Home / General / This Day in Labor History: January 15, 1964

This Day in Labor History: January 15, 1964

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On January 15, 1964, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters signed the National Master Freight Agreement, creating a standard for conditions of its workers around the country. This was the peak of Teamsters power in the United States, though it did not last for long.

Unions generally want regularity among their workers. While some who would call for more strikes and tend to eschew the contract as the way to transform workers lives might disagree, calling for constant struggle to liberate workers from capital or whatnot, the large majority of unions want to have all or most of their workers on a similar contract that sets a groundwork that other companies have to reach. You see this with the United Auto Workers, who for decades have targeted one of the Big Three to fight, negoitated a contract with it, and then the other two more or less follow along. The 2023 auto strike was different in that the UAW struck all three of the companies at once, but the contracts ratified by the workers for each company were similar, In short, it makes the lives of the union leaders a lot easier if everyone is on the same page.

But for trucking, this is much harder. Like coal or timber or apparel, trucking is an industry with light capital investment. No one is having to build a factory to manufacture cars here. There are many companies and they all compete with one another for contracts. This makes the need for a universal standard all the more important. Sometimes companies have seen it this way too, not at all minding a conservative minded union that would set standards and help to eliminate the unhealthy competition between companies that hurts everyone.

Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa most certainly had his issues and there’s no reason to downplay them. The Teamsters had a long history of corruption. I mean, allowing the mafia to raid your pension fund to build Vegas was juuuuuust slightly problematic. But Hoffa did legitimately believe in improving the lives of his workforce. It’s notable that Hoffa himself lived a very modest lifestyle. Hoffa wanted to build Teamsters power (whether that’s worker power or organizational power or both is something we can debate) and saw bringing everyone under a national contract as the best way to do this. Getting the drivers under a single national agreement was the singular goal of Hoffa.

When Hoffa signed the National Master Freight Agreement, it brought 450,000 workers under a standardized contract. Over the three year and two month contract (not sure why it was 38 months instead of just three years), companies agreed to increase compensation by a total of $400 million. This included pay raises each year of 28 cents an hour, plus an increase of $5 a week per worker into benefit funds. It also covered 16,000 different companies. That’s remarkable. This also created the second most workers in any industry under a single contract, only behind the United Steelworkers of America’s master agreement with far, far fewer employers.

The NMFA also did what many hoped it would–reduce the number of companies and create consolidation and mergers that made more sense in a gigantic national economy than the fractured tiny companies that looked more like a 19th century economy than the largest economy in the world. It created seniority rights across companies, paid vacations, guaranteed pensions, good wages.

Now, there were many workers not covered by the NMFA. At the time, the Teamsters had about 1.5 million members, doing all sorts of things. This was the height of Teamsters power. It would never get stronger than it was at this time. Hoffa wanted to bring more workers under master agreements. But his legal problems became pretty overwhelming. When he ended up going to prison and giving up power in the union to Frank Fitzsimmons, the connections between the mob and the union leadership grew even more and the commitment of men such as Fitzsimmons to expanding worker power simply didn’t exist.

In fact, in the last interview Hoffa ever gave, in 1975 after he had served his time in prison and was fighting to return to the top of the organization, leading the Mafia to kill him, he stated that current Teamsters leadership was a lot more interested in flying to fancy resorts than bringing workers under national contracts. By 1976, the number of unionized truck drivers had fallen to 280,000, a 44 percent decrease in a single decade. This was at a time when the total number of truckers in the American economy had actually increased. But the union leadership had gotten lazy and more concerned with lining their own pockets than organizing workers. Yes, those still in the union were continuing to get contracts that increased their wages and benefits, but it affected fewer workers every year.

A 1977 U.S. News and World Report article, which really was a right-wing rag, suggested the Teamsters brought this upon themselves through the NFMA, but the evidence suggests this is in fact not true, as the independent truckers contracting with the companies were getting great deals too that were effectively set by the union, even if the companies and workers weren’t union. That’s of course common–non-union companies routinely match union wages to keep out the union. In fact, whereas in 1960, employed truckers made 14 percent more money than self-employed truckers, by 1970, the self-employed truckers actually made 8 percent more than the employed truckers under the contract. So that’s just a huge failure by union leadership.

When the NFMA reached its 50th anniversary in 2014, reform elements in the Teamsters bemoaned what happened. Teamsters for a Democratic Union, although opposed to Hoffa Sr really blamed Hoffa Jr for its decline, noting that this really was the peak of union power and it was now a joke. In fact, by that time workers were voting down contracts negotiated by their union leaders with the successor companies of the original agreement for being terrible.

Here’s an interesting long essay on the original NFMA for those interested in going into a very deep dive on the topic. I also borrowed from Shane Hamilton’s excellent Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy.

This is the 508th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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