The Fight to Save Our Union (TDU History 1998-)

UPS Strike Put Teamsters at Forefront of Labor Movement

After the UPS strike victory in 1997, the Teamsters stood at the forefront of the American labor movement. But there were tough times ahead. The coming years would see Ron Carey’s reform efforts as IBT President ended and the restoration of old-guard leadership at the IBT. Some people predicted TDU would not last.

But TDU stayed the course through difficult times and built the Teamster reform movement. TDU continued to help members organize for change in their local unions through shop floor mobilizing, bylaws campaigns, and officer elections.

TDU acted as the watchdog organization that members could trust to tell the truth, when all they got from the Hoffa administration was PR.

Today, TDU stands as the backbone of a growing movement that sees the urgent need to take action to save our union.

Rerun Election

Just weeks after the 1997 UPS strike victory, the IBT Election Officer ordered a rerun of the prior year’s Teamster election. The Election Officer found that outside consultants to the Ron Carey campaign had funneled $220,000 in union funds to the campaign and then pocketed some of the money themselves. No evidence was found that Carey knew of the scheme, and he was later found not guilty of any wrongdoing by a federal court.

In late 1997, Carey was disqualified from running for office. Hoffa was not disqualified, even though it was ruled that he had taken $167,000 in employer contributions and another $160,000 in union funds for his campaign.

The old guard, which had been silenced by the UPS strike victory, was re-energized.

At this crucial time, TDU worked to unite the reform forces within our union. Officials who had only hopped on the Carey bandwagon when he looked like the winner switched their support to Hoffa. Others held firm to their principles.

The reform movement united around the candidacy of Tom Leedham, principal officer of Oregon Local 206. The media predicted a landslide victory for Hoffa, who had name recognition and a huge campaign war chest. Despite these advantages, Hoffa won with just 54 percent of the vote. Where TDU was most active and strong, Leedham won, winning a majority of the vote in 19 states and 135 local unions.

Hoffa Takes Office

Hoffa made big promises to members when he ran for office. His slate was called the “Jim Hoffa No Corruption, No Dues Increase, 25-and-Out Slate.” Would he keep his promises? It was up to TDU to hold the Hoffa administration accountable to members.

Within a year of taking office, Hoffa added 137 multiple salaries to the IBT payroll. He pulled the plug on big Teamster organizing drives and launched a poorly planned strike at Overnite Transportation that killed our union’s successful freight organizing drive there.

One area in which he was successful was uniting Teamster officials around him by using a carrot-and-stick approach. He gave fat multiple salaries and perks to his supporters. He punished local officials who opposed him by sending “personal representatives” to their locals to undermine them or by removing elected leaders.

2001 Election

Hoffa won re-election in 2001. But wherever Hoffa had been involved in negotiations—carhaul, Anheuser Busch, and Northwest Airlines—members voted for the Tom Leedham slate. To know Hoffa was to vote Leedham.

The reform movement lost the election, but succeeded in preventing Hoffa and his supporters from making our union a one-party state. TDU had protected members’ right to supervised elections with fair rules.

Dues Convention

After the election, Hoffa called a special convention to raise members’ dues. TDU collected thousands of signatures demanding the right to vote on the big dues hike. At the special convention, one hundred reform delegates stood up to support members’ right to vote, while pro-Hoffa delegates sat squirming.

2006 Election

Hoffa again won election in 2006 over Tom Leedham, Sandy Pope and the Strong Contracts, Good Pensions Slate, with the same margin as 2001. Leedham carried 84 locals, most of them locals where TDU members campaigned, and won over the majority of the rank and file. Again, it was TDU and leaders like Leedham, Pope, and others on their slate who preserved democracy in the union and provided a voice of hope for the future.

While a campaign powered by TDU alone could not win this time, there was nearly a split in the old guard that would have opened the door to victory. Freight Director Tyson Johnson even briefly declared his candidacy, and had lined up other International vice presidents and regional leaders. While that split was patched over, it showed that a rank-and-file movement has the ability to drive other developments that can lead to victory.

Protecting Pensions and Health Care

TDU continues to fight to protect members’ hard-earned pensions and benefits. When new UPS, freight and carhaul contracts were negotiated in 2002 and 2003, members were promised that their benefits were secure. But after the agreements were approved, members in the Central States and Western Conference funds were hit with big benefit cuts.

TDU and the Central States Pension Improvement Committee channeled members’ anger into positive action. Thousands of Teamsters turned out at local union meetings to demand accountability from the Hoffa administration and pension fund officials. The movement won one important victory when Central States was forced to liberalize its unfair “reemployment” rules for retirees.

In 2006 the pension movement turned its attention toward Washington D.C. and the misnamed Pension Protection Act. TDU members repeatedly traveled to Washington to lobby and take the issue to the public in an attempt to defeat or amend the bill. We succeeded in amending it to remove section that would have legalized cutting the pension of those already retired, and we succeeded in getting language in the law requiring actuarial and other information to be available to members.

Many thousands of Teamsters have become informed and involved about their pension and health care, as TDU continues the battle to defend and expand these basic benefits.

By 2007 a new battle emerged: the fight to preserve our pension plans from corporate takeover. UPS demanded to split the Central States Pension Fund. As the Hoffa administration refused to combat that pension grab, and even embraced it, it fell to TDU to lead the fight to defend a basic Teamster institution: our pension plans.

Fighting Corruption

Both before and during Hoffa’s time in office, TDU has exposed corruption that weakens our union and advocated for an independent Teamster anti-corruption program. With the goal of ending federal supervision of our union, Hoffa established an anti-corruption program, called RISE, that would report directly to him. TDU argued that our union needs an anti-corruption program that is not controlled by the IBT President.

Many Hoffa allies were removed from office for corruption—not by RISE, but by the Independent Review Board. For example, in 2001, Bill Hogan, Jr. and Dane Passo, two top Hoffa allies, were caught engineering a sweetheart deal with a nonunion temp agency to undercut Teamster convention workers in Las Vegas. The Hogan-Passo scheme would have slashed wages to $8 and eliminated all benefits.

In April of 2004, Ed Stier, the former federal prosecutor Hoffa had appointed to head RISE, resigned along with his entire staff. He accused Hoffa of interfering with RISE’s investigation of corrupt officials in Chicago and Houston. The $15 million spent on RISE was gone, with nothing to show for it.

Building Rank & File Power

TDU often builds rank and file power one piece at a time, one struggle at a time, one local at a time. We know that the struggle for a strong, democratic labor movement is not a quick fix. On the eve of our 2007 TDU Convention, we saw an example of this when a determined group of Teamsters in Chicago Local 743 won office in that 12,000-member local. The New Leadership Slate and TDU worked for years to build a movement there, with more defeats than victories along the way. But those men and women persevered and in October 2007, won a supervised election and will now face the challenge of building a strong local with new leaders and a new vision.

Save Our Union

Today our union is at a turning point. We have lost nearly 100,000 members since Hoffa took office. The loss in membership would be even greater if not for the merger of smaller unions into the Teamsters. Our master contracts, pension plans and health benefits are under attack.

We need a leadership with vision and a plan to win. That kind of leadership doesn’t fall from above, it emerges from below, in the shops, in the struggles, in the locals. TDU exists to draw together that leadership and continue our 31-year tradition of making labor history.

More TDU History:
How the Reform Movement Has Changed the Teamsters Union (1976-1979)
Winning the Fight for Democracy (the 1980s)
Rebuilding Teamster Power (1991-1997)

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