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This Day in Labor History: June 5, 1976

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On June 5, 1976, Teamsters for a Democratic Unionism, the internal democratic union revolt inside the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was founded. One of the most significant organizations in the democratic union movements of the 1970s, it was also one of the most long-lasting and is still around today, controlling the Rhode Island local among others.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one of the most complex and misunderstood organizations, not only in labor, but in the entire country. They became synonymous for union corruption after World War II, personified in Jimmy Hoffa. And that reputation was earned. But the internal running of the Teamsters was (and still is to some extent) incredibly byzantine. Hoffa’s power was weak compared to many other unions. The regional councils held much power. The corruption was at the top, but it wasn’t only at the top. Even had Hoffa wanted to purge the union of its corrupt elements, he didn’t have the power. It also went back to before Hoffa, with Dave Beck, the Seattle Teamster leader who rode a good relationship with George Meany and an excellent sense of backroom politics into the Teamsters’ presidency. Arguably, it even went back to the early twentieth century. With so many corruption scandals, the McClellan Commission’s investigations finally forced Beck to retire and Hoffa took over. All of this led the AFL-CIO to expel the Teamsters from the federation in 1957 after Hoffa refused to resign as president.

The late 1960s saw a rise in internal union revolts. By this time, union leaders, flush with funds after winning good union contracts for two decades, had largely given up on the rabble-rousing and organizing of their youth. They were all too often happy with servicing the members they had, making large salaries, and playing insider roles in Democratic (and sometimes Republican) politics. This was OK so long as the workers were happy. But the young workers of the Vietnam generation were not happy with the jobs their fathers had. They were angry about the drudgery of assembly line work. And they were angry with the fact that their own unions seemed like just another boss telling them what to do. Given the close relationships so many unions had with management by this time, a new generation of workers, deeply influenced by the social tumult of the time, held their union leadership in contempt. The revolt started with the mine workers in the aftermath of the Farmington Mine disaster of 1968, when United Mine Workers of America president Tony Boyle responded at the workers’ funeral that there wasn’t anything the union could do. This led to the Black Lung Associations, grassroots organizations lobbying for state and then federal coal mine safety legislation and then Miners for Democracy, a direct challenge to Boyle’s leadership. When Jock Yablonski ran for UMWA president, Boyle fixed the election and had Yablonski assassinated. The federal investigation threw Boyle in prison and put MFD in power.

The rank and file rebellion began spilling into other unions. Sometimes, it was a spontaneous angry action of youthful workers, such as at Lordstown. Sometimes it was a political insurgency within a union, such as Ed Sadlowski’s challenge to the Steelworkers’ leadership. It was the latter that Teamsters for a Democratic Union represented. The connection between organized crime and Hoffa and the regional Teamsters’ leaders led to a lot of anger over dues money being used for nothing that would help workers, all while sweetheart deals helped the casinos. The roots of TDU began with a 1970 wildcat strike among long-haul truckers. This started putting local activists in touch with each other. In 1975, a few truckers held a secret meeting in Chicago to demand a fight for a good contract. Calling themselves Teamsters for a Decent Contract, they began to spread flyers and information about the need to organize a new group within the Teamsters to challenge leadership. This became Teamsters for a Democratic Union. It merged with other reformist organizations within the Teamsters, such as the Professional Drivers Council, which was a group of truckers working with Ralph Nader over trucking safety.

Internal union politics made TDU ineffective for more than a decade. It occasionally won a victory, but these small wins were easily isolated by the mainline union. In 1983, TDU had its first victory when it forced the union’s president, Jackie Presser to change the national master freight agreement that had originally given many concessions to the trucking companies. The door really opened with a late 80s RICO suit against the Teamsters after another era of corruption and in order to end it, leadership had to agree to a consent decree that significantly democratized the union.

TDU’s great success turned into disaster fairly quickly. It won a huge victory when it elected Ron Carey to the Teamsters’ presidency in 1991, followed by his reelection in 1996. The 1991 election was the first direct election in IBT history. Carey himself was not a TDU member but he won with its support. And he had some success, most notably the United Parcel Service strike. Carey moved the Teamsters toward solid support of the Democrats, a change for an organization with long ties to leading Republicans. But Carey also engaged in his own questionable actons. It turned out he had a donation kickback scheme to fund his reelection campaign that brought him a mere $700,000. Federal investigators busted this in 1997. Some of his supporters, particularly on the left who always projected more heroism on the TDU than was really deserved, claimed the capitalist class decided to get rid of Carey because of his success in the UPS strike. I guess that is one way to spin it. Carey claimed he knew nothing; it’s hard to really say. In any case, he was barred from holding the presidency and James Hoffa, Jr., took over, a major defeat for the TDU. Hoffa remains IBT president today. Carey was acquitted of all charges and died in 2008.

TDU still exists today, largely as a faction within the mainline Teamsters. I know people on both sides of the Teamsters divide and they basically hate each other, but for neither side is it 1965 anymore. From what I can tell, there are lots of people doing great work on both sides of this divide.

This is the 226th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Alan Tomlinson

    I really enjoy postings about labor history. I think that in regard to the history of the Teamsters in the 1980s and beyond, the effect of the deregulation of the trucking industry is a rather important factor in their waning power.

    Cheers,

    Alan Tomlinson
    (former member Local 287, I.B.T.C.W.& H.)

    • ChrisS

      I like them as well. They’re interesting reading, but I rarely comment because I don’t have much to contribute.

      My dad was a NY Teamster during my childhood in the 70s/80s. I remember when I was involved in some young teenage tomfoolery (it involved a local elementary school, afterhours, and lasertag), my teamster attorney gave the most important lesson ever regarding interactions with the police: don’t ever say a damn thing until I get there.

  • Derelict

    I worked a union job in the late ’70s. The IBEW was focused almost entirely on the welfare of senior members, to the point of screwing youngsters like myself. While I resented the fact that my union would not lift a finger to defend me or anyone else below a certain level of seniority, I was also quite grateful that the contract we worked under paid us incredibly well.

    • Davis X. Machina

      Seems to be an ancient problem.

      I was just reading in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class about the tension between journeymen and apprentices onn the one hand, and masters in the craft guilds, and in the skilled trades without formal guilds on the other.

      The masters were often sole proprietors of small businesses instead of ‘workers’ sensu stricto.

      Are many electricians, plumbers, carpenters still working that way, or are they mostly working for bigger firms.

      • Murc

        I was just reading in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class about the tension between journeymen and apprentices onn the one hand, and masters in the craft guilds, and in the skilled trades without formal guilds on the other.

        Steven Attewell just recently had something of a discussion of that very thing over on his own tumblr and blogs.

        One of the takeaways from that is that something that led to the breakdown of that system was the rank exploitation of the journeymen and apprentices by the masters. Masters would take in way more apprentices than could ever become masters themselves (because who got made a master and how many masters there were was determined… by the masters!) and collect a hefty apprentice fee for them. Then the apprentices became a source of cheap labor for the course of their apprenticeship, because they were learning a trade. Then they’d “graduate” and become journeymen… only to discover there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities out there for them.

        If “people paying an entrenched gatekeeping class a lot of money for training, and a credential, that they think is the ticket to a better life for their offspring, which the people accepting said money know full well is only achievable for a handful of them with the rest being kept deliberately impoverished so as not to threaten existing stakeholders” sounds awfully familiar to you… well, it should.

        To quote Steven himself:

        “The growing number of journeymen who would never become masters was one of the major factors leading to the breakdown of the guild system as journeymen began to view their interests as separate from and opposed to the masters.

        Eventually, the journeymen formed their own organizations – the first trade unions – and the masters eventually repudiated their guild responsibilities in favor of embracing a new identity as capitalists.”

        • CP

          One of the takeaways from that is that something that led to the breakdown of that system was the rank exploitation of the journeymen and apprentices by the masters. Masters would take in way more apprentices than could ever become masters themselves (because who got made a master and how many masters there were was determined… by the masters!) and collect a hefty apprentice fee for them. Then the apprentices became a source of cheap labor for the course of their apprenticeship, because they were learning a trade. Then they’d “graduate” and become journeymen… only to discover there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities out there for them.

          Sounds like unpaid internships.

          • Brett

            Almost. They got room and board, but didn’t get paid anything as apprentices.

      • sigaba

        Are many electricians, plumbers, carpenters still working that way, or are they mostly working for bigger firms.

        It can be more complicated than that. In my line of work most of the membership are freelancers who work for supervisors/crew chiefs/department heads, supervisors all belong to the same union and local as the freelancers. These supervisors are often proprietors themselves, and thus bid for shows, do the budgets and have an incentive to work adverse to their employees. Supervisors and managers who belong to larger corporate orgs generally don’t do their own budgets or the bids, so are sometimes at a remove from this, but they’ll often be hired by a VP who is, himself, a union member in good standing, along with his entire administrative staff, who all belong to the same union as the line workers.

        People in the supervisory/crew chief position often will derive a big chunk of their income from sources outside the union agreement: they rent equipment to the producers, or bill them for anciliary services, or they just markup what they’re paying their employees. Supervisors at larger firms get production, a cut of the billings on their projects.

        Natch, supervisors and studio production VPs are generally the best off financially, have the broadest reputations, will end up on the governing board of the union, and can often count on large blocks of votes from their employees. The final result is that the union is run to the final benefit of middle-management.

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    I was a member of a Teamsters local back in the mid 1970s, San Francisco taxi drivers union. The job and and the company sucked: big yellow cabs with bad suspensions, weak power, bad brakes etc. We used to refer to them as banana boats. I remember three French tourists in the back seat freaking out one day when the cab could not make it up one of SF’s many hills so I had to back down against traffic and try another route.

    The Teamster local sucked every bit as badly. My main memory of it is showing up for work one afternoon around 2:00 p.m. and finding the cab lot entrance/exit blocked by a couple of Caddys. Two goons (officials or employees of the local) standing by one telling us no one was working today. People asked why, they told us “union decision” and that we didn’t need to know anymore. One driver persisted with question and came very close to getting a major beat down. 45 minutes later two local officials come out from the company office, tell everybody “go back to work,” tell us in a menacing way to shut up with the questions, get in the Caddys with the two goons and drive away.

    • busker type

      My mother in law briefly worked for the Teamsters in S.F. in the same period and had a similarly shitty impression of them.

  • diogenes

    Former grievance chair and lodge veep for the IAMAW here. We organized just prior to the Chapter 11 BK virus sweeping through the airlines.

    The idea of a union is awesome, and we need unions more than ever in my five decades of work. But not as currently constituted. Unions need to be restructured to be more responsive to the membership, which was one of the aims of TDU (if our organizing vote had gone a bit differently, we would have been Teamsters). It is nigh impossible to unseat incumbents, as they have policies and procedures to stay in office that the old Politburo would admire.

    Just as we are seeing pushback in the Republican and Democratic parties against the status quo (and a reactionary status quo), there is a needed pushback in unions, much for the same reasons.

  • dogboy

    Vaguely related but interesting nonetheless, there’s a low-income housing tower in Akron named after Jackie Presser’s dad William:
    https://goo.gl/maps/yKEPyv8oYX92

    PRESSER, WlLLlAM E. (14 July 1907-18 July 1981)
    https://case.edu/ech/articles/p/presser-wllllam-e/

  • Captain Goto

    In re the complex feelings held in my family towards unions in general, and the Teamsters in particular…for the first five years of my life, my dad worked in distribution for the Hearst newspaper in Pittsburgh. He had at one time or another made disparaging remarks about the local union leadership, let by a Hoffa acolyte named Ted Cozza.
    The paper went under, and my dad and a number of others got left out in the cold, while some number of other members got jobs with the two remaining papers in town (they were working under a JOA). From then on my dad nursed a fairly seething hatred towards Cozza and the Teamsters in particular, and unions in general, while at the same time constantly kicking himself for not having kept his mouth shut to (ostensibly) keep his position.
    Time passed. After my junior year in college, I had tried to get a summer gig at Westinghouse, but that apparently fell through. By that time my dad had partnered with an old buddy who ran a small retail drug chain, and by the nature of that position had developed some small amount of clout. He called in a favor and got me an interview for a job taking tolls on the PA Turnpike…where the toll-takers were Teamsters.
    But then, between the interview and my first day of work, Westinghouse called me back and offered me the gig, which as an undergrad engineer I REALLY wanted–but I had to turn down, as my dad was legitimately afraid of pissing off the wrong people.
    So…I wound up taking tolls for the summer, which didn’t get me any engineering experience, but was a fairly sweet gig. And everyone I worked with was nice to me. It gave me a few things to think about.

  • Do either faction in the Teamsters have the slightest idea what to do about the impending Hokusai wave about to destroy the job of long-distance trucker? Self-driving will come to trucks before cars, because the savings to truck owners are enormous. You can run a robot truck 24 hours a day, with no stops other than refuelling (diesel or electric). I dare say that local delivery will keep drivers because of the constant loading and unloading. For a while.

    • Murc

      Do either faction in the Teamsters have the slightest idea what to do about the impending Hokusai wave about to destroy the job of long-distance trucker?

      Nobody does.

      Well, okay. That’s not true. But the only options seem to be “ban the technology” or “cut everyone put out of work a huge check,” and neither of those seem to be politically viable.

      Maybe people could be given make-work jobs if that’s politically viable? My grandfather used to tell me about when he was coming up in the railroads there were guys working as “brakemen” and “switchmen” on trains that no longer required those services in any form, because the technology had changed when those guys were forty or so. So their union negotiated a thing where they’d basically be kept in their official roles with seniority, pay raises, etc. but essentially used as general roustabouts to the extent they were used at all, because throwing middle-aged people with no other skill and families to support out of their trades because the technology had changed seemed monstrous.

      • Linnaeus

        because throwing middle-aged people with no other skill and families to support out of their trades because the technology had changed seemed monstrous.

        Sadly, too many people in American are just fine with this.

    • Brett

      Depending on how cheap it is to refit rigs, it could be a boon for independent truckers (since it makes the job much less onerous).

      But assuming it’s a total loss when it comes to truck driving jobs, then it just depends on how quickly it happens. If it’s a few thousand or tens of thousands of jobs a year, then it’s low enough that there might be few lay-offs versus simply not replacing drivers once they retire (especially if you offer early retirement or buyouts).

      I dare say that local delivery will keep drivers because of the constant loading and unloading. For a while.

      For a long while, unless they shift over entirely to having the recipient companies unload everything.

  • diskos

    This is, like all the others in this series, a great post, Eric. And particularly relevant as the IBT recently wrapped up their national election, the first one I got to vote in. To a steward in Utah, TDU vs. the more traditional Teamsters is a much-removed struggle. I didn’t even know who Fred Zuckerman was until a little before the 2016 IBT election.

    And the statement about people standing opposite this divide who “basically hate each other” seems to be a polite understatement. I’d like to think that the results of the other 2016 election, which some of you may have heard a bit more about, refocuses folks’ passion in a more constructive way.

    Again, great read.

  • Brett

    I have a positive view of the Teamsters Local that my father was part of. The only complaint he really had was that some of the older guys had completely stopped giving a shit and were just killing time until they got enough years in to retire, so the work got dumped on everyone else and they all took shit for it if they fell behind.

  • Bruce Vail

    Teamster history is rich, complex and fascinating. In 2007, I was hired as a reporter by ‘Daily Labor Report’ and given the assignment to cover major collective bargaining developments at the union. Having no knowledge of the Teamsters t that time, the first thing I did was to immerse myself in the historical literature of the union.

    Under normal circumstances I would have a long list of comments on this post by Erik. Instead, I’ll just note that corruption as a very serious problem in the union pre-dates the emergence of Jimmy Hoffa.

    The union’s first president, Cornelius Shea, was immersed in scandal even before the formation of the union in 1903. His behaviour was so blatant and unacceptable that he was voted out by other union leaders of 1907. But the pattern of high-level corruption and maladministration had been set. It has been a struggle for the rank and file ever since.

    The real father of the Teamsters, by the way, is Franklin Roosevelt. Shea’s successor as Teamster president, Daniel Tobin, allied himself with FDR early, and it was FDR’s National Recovery Act that allowed the union to grow and thrive. Without the NRA, the Teamsters today would be no more than a greasy wing of the Chicago Syndicate.

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