Teamsters at the Crossroads

With its 1.4 million members, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters could well be America’s strongest union. This fall, Teamster members will be able to vote for either Jimmy Hoffa Jr., current president of the Teamsters, or Tom Leedham, president of Local 206 in Portland, Oregon. While Hoffa has been negotiating sell-out contracts, Leedham has campaigned on the principle that the Teamsters should put up a fight so as to avoid losing ground and actually make gains. The election of Tom Leedham would be a victory for the rank-and-file that could potentially translate into mobilizing the more militant elements of the Union.  

A short history of the Teamsters   

The Teamsters Union was formed in Niagara Falls in August 1903. Most of the members at that time drove teams of horses, but in just a few years most Teamsters were driving trucks. In 1907, Daniel J. Tobin, a conservative anti-strike man, was elected general secretary of the union, a post he would hold for the next 45 years.  His anti-communist policies and close connection with the Democratic Party would affect the development of the union for decades.   

In its early days, the Teamsters were quite progressive and were one of the first unions to organize women. As early as 1917 the Teamsters were organizing women in the laundry industry, paying white and black women the same wage.     

The Great Depression hit the Teamsters hard, as it did the rest of the working class, but it also showed the power of a union. The 1934 strike in Minneapolis is probably the best example of the working class using its power in America.  Local 574 only had 75 members in 1934, but with the leadership of Ray Dunne, his brothers Miles and Grant, Carl Skoglund and Farrell Dobbs, all members of the Communist League of America, they were able to organize and lead a successful strike.    

In 1934, Minneapolis was under the control of the Citizens’ Alliance, a reactionary organization of the employers who operated an open shop citadel. The strike began on May 16th and lasted until May 25th when an agreement was reached between the employers and the union. The employers soon reneged on many of their promises, and the strike resumed on July 17th. Bloody Friday, July 20, which saw the police opening fire on unarmed pickets, killing two, and injuring more than 50, sparked a show of support for the strikers and caused the governor of Minnesota to declare martial law. August saw the arrest of many of the strike leaders and their subsequent release when the union was able to prove the charges were false.    

In the aftermath, Minneapolis was turned from an anti-union town into a pro-union town with thousands of people being organized. This and other events forced the Roosevelt White House to initiate reform measures, because it feared that what happened in Minneapolis could spread across the country.  An in-depth look at these events, and other events throughout this time period, can be found in Farrell Dobbs’ series of books: Teamsters Rebellion, Teamster Power, Teamster Politics, and Teamster Bureaucracy.  

After World War II, the Teamsters greatly expanded, reaching a million members in 1949. Jimmy Hoffa Sr. played an instrumental role in this.  He was able to unify a single collective bargaining agreement for all freight drivers in 1964. However, at the same time, Hoffa was using assets from the Teamsters’ pension plan to support mafia projects, such as the development of Las Vegas. He was eventually found guilty of witness-tampering and sent to prison in 1967. His successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, was just as involved with the mafia, a tradition that has continued for a long time, showing just how bankrupt the Old Guard leadership really is. In 1980 the “Teamsters for a Democratic Union” (TDU), was formed. Its purpose was to return the union back to the membership. The TDU led a fight throughout the 1980s to give the rank-and-file the right to vote for top officials. On March 13, 1989, that long-overdue right was won. Ron Carey, the militant president of local 804 in New  York, won the support of the TDU for president of the Teamsters, although Carey was not a TDU member himself.     

On December 13, 1991, despite 95 percent of the Teamster officials lining up for Old Guard candidates, Carey and all 16 members of his slate were elected. This marked a huge victory for the rank-and-file, finally wresting power from the Old Guard, and the results would soon show. Carey sold the Teamster luxury jets, cut his own salary by $75,000, started the first successful organizing drive in decades, organizing 20 overnight terminals in the freight industry, and led the incredibly successful 1997 strike against UPS, the first major victory for American labor in decades.    

In 1996, Carey beat Hoffa Jr. for Teamsters president.  But a year later, he was disqualified from running for president by the U.S. Government, based on dubious accusations of fraud which were later proven to be entirely false.  Unfortunately, the TDU leadership at that time did not mobilize to defend Ron Carey and the Teamster membership’s democratic right to select their own leaders from this employer / government attack.  

The 2006 Teamsters Elections   

Jimmy Hoffa Jr., a lawyer with absolutely no prior experience as a Teamster or union leader, has basically held power because of his famous name and a huge Public Relations drive. During his seven years as Teamster president, the highest dues increase has been introduced without a vote from the rank-and-file, and membership has declined by 150,000.  The number of union officials holding more than one job within the union, and thereby receiving multiple salaries, has gone up from 16 when Hoffa took office, to 163 today.    

In addition, hundreds of thousands of Teamsters have had their pensions and benefits cut, organizing is almost non-existent, and illegal money allegations against Hoffa and his cronies are rampant, among many other things. Hoffa’s policies, not to mention the unsavory characters that follow him, are a detriment to all working people and a threat to the rights of union members across the country.   

Tom Leedham has been a working Teamster and officer for more than 20 years and is the principal officer of local 206 in Portland, Oregon. Leedham was Carey’s Vice President in the 90s, including during the watershed UPS strike. This is the third time he has run against Hoffa for Teamsters president, and he is running on the slate for “Strong Contracts and Good Pensions”. Most importantly, he has outlined an entirely different strategic approach to building Teamsters power as compared to Hoffa’s line of march.  

Hoffa has pursued the failed policy of seeing organized labor as being in a “partnership” with the bosses.  In practice, the “partnership” philosophy means that if the employers insist that to stay competitive they must lower wages or layoff workers, the workers must meekly comply. Leedham, however, has indicated that he rejects this “cooperative” relationship, and advocates mobilizing the membership to go out on strike if necessary in order to avoid concessions and to win real gains (for example, against multi-tiered contracts and for better health benefits).   

Leedham also advocates keeping members fully informed about each stage of contract negotiations, especially with UPS, as opposed to Hoffa who made back room deals with UPS and kept the members in the dark.  Moreover, Leedham supports using working Teamsters to organize and recruit new members, a tactic that was successfully employed by Ron Carey.  After all, no one knows better about the advantages of a union than the workers themselves.  He has also opposed allocating multiple salaries to union officials, a practice that has allowed many of them to become quite wealthy.    

For all of these reasons, Leedham has won a significant level of support from rank-and-file members.  With the lessons learned in the 90s, a militant rank-and file has the potential to generate real change as a new revolutionary period opens up on a world scale.   If we want to strengthen our union, we need to end the policy of collaboration with the bosses, relying only on our own strength as workers to fight for concrete improvements in our lives. A victory for Leedham could potentially be a starting point to build a more militant union, run from the bottom up, as opposed to how it is being run today, from the top down.


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