Teamsters Union Enters Era of (Direct) Democracy


Like the thaw of frozen power structures behind the Iron Curtain, the autocratic scandal-scarred Teamsters union is undergoing a democratic transformation that could signal a new era not only for its 1.6 million members but also for the rest of organized labor.

Democratic reforms, imposed by the government two years ago to settle a massive racketeering suit against the largest U.S. labor union, will allow rank-and-file Teamsters members to vote directly for the national officers for the first time.

Already, the court-ordered government oversight and wide open election have cracked the solidarity of the formerly close-knit, tight-lipped members of the general executive board, who are jostling for power in the new order.

And, ironically, government intervention has revived the spirit of Jimmy Hoffa, the controversial Teamsters president who ruled from 1957 to 1971 before going to prison and then disappearing four years later. His son, James P. Hoffa, last month launched a surprisingly popular campaign for the presidency.

The younger Hoffa, a lawyer, has been a Teamsters member for 22 years, but has never worked the two years "in the trade" required by the constitution to be an officer. His bid places the federal overseers in the difficult position of fighting any democratic effort (at the union convention) to amend the rules to allow Mr. Hoffa's candidacy, even though the government's stated objective has been to free the union's election from the tyranny of the incumbents.

The incumbents have engaged in their own brand of democratic electioneering. Earlier this year, four national vice presidents filed a racketeering suit against President William J. McCarthy, charging him with misusing union funds and illegally suppressing political rivals. A remarkable turn of events, considering that nary a peep of discontent was heard from other national officers as four of the past seven Teamsters presidents came under criminal indictment.

Mr. McCarthy, who took over the presidency in 1988 on the death of Jackie Presser, set the tone by openly battling with friend and foe alike since signing the consent agreement with the government to allow court overseers. He caused three of the litigants to lose union posts and encouraged union charges against the fourth.

The civil suit against Mr. McCarthy (who is retiring for health reasons) came just as the union's court-appointed administrator charged that the Teamsters president had abused his office by giving his son-in-law the union's $3.5 million annual printing business. Noting that the relative did not even own printing equipment, administrator Frederick B. Lacey said it reflected "the pervasive nepotism . . . to be found at every level of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters."

The federal crackdown on the Teamsters has led to court investigator scrutiny of 60 officials for underworld ties or for financial misconduct, resulting in the ouster of more than half of them from union office.

"I think the atmosphere is changing in this union," said Susan Jennick, executive director of the nonprofit Association for Union Democracy. "Government supervision is working; it's opening up the union." The executive council is disunited and openly critical of each other, she noted. "Having all these officials jockey for positions of power like this just shows that they all have their own political interests at stake."

Charging that three decades of deep-rooted Teamsters corruption was "a great American scandal," the government set in motion a wave of change in 1988 when it brought a civil racketeering lawsuit to establish a trusteeship over the national union. The Teamsters leadership "made a devil's pact" with organized crime and systematically deprived members of their democratic rights and fair contracts, the Justice Department claimed.

The March 1989 consent agreement stopped short of trusteeship. It created court oversight of union activities, investigation of crime and corruption by officials, and set up the first direct national elections in the union's 87-year history.

Traditionally, the Teamsters union's top officers were elected by open vote at a convention, the delegates mostly hand-picked by the incumbents in a self-perpetuating ritual that ensured only token opposition or the risk of retaliation.

Incumbency was aggressively defended, even by violence, according to the government, and the financial rewards were unequaled among U.S. labor unions. More than 150 Teamsters officials earned more than $100,000 in 1989, many of them holding multiple well-paid union positions. Harold Friedman, a former vice president convicted of embezzlement and racketeering, headed the list with $1.3 million from various Teamsters and Bakers unions posts.

The lavish lifestyle of Teamsters bosses is highlighted by the fleet of executive jetliners and the French chef serving headquarters staff. The Teamsters' political action committee, funded by payroll deductions, is the richest PAC in the United States.

Rank-and-file apathy about these excesses of union leaders has been a hallmark of the Teamsters since the 1950s, when Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa -- the first of its national leaders to go to jail -- ruled the roost. But the advent of trucking deregulation over the past decade, the financial problems of union carriers, the resulting layoffs and cut-rate contracts -- these all undercut the economic comfort and job security that Teamsters members had counted on.

The union lost a third of its members in the past decade. Union leaders appeared intent on avoiding strikes and maintaining labor peace, rather than fighting for better contracts or pressing worker grievances. That concessionary attitude of leadership has been the main source of the grass-roots unrest.

And when the Teamsters officialdom signed national contracts three years ago with the largest interstate trucking firms and with United Parcel Service, despite their rejection by a majority of members voting, it provoked an unmistakable backlash. It wasn't the excesses, the corruption, the taint of mobsters that finally fanned the rebellion, but the growing economic discontent with contracts and the union's institutional indifference.

Faced with threat of government takeover and member lawsuits challenging its power, the Teamsters executive board backed down and agreed that a majority vote would prevail on national contracts.

In the vote on the UPS contract last year, the turnout was larger than ever, and 55 percent voted for the agreement -- against the recommendation of Mr. McCarthy, who had earlier threatened a nationwide strike.

But the anti-establishment forces could not draw encouragement from the result, either. Ron Carey, a New York local president running a grass-roots reform campaign and so far the only officially certified candidate for union president, had also called for rejecting the contract. So did the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the longtime reform group that is backing Mr. Carey. Given a secret ballot and an open choice, Teamsters showed they were independent voters.

As the national Master Freight Agreement covering interstate trucking lines expires this month, union leaders will also face political consequences from a restive membership. If the union sets its sights too high, more jobs will be lost in the crippled industry; if the union doesn't bargain hard enough to please members, they could vote down an agreement and vent their wrath in the union election. (Angry Teamsters truckers voted 63 percent against the current pact, to no avail.)

R. V. Durham, the chief contract negotiator, is the hand-picked presidential candidate of the establishment and the front-runner. recent executive board appointee, he has avoided the taint of the traditional leadership while gaining its confidence. He and at least four other announced presidential candidates will vie for delegates to the nominating convention this June; 5 percent of the delegates wins a spot on the December ballot. Running with incumbent secretary-treasurer Weldon Mathis, Mr. Durham's slate is stressing the danger to the union of inexperienced leaders and warning against abrupt change.

"There is a question how many rank and file are going to vote at all and would care sufficiently so that they would be willing to accept the risks that go with change," observed economist Estelle James, author of "Hoffa and the Teamsters, a Study in Union Power." Local union officials, many of whom repudiated the sins of top leaders, are similarly worried about the destabilizing effects of newcomer candidates. They recognize that a national upheaval could provoke local member reaction that could jeopardize their own positions.

The abrasive Mr. McCarthy, however, has done much to undermine the attraction of continuity at the top, splitting the national leadership. Under his tenure, the national union has spent an estimated $12 million in dues to thwart the government consent agreement he signed. That has provoked the court to tighten controls on the union; federal poll-watchers are supervising Teamsters locals elections of delegates, not just the national balloting to be held at 1,500 polling sites in December.

The government has meantime been actively weeding out corruption in Teamsters locals, forcing trusteeships on two locals and pressing democratic reforms. The Labor Department required a rerun at a Baltimore local last year. The feds forced a new election in the Atlanta local controlled for 30 years by Mr. Mathis, citing massive voting violations; his son lost the presidency as reformers swept the rerun.

But the battle to clean house and democratize at the national level will be much more difficult, even under government supervision. Inculcating a democratic vision among the rank-and-file is a formidable task. "The problem is that a lot of members don't know about or care about it," TDU director Ken Paff says of the election rules. "Most members are only sort of vaguely aware of it."

Direct elections of national officers of U.S. labor unions are rare: among major unions, the Steelworkers and the Mine Workers are the exceptions. The Teamsters' experience could bring about a call for change in other unions, challenging the complacency of incumbent leaders.

Cleaning up the Teamsters image would also help organized labor as a whole. The AFL-CIO, which opposed government interference in the Teamsters union and snubbed any reform challengers, is certainly hoping for a swift public rehabilitation of its largest affiliate. Public perceptions of organized labor would also improve if the Teamsters union proves itself, says labor scholar Stanley Aronowitz of the City University of New York: "If it can truly democratize, it could go a long way toward revitalizing the labor movement in this country."

Michael Burns covers labor for The Sun.

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