Changing to win?

Jun 7, 2006 at 12:00 am

Chances are you haven't heard of Silver Capital, a small, now-defunct Chicago-based company that used to manufacture mirrors, frames and glass-cutting boards.

Silver Capital's workers were mostly Mexican immigrants, working for substandard wages and zero benefits — no health care, no pensions, no sick days. They suffered severe injuries (fingers chopped off, limbs gouged) and rarely saw a dime of compensation.

If only they had a union, right? Actually, Silver Capital workers did have a union. They were members of Teamsters Local 743, a 13,000-member local representing workers throughout Chicago. "The union never helped anybody," says Marcela Garcia, who worked at Silver Capital for 17 years. "You'd go to them with a problem, they'd say, 'It's not my problem. Talk to the company.'" So when Silver Capital announced in September 2004 it was closing down for good — and offered employees like Garcia little to no severance — workers took matters into their own hands. They struck: a one-day walkout without union approval. Union leaders responded quickly and decisively. Local 743 Vice President José Galvan (who did not respond to calls for comment) went straight to the picket lines — where he told the workers that if they didn't get back to work pronto, he'd call immigration.

Welcome to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), a 1.4-million-member behemoth of a union led by the man with the biggest name in labor: James P. Hoffa. While Hoffa's grip on the union remains strong, he is facing an election challenge at the IBT convention in June from reformer Tom Leedham, principal officer of Local 206 in Portland, Ore. The contest is one that ought to command the attention of the broader progressive community, since a healthy Teamsters union is key to a revived labor movement.

On paper the IBT is a force to be reckoned with; every day, hundreds of thousands of Teamsters load, ship and unload the goods that keep America's corporate powers fully stocked and in the black. With members handling cargo at critical points throughout the U.S. economy's supply chain, the IBT has enormous potential power.

And though Hoffa, IBT secretary-treasurer Tom Keegel and four IBT international vice presidents refused to comment for this article, they have not been shy about trumpeting their commitment to building labor power, organizing new members and restoring "Teamster pride." Hoffa was a major player in the drama last summer when the AFL-CIO split and the IBT defected to labor's new Change to Win Federation.

So why are Local 743 officials — lauded by Hoffa for their "proven and experienced leadership" — intimidating immigrants and cutting deals with management at a little mirror-making company like Silver Capital? The short answer is, Teamster leaders often have a complicated agenda. Or, as Leedham argues, "There's a big disconnect between the PR coming from Hoffa and the reality of what's going on in our union."

Thinking big

Greg Tarpinian, executive director of Change to Win, says that the IBT isn't just talking about organizing: "At Cintas, the biggest laundry company in the world, the Teamsters have a campaign with UNITE HERE [the hotel, restaurant and garment workers union]. The Teamsters are working with SEIU [the service employees union] on organizing school bus workers across the country. The Teamsters are as active as any of [Change to Win's] affiliates."

Tarpinian, who's been an adviser to Hoffa, the heads of other Change to Win unions and New York Governor George Pataki, adds, "We're focused on growth. We realize that without rapid remedial action, we won't have the critical mass necessary to reverse course. ... As far as restructuring the Teamsters for growth, Hoffa's done more than any Teamsters president."

The problem, says Leedham, is that the Teamsters aren't growing. "It's all been rhetoric and press releases. Check with the National Labor Relations Board. Hoffa hasn't been winning anything."

The Teamsters have indeed been losing members on Hoffa's watch, though they've kept their membership numbers level at 1.4 million since 2001 by absorbing smaller unions in the railroad and printing industries. (The AFL-CIO grew slightly, from 13.2 million to 13.6 million, in the same span of time.) According to the NLRB, the IBT, which won more than 400 private-sector organizing drives in 1998, won only 248 in 2004. And according to the union's own reports to the Labor Department, the Teamsters have lost about 150,000 members since Hoffa's 2001 re-election.

Given that a key tenet of the Change to Win program is building power by organizing in "core industries," the IBT's lackluster organizing record in trucking is especially worrisome.

As manufacturing jobs continue to be outsourced and offshored, truck drivers — who move auto parts from manufacturers to suppliers, groceries from warehouses to retail outlets — have more and more potential to disrupt the global chain of goods and services. Industry expert Michael Belzer, an associate professor at Wayne State University, calls trucking "the glue that sticks the economy together."

Edna Bonacich, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who specializes in supply-chain issues, says that companies like Wal-Mart — which depend on the timely delivery of goods from offshore manufacturers — rely heavily on truckers. "There's a vulnerability there," she says. "If any group in this supply chain were to go on strike, it would cost [the companies] millions. A coordinated strike could cost them billions."

Unfortunately, while coordinated supply-chain disruption may be labor's greatest source of leverage in the global economy, Bonacich believes that "organized labor has not risen to the occasion." In trucking, while corporations have focused their resources on gaining control over the supply chain, Teamsters leaders have elected not to focus at all. "We have from A to Z in our union, airline pilots to zookeepers," Hoffa told The Nation in August 2005. "We will always be a general union."

Indeed, Hoffa's organizing approach has become increasingly scattershot, with some of the IBT's biggest organizing victories coming in health care and the public sector. In recent years, says Belzer, "There's been so little activity in trucking organizing that there isn't anything to write about."

Centralize to win?

In the Teamsters, says Sandy Pope, president of IBT Local 805 in New York, the Change to Win approach seems to have less to do with organizing core industries than with "a push to centralize the union, taking power away from the local level."

Both Pope (who's running for vice president on Leedham's slate) and Tarpinian note that the IBT has a long tradition of local union autonomy, and that this tradition doesn't fit neatly with Change to Win's focus on centralized strategic planning. UNITE HERE General President Bruce Raynor — one of Change to Win's architects — says this can be a weakness when it comes to national campaigns. "Local autonomy has to give way to centralized, national leadership," says Raynor, "when you're going up against a centralized national corporation."

Leedham agrees with Raynor that "we need national coordination to beat national employers." But, he argues, "strong campaigns are built from the bottom up, by involving local leaders and mobilizing Teamster members." Leedham says that "the Hoffa administration's approach is to air-drop staffers from D.C. ... They bring cookie-cutter marching orders but don't offer any real resources."

Given Leedham's emphasis on the bottom-up approach, it's not surprising that his "Strong Contracts, Good Pensions" slate has been endorsed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the reform caucus that's been a consistent critic of the Hoffa administration. Tarpinian believes TDU is "not that relevant," noting that "Teamsters leadership is elected by the rank and file. It's a democratic organization." But formal democracy and functional democracy are not the same thing. Which brings us back to Chicago and Local 743.

As you can imagine, Silver Capital workers like Marcela Garcia were not happy when their union officers sided with management. All this happened during a union election year, when longtime 743 and TDU member Richard Berg was leading a campaign to unseat Local 743 President Bob Walston's administration (including José Galvan). Garcia decided to join Berg's "New Leadership" slate and run for vice president.

When the ballots were first counted in October 2004, the election was too close to call, but it looked like Berg would come out on top. So Local 743 officials stopped the count and ordered a new election.

"The rerun was a complete sham," says Berg. The New Leadership slate filed charges with the Teamsters' Chicago Joint Council 25 and the International, which responded with a deafening silence. They also filed charges with the Labor Department, which, shockingly, proved more responsive. On Aug. 12, 2005, the department sued Local 743 for election fraud. But the appeals process moves slowly, leaving New Leadership in limbo.

About that gorilla

"Corruption in the union," says Dan Scott, principal officer of IBT Local 174 in Seattle, "comes in a lot of shapes, sizes and forms." With the Teamsters, though, even after a decade of federal oversight, when people hear the word "corruption," they usually think about the mob. (It doesn't help that the search for Hoffa Sr.'s body — recently resumed at a Michigan horse farm — continues to get headlines from coast to coast.)

Scott, who's also running for vice president on Leedham's slate, says corruption remains "a very significant issue. It's important when we try to organize new workers. Management's union-busting materials often feature the history of the Teamsters and its ties to organized crime. People want to know they're joining a clean union."

Shortly after he became IBT president, Hoffa assembled a task force to investigate and eliminate Mafia influence in the IBT. Led by former U.S. Attorney Ed Stier, Project RISE began in 1999 with Hoffa's blessing. A couple of years in, however, Stier says, he began to experience "resistance and outright interference" from top-level Hoffa advisers. On April 29, 2004, Stier and the entire staff of Project RISE resigned in protest. The IBT remains under federal supervision, and Project RISE has yet to be replaced. According to Sandy Pope, there are still "remnants of the mob" in parts of the union, but the perception of corruption can be equally damaging. "People get mad that we've spent millions of dollars bringing people in to clean up the union — and what has it accomplished? For the membership's benefit, we need to figure out how to clean up our union ourselves."

Changing to win?

It's hard to imagine labor gaining a foothold in the age of Wal-Mart without a strong IBT. To many truckers, however, the union is a thing of the past. Today, says professor Bonacich, "the big, over-the-road trucks are mostly nonunion. The intermodal part of the industry [truckers who transport goods from one part of the supply chain to the next — from ports to warehouses, for example] has become nonunion."

The de-unionization of trucking has coincided with steady job growth. According to Wayne State's Belzer, there are more trucking jobs today than ever before. As employment has increased, says Belzer, working conditions have deteriorated. "Compensation overall has likely declined by about a third, and working conditions are very tough ... and drivers are not making enough per mile to make ends meet, so they just work more hours, drive more miles."

After six years of stagnation under Hoffa's leadership, it's not just the veteran reformers who are getting restless. Some of Hoffa's supporters from the union's powerful freight (trucking) division, including eastern region freight director Dan Virtue, have reportedly broken ranks and are looking to challenge Hoffa. IBT vice president Tom O'Donnell, who raised more than $100,000 for Hoffa's last campaign, has announced his opposition and may run for president — or ally with Leedham.

Divisions within the Teamsters may seem just another symbol of organized labor's continued fragmentation. But the most important split inside the movement remains the chasm between union leaders and the rank and file. Bridging that gap is the core of Leedham's vision for rebuilding the Teamsters.

"Workers want clean unions," says Leedham. "Workers need to know that the organizations they are a part of are democratic. In every area — organizing, winning the best contracts, political action — the more we can involve rank-and-file workers, the stronger the labor movement will be."

The upcoming IBT elections will have serious consequences within and beyond the union. A strong Teamsters union would be a powerful weapon in the fight for all working people. But the Teamsters need to clean up their own house before they can rebuild labor's.

William Johnson is co-editor of Labor Notes magazine. A version of this story originally appeared in The Nation. Send comments to [email protected]