On June 25 some 1,700 delegates and several hundred alternates will assemble at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas for the 27th Convention of the Teamsters Union.
The majority of these delegates will be there to rubber stamp whatever Hoffa proposes. Many see the convention as a chance to party on members’ dues money. But hundreds of delegates will fight for changes to rebuild our union’s power and strengthen members’ rights—and history is on their side.
At every Teamster Convention, the majority of the delegates have been hostile to reform. At past conventions, delegates have voted against the right to vote for International officers, the right to elect delegates, majority rule on contracts, the right to vote on local union mergers, sovereignty for Teamsters Canada and many other reforms.
TDU members and other reform delegates have been booed, threatened, attacked, even beaten for proposing these changes. But today, Teamster members enjoy each and every one of these rights. Even Hoffa has to call himself “reform-minded” on his website!
How did that happen? And what does it mean for reform proposals that will be introduced this year like pension trustee accountability and the right to vote on dues increases?
How the Tide Turned
The tide began to turn toward reform in 1991. TDU came to the Orlando convention that year proud of big victories recently won. For the first time in decades, the delegates to the Convention had actually been elected. They would nominate candidates for Teamster president and International officers that the membership would elect, also for the first time in Teamster history.
The old guard was there, and had a clear majority of the delegates. Their leaders included Tom Keegel, Chuck Mack, Jim Santangelo, Ken Wood, John Coli, Fred Gegare, Jack Cipriani, John Murphy, Dan Kane and others who are now on the Hoffa Slate.
Right off the bat, they voted to strip members of the right to elect delegates. They wanted local officers to automatically be delegates. They denounced reformers as a “tiny minority.”
Reform delegates spoke out for the right of members to elect delegates. They won the debate but not the vote. The only reason Teamsters maintained the right to elect delegates was that the consent order guaranteed it. Teamsters should never have to rely on a court order to protect our Teamster democracy.
Born Again Reformers
But on other issues, top officials became “born again” reformers. They had conducted polls that showed TDU-backed reforms were supported by the majority of the rank and file. After years of rabid opposition, the Hoffa crowd suddenly supported
- The Right to Vote for Teamster president and top officers
- Majority rule on contracts
- Limits on salaries and multiple salaries for International officers and appointees
- Selling the two executive jets that officers used as expensive toys
TDU and reform delegates had fought for every one of these goals at the previous 1986 convention, and seen them ridiculed by the old guard majority. Chuck Mack denounced majority rule on contracts on the floor of that Convention. At the one prior to that, he nominated mobster and FBI-informant Jackie Presser to be Teamster president. But now he was seeing the light, along with the rest of the old guard leaders.
It got even better. Later in the convention, the TDU-prepared motion to give members covered by national contracts the right to vote on supplements and riders was introduced by Johnny Morris, a long-time TDU opponent. More officials broke ranks and this important reform passed over the opposition of Mack, Cipriani, Santangelo, Kane and the rest of what is now the Hoffa team. Another reform victory!
Other progressive reform issues were voted down, but they were passed later at the 1996 or 2001 conventions. The right to elect delegates was finally adopted into the IBT Constitution in 2001. The right of Canadian Teamsters to govern their own affairs, and stay united under the Teamster umbrella, was finally won in 2001.
Again the TDU and reform forces were a distinct minority, but the ones with the ideas for the future, the ones driving the real program.
The Engine of Progress
If you look over these big, important changes to the Teamster constitution adopted at the recent conventions, none of them have originated with the Hoffa leadership. They have originated with Teamsters with the foresight, guts and solidarity to come forward with plans to involve members and build the union.
The miracle in this progress is that reform forces have been a minority at each and every one of these conventions. Tom Leedham was nominated with eight percent of the delegate vote; Ron Carey was nominated with 15 percent. But their strength with the rank and file was many times greater, as was proven when members’ ballots were counted.
At the 2006 Convention there will be progressive proposals put forward, to bring accountability to the big Teamster benefit funds; to end top-down rule by the General President; to establish organizing programs that involve locals and members; to end financial waste and spend our dues money to build Teamster Power, not fund multiple salaries for the General President’s political friends.
Will these reforms be adopted? You can count on it. They may pass this year, or they may have to wait until next time. But history shows that the Hoffa crowd can only hold back positive changes for so long.
Eventually, they have to cave in to the will of Teamster members—the majority of whom support changes that strengthen the Teamsters Union by putting power in the hands of the members.
Calling All Teamsters!
Would you like to attend the 2006 Teamster Convention in Las Vegas, June 26-30?
Contact your local union or TDU for information about how to attend as a guest. tdu [at] tdu.org
1. How soon after the formation of the IBT did reformers challenge an incumbent president?
___Two years ___Twenty-eight years ___Fifty-four years ___Eighty-eight years
2. Which Teamster leader was beaten and nearly killed by opponents?
___ Ron Carey ___ Pete Camarata ___ Cornelius Shea ___ Tony Provenzano
3. Which Teamster leader likened himself to a Roman emperor?
___Tom Keegel ___Jackie Presser ___Mike Ruscigno ___Dane Passo
4. Which are victories won by TDU?
__ Stopped unreasonable rules used to disqualify challengers from running for office. __Wrote and got enacted a new law giving truck safety whistleblowers protection from retaliation.
__Established fair contract votes and right to separate vote on supplements.
__Ended the 2/3 rule used by the IBT to impose contracts even though rejected by a majority of members.
__Established Right to Vote for IBT officers.
5. During which Teamster strike were 21 people killed and 416 injured?
__Steelhaul strike of 1979 __1997 UPS strike __Chicago strike in 1905 __Minneapolis strike in 1934 __1999 strike against Overnite __1990s Detroit Newspaper strike
6. Was TDU the only group in IBT history to put forward the proposal that Teamster presidents be directly elected by the membership? __Yes __No
7. When was the first time that a Black Teamster served on the General Executive Board? __1912 __1946 __1961 __1976
8. When did the first woman serve on the IBT GEB? __1907 __1942 __1966 __1991
9. Which Teamster president brought about the following changes in our union? *Innocent Until Proven Guilty language in contracts. *Expanded protections for local union elections. *Eliminated 100 multiple salaries paid to top officials. *Organizing program with highest number of wins in decades. *Human rights commission.
10. What was the group that called itself BLAST?
___A recreational group of Chicago Teamster officials.
___A fundraising committee for James Hoffa.
___A goon squad that launched violent attacks on TDU.
___ Tom Keegel’s bowling league.
11. In which years did UPS Teamsters strike for better contracts or against serious problems? __1970 __1974 __1976 __1978 __1979 __1994 __1997
12. What was the RISE program?
___ An exercise regime Hoffa implemented for the General Executive Board.
___ Hoffa’s anti-corruption program that is now defunct.
___ An IBT staff wagering pool on which official’s salary will rise the most in one year.
13. Who is the only Teamster president who never made a living as a rank and file member? ___Hoffa Sr. ___Roy Williams ___Cornelius Shea ___Hoffa Jr.
Before TDU won the right for direct elections of delegates, women and minorities hardly ever made it to the floor of the Teamster Convention. The Right to Vote helped that situation. As we look forward to building a movement that includes the voices of all Teamsters, TDU would like to take advantage of Women’s History Month to acknowledge some exceptional women who have fought for their sisters and brothers against the corruption of previous Teamster leaders.
Diana Kilmury, Vancouver Local 213, enraged the old guard in 1981 when she spoke for ridding the union of its bad apples. “I didn’t say you were a bunch of crooks ... [but] if you’re too damn scared to have an Ethical Practices Commission that you yourselves, the General Executive Board will control, then my God, you must be up to something.” Later, Kilmury would go on to become our union’s first female International Vice President in 1991. Those events inspired the film “Mother Trucker: the Diana Kilmury Story.”
Linda Gregg, Denver Local 435, was one of the first women to become a local principal officer. She spoke in favor of increasing strike benefits at the 1986 convention. The majority of delegates, led by then-President Jackie Presser, voted down the proposal on the grounds that it would be too expensive and make the members too eager to strike. The previous night the Teamsters had footed the bill for giant parties with lobster and free-flowing booze.
Ten years later, Laurie Craig from Minnesota Local 1145, spoke against multiple salaries. “Mr. Chairman, why would a union leader want to be paid two, three, or more salaries? It’s against the principles this union is built upon. We are not a corporation where greed is king. We are a union of brothers and sisters. Let’s unite and do what’s right. Put that money, millions of dollars, to work in organizing and bargaining and strike benefits.”
The proposal to eliminate multiple salaries will again be made at the 2006 Teamster Convention.
The questions these women have raised still resonate with the average Teamster. Local 805 President Sandy Pope, a candidate for International Vice President, is the former director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). She is one of the three women on the still-growing Tom Leedham Strong Contracts, Good Pensions Slate.Hoffa’s slate contains 21 men and no women yet.
Pope says she believes the Teamsters can realize the dreams of the women and men who faced down the old guard in decades past, and that the common-sense, members-first approach advocated by women such as Kilmury, Gregg, and others have given our reform movement a strong base for the work to be done in the twenty-first century.
Review: "I Heard You Paint Houses": Frank 'the Irishman' Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Final Ride of Jimmy Hoffa.
"I heard you paint houses." Those are the first words Jimmy Hoffa ever spoke to Frank Sheeran, who would become a top Teamster official in the 1960s and '70s as well as a hired killer for Hoffa and the mob. The words refer to the splatter of blood when the deed is done.
Hoffa hired Sheeran in that first telephone conversation as an "organizer," on the recommendation of Russell Bufalino, the Mafia boss of Pennsylvania.
I Heard You Paint Houses is Sheeran's story of his life with Hoffa and in the mob, as told in hundreds of hours of tapes to one of his former attorneys, Charles Brandt. There have been too many books on the mob and on the Hoffa era in the Teamsters, most of them terrible.
This one is worth reading. Sheeran was close to Hoffa, and gives an insider's feel for the intimate relationship of Hoffa and the Teamster leadership to the mob.
An Insider's Story
Hoffa created a local union for Sheeran: Delaware Local 326 was carved out of Philadelphia Local 107, with Sheeran installed as president. He was identified as a mob leader in the 1987 RICO lawsuit against top Teamsters that led to the present-day consent order.
It's an easy book to read, and even fun, if that's an appropriate word for a book about murder and union corruption. Sheeran and Brandt (half the book is taken verbatim from the Sheeran tapes, the rest written by Brandt) don’t romanticize the mob; to "The Irishman", it's just a business and the way he lives. He matter of factly describes killing three people in one day and then he "met up with Jimmy to give him the report."
There is considerable coverage in the book of Hoffa's trials. Hoffa was tried for taking payoffs from carhaul employers, and got a hung jury by bribing several jurors. His co-defendant was Bert Brennan, his business partner in the scams that sent him to prison. Brennan's son Larry currently heads Michigan Joint Council 43.
Then Hoffa was tried and convicted in 1964 for the jury tampering, and also convicted by a Chicago jury of defrauding the Central States Pension Fund to line his own pocket in a Florida land scam. His appeals ran out in 1967 and he entered Lewiston Prison to serve a combined 13 year sentence.
The chapters on the trials show Hoffa as master strategist and as a brazen crook who used threats and bribes routinely. And they show that his famous ego could be his weakness.
Why Hoffa Was Murdered
James P. Hoffa, the current Teamster president, likes to say the mob killed his dad. It's half true. Mobsters killed Hoffa for sure, but Hoffa was a part of their operation.
Sheeran makes very clear who their victims are: they kill their own. Mainly they kill mob insiders who they fear have information that may be used against them.
Hoffa was too eager to get back into office, and they felt he would trade information in exchange for lifting the restrictions put on him to stay out of the union when Nixon pardoned him in December 1971.
Sheeran adds some details to what is already well-known about the corrupt relationship between Hoffa and the Nixon administration. Sheeran himself delivered a suitcase of money to the home of John Mitchell, the Attorney General who later went to prison himself for Watergate crimes.
After Hoffa left prison in 1971, Sheeran claims he was a changed man. More "puffing," as Sheeran calls it, about what he would do to whom, even though his power was gone. That "puffing" scared top mobsters; it made them think he would make a deal with the Justice Department. That's why Russell Bufalino co-ordered the hit on Hoffa.
Sheeran believes the 1972 book by Kennedy aide Walter Sheridan played a role in the Hoffa murder. That book revealed that Hoffa had snitched to the FBI on Teamster President Dave Beck to help send Beck to prison and Hoffa into the Marble Palace. Bufalino and other Hoffa associates feared that once again he would turn FBI informant to get into the Marble Palace.
That's the FBI's view of the crime as well. Sheeran adds one new twist: that he himself, not Salvatore "Sally Bugs" Bruguglio, pulled the trigger on July 30, 1975. The other new tidbit is a Detroit home address where Sheeran says the Teamster president was killed. (The owner of the house now has a website, apparently shopping for his 15 minutes of fame.)
Whose Union Is It?
I spoke with Dan Moldea, author of The Hoffa Wars, the authoritative 1978 book on Hoffa and his era, about Sheeran's book. Moldea thinks Sheeran embellished the story by making himself the trigger man, but that otherwise there's a lot to learn from the book. It adds some details and intimate connection to Hoffa that only an insider can provide.
Teamsters interested in how the Teamsters Union became corrupted should read it. While mob influence in the Teamsters (and in the USA overall) is lower today, the culture created then lives on inside much of the Teamsters.
Hoffa became obsessed with saying of his former flunky and successor, Frank Fitzsimmons "It's not his union, it's my union."
The idea that the Teamsters belongs to any general president or official is a legacy of the mob era that Teamster members continue to struggle against today.
On July 24th, Minnesota unionists and other social justice activists held a day-long celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike.
In the summer of 1934, truck drivers demanding that employers recognize and bargain with their union shut down all freight and delivery traffic in and out of Minneapolis for weeks. “Flying squads” of picketers patrolled the streets, stopping all non-union deliveries.
Business, supported by the local police, cracked down violently. Two strikers were killed, and sixty-seven were wounded, when police opened fire on picketers. But the workers held strong, and the employers were finally forced to recognize and sign a contract with the union.
The 1934 strike made Minneapolis a union town. It was also the start of wide-scale national Teamster freight organizing. The leaders of the Minneapolis strike used their base there to start organizing outward to other cities.
The July 24th anniversary commemoration was held at the location where striking Teamsters resisted attacks by the police 70 years before. The celebration included music and speeches as well as a historical display provided by members of Minnesota TDU.