The fight to save the Teamsters union

Why upper and lower strata Teamsters need an alliance

Mark Johnson


Eight years ago the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) was the most powerful union in the country. Today, as it prepares for its 23rd International Convention in Las Vegas May 19, the 1.6 million-member IBT is in trouble.

Membership has fallen 20% since 1979. The National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA), which for years brought a decent living standard to 400,000 truck drivers and dock workers, is disintegrating under a capitalist attack.

Over 100,000 Teamsters covered by the agreement have lost their jobs as non-union operations, encouraged by federal deregulation of the trucking industry, continue to multiply. Frozen food workers have had their wages cut from $7.06 an hour to as little as $4.35.

Over half the 100,000 workers at United Parcel Service, where the IBT pioneered the “two-tier wage” in 1982, now make $5 per hour less than their co-workers.

Top IBT leadership has met the crisis by moving to the right. IBT President Jackie Presser, who faces a likely federal indictment for embezzling union funds, has all but given up trying to defend the union in the freight industry. Instead of organizing nonunion truckers, he is trying to recover membership by “get-rich-quick” schemes like raiding other unions.

Teamsters desperately need to turn their union around. But to do so will require uniting traditionally well-paid, overwhelmingly white workers in freight and other “basic jurisdictions” (truckers, grocery, warehouse workers, etc.) with thousands of lower stratum workers, many of them minorities, who by now make up the bulk of the Teamsters’ membership.

A “two-tier” union

For years,.Teamsters’ leaders maintained their power by keeping these two groups apart, trying to cater to the higher paid workers while ruthlessly exploiting the rest. My own experience in a California cannery local is a vivid example of how the process works.

My local, like most cannery locals, had the majority of its members in seasonal jobs, working three to five months out of the year, while 10-30% worked in year-round warehouse and maintenance jobs. Seasonal workers were overwhelmingly Mexicana and Chicana women. Off-season elections and English-only union meetings were used to rob them of any voice in the local. Employers gave relatively good contracts to the smaller number of year-round workers, helping the union to buy their loyalty, in return for the union keeping the seasonal in line.

The International operates in a similar manner. For years IBT members in the basic jurisdictions were given better treatment on a national level, while members in other areas such as manufacturing, food processing and clerical mainly served as sources of dues. Most lower stratum Teamsters either belong to enormous, top-down locals whose members have no power whatsoever, or are thrown into locals dominated by higher paid workers.

Hard times

But now, despite the traditional Teamsters’ power centers coming under attack, the union is taking few steps to defend them. This is similar to the outrageous neglect the leadership has shown towards the lower stratum Teamsters, who have been under the gun for years.

Virtually every major union trucking company has set up non-union divisions, transferring business to these divisions and making tremendous profits. Presser believes that federal deregulation of the trucking industry has made union standards impossible to defend there. Therefore, little Teamsters’ organizing money is being put into organizing these non-union shops. For lower stratum workers, two-tier contracts are becoming rampant, along with wage

cuts, speedups and virtual elimination of work rules. In addition, traditionally organized lower stratum sectors like the canneries are being allowed to dwindle without a fight from the union.

The Cannery Master Agreement, which only seven years ago covered 65,000 California workers, is now under 20,000.

Winds of change

Among the traditionally well-paid sectors of the Teamsters there is a growing anger as a lifetime investment in seniority, skills and pension benefits slips from their grasp. Their anger is reflected in the increased influence of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the 9,000-strong progressive rank and file group drawn mainly from the IBT’s basic industries.

At the same time, there is a growing upsurge among lower stratum Teamsters, perhaps most visible in the western canneries, where such battles as the Watsonville cannery workers’ strike represent a fast-rising movement for empowerment among Latino Teamsters. But it can also be seen in bottling plants, the produce departments of grocery warehouses, and the giant, heavily minority locals in cities like Los Angeles and New York.

This upsurge comes not just from the union’s failures or the companies’ hardball tactics. It is related to the growing movements among Black, Latino, women and other lower stratum workers in this country for more control over their lives.

These two motions have spawned a third: as progressive new local officials are elected, others who had been cynical or intimidated for years draw new courage from the growing mass movements. Presser’s re-election bid will be challenged at the convention by the head of Local 407 in Cleveland, Sam Theodus, who knows he won’t win but will be using his candidacy to promote direct election of International officers. Throughout the West and Southwest the upsurge among Chicano and Mexicano workers has produced an ever growing number of progressive Latino officials as well. And in a decisive victory, TDU National Co-chair Linda Gregg was recently elected to head the largest Teamsters’ local in the Rocky Mountain region.

Taken together, these trends represent perhaps a greater opportunity for change in the IBT in the next few years than has been seen in decades. However, this can only be achieved if the IBT’s more privileged sectors support lower stratum Teamsters’ demands for power in the union and an end to substandard contracts and unequal treatment.

Already, many freight locals in the West have rallied behind the Watsonville strike. One newspaper drivers’ local, with a membership of approximately 700, collected over $1,500 in donations. TDU will be pushing at the convention to end IBT rules that virtually bar seasonal workers from union office. These are important first steps, but much more is needed. An alliance based on equality and mutual respect won’t be quickly or easily built — but it is both possible and necessary if the union is to regain its strength.