Imperfect Union

Ever since the McClellan Committee investigations of racketeering in
the 1950s, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) has occupied
a lurid place in the American imagination. From Jimmy Hoffa to "Tony
Pro," from "Red" Dorfman to Jackie Presser, the Teamsters have been
known as the id of the labor movement--a seething hotbed of greed,
violence, and corruption. Recent Teamsters President Ron Carey and his
aides were accused of laundering money from the union treasury for use
in Carey's 1996 re-election campaign. The election was overturned, and
Carey was banned from the union. This January he was indicted for lying
to a grand jury about his role in the scandal. And when Hoffa's son,
James P. Hoffa, ascended to the presidency of the union in 1999, it
seemed at first as though nothing had changed since the bad old days.

But in the two years since Hoffa became president of the
Teamsters--one of the largest labor unions in the United States, with
more than 1.4 million members--many progressive writers and thinkers
have hailed the union's transformation. Hoffa's Teamsters have been
lauded for participating in the November 1999 demonstrations in Seattle
against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and for making overtures to
Ralph Nader during the recent presidential campaign before finally
backing Al Gore (rather than immediately casting support to the
Democrats as did the rest of the AFL-CIO). As Marc Cooper wrote in
The Nation, the Teamsters are "making a bid to become key players
and allies in that progressive blue/green coalition that began to gel
out of the gaseous clouds of the WTO protests... . "According to
Cooper," Hoffa has surprised many by showing himself to be a potentially
powerful ally--rather than a roadblock--in the fight for a progressive
national politics."

Certainly, the union is no longer the ossified embarrassment to the
American labor movement that it was in the 1980s, the heyday of Jackie
Presser. Eleven years of government supervision have flushed the mob out
of many locals. And once upon a time, the Teamsters would have endorsed
George W. Bush, not Al Gore. (The Teamsters are, however, the only labor
union represented on President Bush's Department of Labor transition
team--along with the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis Schintzler
and Krupman.)

Even so, the Teamsters remain an odd amalgamation of old and new
labor. Despite the union's tough-guy mystique, its real weaknesses are
not much different from those that plague the entire American labor
movement: decentralization, parochialism, and an inability to organize
new workers locally. It's true that such structural problems are
difficult to address, but Hoffa does not even appear to be making an
effort to do so. The result is that under his leadership, the Teamsters
have not yet carried out the aggressive organizing campaigns that
characterize the best and most progressive unions in John Sweeney's
AFL-CIO. While important, electoral politics and demonstrations like
those in Seattle ultimately matter far less than organizing, which is
what actually gives workers power on the job and in politics. Hoffa
hasn't sent the union back to the Dark Ages. But can he make it into a
viable political force?

When the election campaign of 2000 was in high gear, it seemed that
the Teamsters had changed a lot since the days when they endorsed
Republican candidates for president. On a late afternoon last September,
the parking lot outside the Teamsters Local 282 union hall in Lake
Success, Long Island, was packed with men and women wearing trademark
black-and-gold Teamster jackets. "I Shot the Sheriff"--Eric Clapton's
version--blared over the loudspeakers. When Hoffa appeared on stage, the
crowd exploded in cheers. He introduced Senate candidate Hillary
Clinton. Presented with a white Local 282 jacket, Clinton put it on and
twirled for the crowd.

Not everyone in attendance was in cheerleader mode. Scattered here
and there were Teamsters wearing "No to PNTR" T-shirts, relics of last
spring's World Bank rally where Hoffa had gathered the Teamsters to
protest free trade and listen to Pat Buchanan. Some in the crowd also
couldn't forgive the Democrats their support of former Teamsters
President Ron Carey, who trusteed their local. "Fellows that I worked
with for 20 years, they said they were gangsters," said Robert Kelly, a
retired Teamster. "Do I look like a mobster? I'm a working stiff." Other
unions support the Democrats, but truck drivers are forced to compete
with low-wage Mexican workers because of policies like the North
American Free Trade Agreement, passed by a Democratic Congress and
signed by Bill Clinton. "AFSCME [the American Federation of State,
County and Municipal Employees] and the other unions won't be the ones
taking the $5-an-hour jobs," Kelly said. When I told him he was being
interviewed for an article to be published by a magazine based in
Boston, he grumbled about the Kennedys.

But Teamsters like Kelly don't run the show anymore. Today, the
union is willing to combine forces with the New Democrats (after shaking
its fist at the party over free trade throughout the campaign season),
even as it joins with pink-haired anarchists and the larger left to
protest international financial power and the liberalization of trade.
This suggests how much the union's leadership has changed its style. But
at the same time, the strength of a union doesn't come from its position
papers. It comes from organizing.

Decentralized and Disorganized

There are some systemic barriers to organizing in the IBT. Most
important is that the union is extremely decentralized; it consists of
586 locals, each with its own distinct culture and organization. Only
about one-fourth of the Teamsters work under national contracts, though
many more are employed at national companies. The international receives
the smallest proportion of dues of any union in the United States, and
about 80 percent of that money stays on the local level. While most
internationals levy per capita dues ranging from $8 to $18 a month, the
Teamsters international receives less than $4. And while the Service
Employees International Union (SEIU) recently set a special "resource
increase" to pay for new organizing, local leaders in the Teamsters,
despite a dramatic membership decline, have shown little desire or
ability to devote sufficient resources to organizing.

This problem is far from unique to the Teamsters. But under the
leadership of John Sweeney at the AFL-CIO, the labor movement has
started, once again, to focus on organizing workers--especially those
historically excluded from unions, like immigrants and women. This has
meant strengthening the international unions relative to the locals,
since the internationals can jump-start organizing campaigns and carry
them out in a concerted, unified way. Unions like John W. Wilhelm's
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees and Andrew L. Stern's SEIU have
targeted moribund locals and used international organizers to reshape
them so that members are genuinely in control. They have also
spearheaded national organizing campaigns, like the SEIU's Justice for
Janitors crusade. Neither union has been magically transformed
overnight. Pockets of corruption and local bloat remain. But in both
cases, the internationals have supported local movements to reform the
unions and organize new workers.

For a few years in the early 1990s, it looked as if Ron Carey and
Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) were starting to remake the IBT
in a similar way. The international initiated many of the dynamic
organizing campaigns of the Carey years. Perhaps the most important was
at Overnite Transportation, the largest nonunion trucking company in the
country. Though the firm had been a target of the Teamsters for many
years, the arduous work of organizing its individual terminals began
after Carey came into office. Forty-five percent of the workers at the
fiercely anti-union company joined the Teamsters between 1994 and 1996.
At Northwest Airlines and United Parcel Service, the union engaged in
intense grass-roots mobilizing efforts to win better contracts; local
organizers at Northwest implemented an extensive phone tree called the
Contract Action Team (CAT), which involved thousands of Teamsters in the
affairs of the union. The IBT also tried to expand into unorganized
industries, such as apple processing in Oregon and Washington, and
concentrated on building member-driven organizations that would be able
not only to win representation elections but to exercise sufficient
power within the industry to win good first contracts.

In addition to starting organizing campaigns, the Carey
administration sought to centralize the union, moving power from local
leaders to the international. Carey abolished the area conferences, a
middle layer of Teamsters bureaucracy that contributed little to the
union but did pay about 60 multiple salaries for union officials. He put
many corrupt locals into trusteeship. Also, he tried to change the dues
structure by diverting more money to the international. His bid for a
dues change lost badly, however, and the international fell into
economic hardship.

Carey won the 1996 election for the presidency by a narrow margin.
But after government officials discovered that members of the Carey
administration had used Teamster money to run the re-election campaign,
Carey was removed from office. Running on the platform "Restore Local
Autonomy," Hoffa won the next union election. One of the first things he
did after assuming power was to cut back sharply on expenses related to
organizing. The budget of the organizing department was decreased by
about one-third. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB),
the number of successful private-sector organizing drives in the United
States fell from 400 in 1997 to 297 in 1999, the same year that the
AFL-CIO reversed its membership decline for the first time in decades.

Many of the national campaigns started under Carey were quickly
downscaled. Before the start of the 15-month strike at Overnite, which
is still in progress, the number of organizers working on the campaign
went from approximately 35 to 13. The Contract Action Team at Northwest
was dismantled after the workers voted down a contract that Hoffa
supporters had bargained. ("The CAT's taking a nap" was the phrase used
around the local.) Organizers who worked on the apple-processing drive
were fired.

Across the country, primary responsibility for organizing has gone
back to the local level. But many locals have only one or two full-time
organizers; and others have little interest in organizing at all. Even
the best local can organize only small plants. Campaigns at large
facilities require resources greater than any union local can muster
alone.

The Overnite strike, one of the strangest in American labor history,
shows the consequences of cutting back international resources devoted
to organizing. Overnite has waged a nasty battle against the Teamsters.
Since the organizing campaign began in 1994, the union has charged the
company with more than 1,000 unfair labor practices. When Teamster
officials compare organizing at Overnite to life before the National
Labor Relations Act, they aren't exaggerating. The employer has
threatened to close terminals, cut pension benefits, and worsen working
conditions if workers vote to be represented by the Teamsters, and it
has systematically fired workers for union activism; but the NLRB has
barely responded.

The international called the strike in November 1999 to protest labor
law violations by Overnite and pressure the company into negotiating a
national contract. But unlike most strikes, the one at Overnite has not
entailed shutting the company down. Instead, workers drive around behind
the company's trucks, stop when deliveries are made, and set up picket
lines outside the warehouses. For the hour that the Overnite truck is
there, union trucking companies will not deliver goods. But then the
Overnite truck drives off and the picketers follow it. Only about 1,800
of the 8,200 workers employed by Overnite ever went out on strike. Fewer
than that are still on the line--and most of those who are have found
other jobs.

There is no clear end in sight, and Hoffa's Teamsters have no
apparent strategy for countering Overnite's resistance. John Murphy, the
union's director of organizing, strains to be optimistic: "When you are
facing an opponent that has more technology and more resources than you
do, what you are going to rely upon is your ability to outlast them.
That ability to outlast the employer is predicated upon never, ever
accepting anything other than outlasting them."

Local Autonomy at What Price?

What are the long-term organizing goals of Hoffa's Teamsters? His top
aides emphasize a very high degree of local control. "My dream is that
the organizing department here in this building should be a desk and a
telephone," says Murphy. "Our goal is to completely change the way this
union organizes, to make it grass-roots driven, completely
decentralized." Murphy would like to set up organizing and training
programs all over the country. Organizers would go through these
programs and then stay with their local unions. The vision has many
appealing aspects. It's true that staff-heavy organizing campaigns,
which bring professional organizers into town to run the campaign,
sometimes have trouble developing leadership structures among workers
that will endure once the representation election is over. But it hardly
seems like an accident that Murphy's system would not disturb local
prerogatives at all.

Some of Hoffa's advisers downplay the importance of organizing in
general. Greg Tarpinian, one of his outside consultants and the director
of Labor Research Associates, says that the TDU platform for its
candidate Tom Leedham is dead because "they just keep talking about
mobilizing the membership, and frankly, the membership doesn't give a
fuck about being mobilized." Such sentiments aside, Tarpinian--like
Hoffa himself, one may imagine--knows well that the Teamsters must
devote more resources to organizing. Yet there appears to be no
consensus about what, if anything, needs to be done to strengthen the
international's financial base. Tarpinian concedes that it will be
extremely difficult to increase the resources available to the
international: "The real challenge will be to convince people--you have
to convince them, you can't dictate to them--that the future of the
labor movement depends on structural change."

Local leaders like Jack Cipriani--who is a vice president for the
international as well as president of Local 391 in North Carolina--are
dead against a dues increase. "I think we can organize within our
budget," he says. "The way the Teamsters are structured--and always have
been--the local unions are the engine, and the local unions are the ones
that really initiate those campaigns." Some organizers within the
Teamsters have a different point of view. Scott Chismar, a
middle-of-the-road organizer at Hoffa-supporting Local 264 in Buffalo,
New York, says he misses the organizing seminars the international used
to run under Carey; he admires the United Food and Commercial Workers
for raising dues to pay for expanded organizing programs by the
international. Yet Murphy is adamant that a dues increase would always
be a "last resort."

Many of the Teamsters' leaders who believe most fervently in local
autonomy justify their faith in populist terms, arguing that the union
must be run by blue-collar workers and not by Washington bureaucrats or
professional staffers. George Geller, a longtime Hoffa supporter and
Teamsters lawyer, says that "when a union is run exclusively from its
national center, influence passes to people who could otherwise be
writing for The American Prospect. A local union is run by someone
who comes out of our crafts. Democratic purposes are better served by
the second example." Or as Murphy--who was president of a Boston local
for 30 years before being tapped to be director of organizing--puts it:
"I'm an anti-Washington bureaucrat. No, I'm an anti-Washington
anti-bureaucrat." This anti-elitist image has great attraction for, at
least, people in Hoffa's inner circle.

But like the Teamsters' long flirtation with Buchanan and Nader
during the recent presidential election campaign, such language is pure
bluff. Strong unions, run by leaders democratically accountable to the
workers they represent--not by people who are supposed to represent
workers by dint of organic identity--are what American workers need to
be full and equal American citizens who are able to exercise their
rights in the workplace and take part in what Herbert Croly called the
"promise of American life."

The ability of the Teamsters to organize new workers and to represent
existing members effectively is what really matters for the future of
the union--more than financial scandals, Mafia or garden-variety
corruption, or even political endorsements. For the political might of
the labor movement ultimately rests, after all, on its capacity to
exercise power in the workplace. And the Hoffa administration is not, at
this point, focusing its resources on organizing in the way that it must
if it wants the union to be an influential political force in future
years.

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