position of General Secretary Treasurer and presto the O’Brien-Zuckerman, OZ slate was formed. Convincing the TDU Steering committee to go along with the gag was more difficult. For years O’Brien had been relentlessly criticized and labeled a bully by TDU particularly after his suspension for threatening teamster members. When Ken Paff raised the notion a full three years before the election there was significant opposition but one year later with committee members worn down and options more limited, they relented and TDU soon endorsed OZ a full two years prior to the election. Since it endorsed O’Brien, TDU has become his uncritical supporter, even when he has failed to fight for the members, suppressed the members rights, and engaged in questionable practices. Since then, TDU has given up its historic role as critic of bad leaders and defender of the rank-and-file.

The Teamsters Under O’Brien

O’Brien’s election has meant an expanded media operation and a more militant language and tone. While the tone and volume of rhetoric has changed a closer look reveals a reality that isn’t much different for teamster members.  An example is the UPS negotiations themselves. One of the big reforms touted by O’Brien and TDU is expanded negotiating committees with rank-and-file member participation.   The idea is that members in bargaining know what the jobs are really like and can also improve communication and keep members informed on the shop floor.  However, in the recent UPS negotiations the Teamster negotiating committees at the local and national level all had to sign nondisclosure agreements and faced expulsion from the committee if the chair felt they were in violation. NDAs created the same kind of “Brownout” that TDU raised hell about before, but not a peep from TDU about the mandatory NDA’s. The union’s proposals were not allowed to be shared with members, creating a situation where management and the union committee knew what had been proposed and the only people kept in the dark were Teamster members who work at UPS. Under Sean O’Brien the Teamsters are light years away from “open bargaining”.

After the contract had been negotiated in secret, O’Brien hired Berlin Rosen, a top public relations firm to handle the marketing campaign to sell the contract to the members. The union spent a tidy $1.2 million with Berlin Rosen in 2023, most of it to get the job done at UPS with a massive PR barrage. Again, a far cry from a democratic process of discussion and debate of the contract’s terms.

With the new contract in hand, O’Brien announced, “Our members just ratified the most lucrative agreement the Teamsters have ever negotiated at UPS. This contract will improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers. Teamsters have set a new standard and raised the bar for pay, benefits, and working conditions in the package delivery industry. This is the template for how workers should be paid and protected nationwide, and nonunion companies like Amazon better pay attention.” In fact, however, the contract failed to improve the situation of part-time workers, created a new tier of lower-paid workers, and reduced the money available for health and welfare and pension benefits.

Let’s start with the question of part-timers. As Kim Moody, the former director and editor of Labor Notes, wrote in his article, “Why the Rush to Settle?”

The promised “end of part-time poverty” was not achieved for all, and while two-tier pay for drivers were eliminated, the hourly gap between part-timers and full-time workers was not closed, and a two-tier setup was created for part-timers.

And Sam Gindin, the Canadian labor activist, in his article “Missed Opportunity? A Closer Look at the Teamster-UPS Agreement” suggests, just as Moody did, that the contract appeared at first blush to be a victory:

Against the excited headlines about “ending two-tiers,” the reprehensible secondary status for part-time workers – generally the “inside” workers in the warehouses and a majority of the union members at UPS – remains firmly in place, and the promise of more full-time jobs is little more than a paper commitment.

In addition to failing to end the part-timer’s second-class status, O’Brien permitted the creation of a new tier of lower-paid workers. Those hired after August 1, 2023 will earn less.

Although O’Brien has claimed there were no concessions, for the majority there will be significant cuts to Health and Pension Funds. The Teamsters Western Conference Pension Fund (the unions largest fund) will see a dramatic change from previous contracts. Historically, and in at least the last three UPS contracts negotiated by Hoffa, there was $1.00 per hour to be split for healthcare and pension, with the first money to go to pay for increases in the cost of healthcare and whatever was left into pension. That $1.00 has now been decreased to $.50 which means little and probably no money will be left for the pension fund. That loss from the largest teamster employer and largest contributor will have a serious impact on the future of the Fund and also encourage other employers to get the same deal, doing further damage.  Had O’Brien simply maintained the previous dollar negotiated by Hoffa, members would see literally hundreds more dollars in their monthly checks when they retire.

O’Brien also has a practice of misleading or misinforming the members, or trying to keep them ignorant of developments. For example, a year ago, when O’Brien tweeted a message taking credit for organizing 206,000 new members saying “we’re just getting started.” Teamster-Link (now t-union link), an open forum for the membership, was there to prove him wrong and forced the refiling of updated LM-2 reports showing a gain of about 3,200 new members.

Or to take another example, this one in the failure to inform the members category. The Teamsters settled a law suit charging O’Brien’s administration with racial discrimination in the firing of 13 Black and Hispanic staff members from the organizing department. As reported in The Guardian newspaper, the suit claimed that, “In total, Teamsters terminated 72.73% of the department’s staffers who were people of color, while firing only 28.57% of white staffers. Teamsters then proceeded to hire new staff members who were 73.33% white.” The suit also stated that O’Brien “publicly humiliated” the plaintiffs, claiming they were fired because they were “bad apples” and were “lazy.”

 “Our dues money has to pay this $2.9m lawsuit, because our general president racially discriminated against workers. That’s just not fair,” said the Teamsters Local 623 secretary-treasurer and principal officer, Richard Hooker Jr. “It’s a slap in the face of black and brown people, which make up a large contingency of this organization.” So The Guardian reports.

These Black and Hispanic organizers were among 150 to 180 terminations of Teamster employees on the day O’Brien took office. Terminations were accomplished by email with no severance, no healthcare and no opportunity to retrieve personal effects. One expects that when a new administration comes to power it will get rid the old regime’s Division Directors and policy-makers, however there aren’t that many Directors and policy-makers, these were mostly staff and professionals with no political position in the union.

O’Brien claimed in a California speech in September to have stopped the threat of AI and Robotics at UPS.  In the meantime, layoff announcements have been issued to thousands of teamsters around the country due to low “volume.” What makes this different from other layoffs is the accompanying WARN notices (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification), which are required notices in permanent closure situations. When the volume returns, these facilities will be closed and the work diverted to automated facilities. UPS CEO Carol Tome has stated her intention to automate “everything” and boasts about retaining the ability to do so under the new contract. Fortune magazineran an article several months ago with this title: “UPS just opened a giant new warehouse where 3,000 robots will do most of the work: ‘It’s a linchpin of our strategy.’” His statements aside, O’Brien offers no strategy to stop this process of AI’s and robots’ elimination of jobs at UPS or anywhere else.

In the past, Teamsters for a Democratic Union would have taken up issues such as those raised above. But TDU’s “coalition” with O’Brien has led to the organization’s total loss of independence and subordination to the O’Brien administration.

All of these issues and others led three retired Teamster activists and former officers with democratic reform credentials—Tom Leedham, Tim Sylvester, and Bill Zimmerman—to establish TeamsterLink in January of 2023 as a platform where Teamster officers and rank&filers could share information and discuss union issue. When the site proved to be popular, O’Brien hired the Nixon-Peabody law firm—known for union busting and its representation of Donald Trump—to sue TeamsterLink, on the charge of using the copyrighted word “Teamster.”  The charge is preposterous because the term has been used by all sorts of organizations, from local ball clubs to Teamsters for a Democratic Union. The firm sent a threatening “cease and desist” letter that was followed by threats to Apple and Google if they refused to shutdown T-Link.

Faced with the reality that O’Brien was willing to use member’s dues money to stifle free speech in the union, the retirees changed the name to T-Union Link continuing their mission to provide an open forum where teamster members and officers can express their views on any teamster related subject without fear of retaliation.

TDU and Politics

Paff reiterates in his essay, TDU’s historic position of avoiding partisan politics. Back in the 1970s when talking to Teamsters, TDU organizers frequently said, “We don’t care if you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or a socialist, a Baptist or a Catholic. We’re all rank-and-file Teamster activists here.” We feared that criticizing or endorsing Democratic or Republican party candidates at the national level would divide TDU whose members include big-city dockworkers and drivers who were mostly Democrats and Southern and Western road-drivers many of whom were Republican. Many of us believed that what was really needed was a new working-class party, a labor party to fight for workers’ interests. But for fear of creating divisions, we didn’t raise that either.

We did not then see much difference between Republicans and Democrats. Today, however, with Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate, the situation is fundamentally different. Trump is a union-buster.  He supports National right to work which would crush the Teamsters and other unions. We’ve seen the appointments he would make to the National Labor Relations Board, the referee in labor relations. The last time he appointed members to the Board they were management attorneys. Trump is not only a union buster, but also a racist, anti-immigrant, misogynist who represents everything that labor opposes both in the union movement and in society. We know that Trump and some of his supporters say that he’s not a racist, but the racists sure think he is and have become his most fervent supporters.

Trump is not just another Republican. He organized and inspired an insurrection at the Capitol in an attempt to remain in office despite losing the election. He is a dangerous authoritarian who threatens to become a dictator and to suppress the democratic rights that are essential to worker organizing. Treating November 2024 as just another presidential election and treating Trump as just another candidate is a serious and potentially disastrous mistake.

O’Brien, however, treats Trump as a legitimate contender for the presidency, which has infuriated many Teamster leaders and members. O’Brien invited all presidential candidates, including Trump to meet with union leaders, but he also went to Mar-a-Lago to talk with Trump and be photographed with him giving a thumbs up. Teamster vice-president John Palmer refused to attend the meeting with Trump who he called “a scab, union buster, and insurrectionist.” In recent decades the Teamsters gave primarily to Democrats, but now O’Brien’s Teamsters give to both Biden and Trump.  Unlike O’Brien, Shawn Fain of the UAW has had no trouble in calling Trump “a scab,” adding that, “Trump doesn’t give a damn about working class people.”.

Following O’Brien’s meetings with Trump, the union gave $45,000 to the Republican National Committee, the maximum allowable donation. The Teamsters have also given $5,000 to Trump supporter Josh Hawley for his re-election campaign to the U.S. Senate from Missouri.  Jim Kabel a former top Teamster official in the state wrote an op-ed opposing Hawley as does the Missouri labor movement that knows him best. For decades, TDU maintained its neutrality in national politics. This year such neutrality could turn out to be suicidal.

Who Gets the Bird?

Paff argues that this coalition with O’Brien has made it possible for TDU and other activists to engage in organizing as never before. While he doesn’t describe this crowd, the activists include not only TDU and Labor Notes, but also the young activists of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). A number of DSA members have gotten Teamsters jobs and become TDU and Teamster activists. The idealistic young socialists in the union today believe O’Brien gives them opportunities to grow and extend their influence. Maybe, but the TDU and DSA coalition with O’Brien makes one think of other such alliances in the past that proved problematic.

In the 1930s, John L. Lewis, the conservative, business unionist who was then president of the United Mine Workers (UMW)—a conservative but with a keen appreciation of the restlessness among workers that had developed in that period—could see an opportunity to organize an industrial union in the steel industry. Lewis—who had always been viciously anti-Communist—hired a number of Communist Party members to work for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. When one of his staff asked him why he was doing such a thing he replied, “Who gets the bird? The hunter or the dog.”

Lewis and his appointed head of the committee, Philip Murray, used the Communists to organize, and though the Communists gained influence in some locals, Lewis and Murray kept complete control of the union. The United Steel Workers was founded in 1942 and Murray became its first president; he also served from 1940 to 1952, as president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the federation of all of the industrial unions (steel, auto, electrical, etc.) Then in 1949, as CIO president, Murray carried out the expulsion of Communist-led unions and the purge of Communists from the Steelworkers. The hunter still held the birds and the dogs had been driven out.

There may be a lesson here for the contemporary left. At any moment, O’Brien could turn on the TDU and DSA activists and drive them out of the union. Progressives, while they may enter into coalitions, must always retain their independence within the labor movement and in society at large.

For decades TDU played a progressive role, one that made it an inspiration to other unions such as the UAW. If it is to continue to do so, TDU’s leaders would be wise to change course, to reestablish the organization’s independence and to report more accurately on the issues facing the union.

Tom Leedham has been a Teamster since 1977 and has served at every level of Teamster leadership. He was TDU’s candidate for Teamster President opposing James Hoffa, Jr. in three elections in 1998, 2001 and 2006. Last year, together with two other long-time Teamster activists, Tim Silvester and Bill Zimmerman, he created T-Union Link (https://t-unionlink.org/) to provide a site for Teamster rank-and-filers to find information and discuss Teamster issues. Dan La Botz was a truck driver in Chicago in the 1970s and a founding member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union in 1976. He is the author of Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union  (1991) and of the essay “The Tumultuous Teamsters of the 1970s” in Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s (2010). He lives in Brooklyn, New York