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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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