Winning the Fight for Democracy (TDU History: the 1980s)

The 1980s

The 1980s were a difficult time for working Teamsters. They were years of economic recession, freight industry deregulation, and concessionary bargaining. Teamsters under attack by employers felt like they were fighting with their hands tied behind their back, because top union officials were looking out for the employers and their mob friends instead of the members.

In these tough times, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) helped organize a fightback against the employer attacks and kept the pressure on to clean up the union and expand members’ democratic rights. By the end of the decade, TDU was winning the fight for democracy. The groundwork was laid to rebuild the strength of the Teamsters union.

Fighting Deregulation and Concessions

The 1980s were devastating to the trucking industry and freight Teamsters. Legislation to deregulate the industry was proposed in 1980. The IBT hired paid lobbyists to work against the bill, but did little else. TDU members proposed local union resolutions calling for national demonstrations against deregulation, and even possible work stoppages. “You just can’t ignore a large convoy of trucks and a crowd of rank-and-file Teamsters so easily,” said TDU activist Herman Myers, Sr. The IBT’s back room lobbying didn’t work. Deregulation passed.

Deregulation led to cutthroat competition and the growth of new non-union carriers. By 1982, 183 unionized carriers had gone out of business and 30 percent of freight Teamsters were unemployed. The remaining unionized carriers responded by demanding big concessions in areas like wages, productivity, and the flexible workweek.

The IBT supported the employers’ demands. In July 1983, Teamster President Jackie Presser proposed a special freight “relief rider” that would cut wages by up to 35 percent and establish two-tier wages. TDU launched a national campaign to defeat the relief rider and save the National Master Freight Agreement. It worked. The membership rejected the concessionary rider by a vote of 94,086 to 13,082. Business Week called it “A real slap in the face for Jackie Presser.”

Winning Contract Rights

The IBT feared a similar embarrassment on the 1985 UPS contract. So they pulled a fast one. A new agreement was secretly negotiated months before the contract expired. Ballots were secretly printed up and mailed to members along with slick promotional material calling it the “Best Contract Ever.” Members had not even known negotiations were underway!

TDU sued the IBT over this quickie vote. The court voided the vote and ruled that members had to be given a meaningful opportunity to debate contract proposals before they were voted on. It was the last quickie vote the IBT would pull.

Soon after, TDU beat the hated “two-thirds rule.” In 1987 and 1988, a majority of UPS and freight Teamsters rejected their contracts. But since a two-thirds super-majority was required to reject an agreement, the union declared the contracts approved. TDU and New York Local 804 President Ron Carey challenged the two-thirds rule in court. Under pressure, the IBT General Executive Board eliminated the two-thirds rule. The rank-and-file had won majority rule on contract votes.

Pension Justice

Throughout the 1980s, TDU worked to protect working Teamsters’ pension and heath and welfare benefits. TDUers settled a class-action lawsuit against the Central States Pension Fund when the trustees agreed to pay back nearly $3 million dollars that was lost in a corrupt deal. Another TDU-backed lawsuit forced Central States to rescind a policy of terminating health and welfare benefits for members whose employers were delinquent in making contributions.

In 1983, 150 long-time Kroger workers in Detroit who had been cheated out of their pensions won the benefits they were owed with the help of TDU and attorney Ann Curry Thompson. Their local union had told them nothing could be done. “The TDU is who helped us,” said 26-year Kroger Teamster Mary Runski. “They were always there.”

Towards the end of the decade, TDU launched a nationwide campaign for pension improvements in the major Teamster funds, including 30-and-out at any age with $3,000.

Corruption at the Top

At the 1981 IBT Convention, TDU delegate Diana Kilmury stood before the hostile audience and proposed the creation of an Ethical Practices Committee within the union. “What are you afraid of?” she asked. The corrupt IBT leadership had a lot to be afraid of.

Much of the corruption involved the Central States Pension Fund. In 1982, Teamster President Roy Williams, Central States Pension Fund administrator Allen Dorfman, and pension fund trustees were convicted of attempting to bribe a U.S. senator.

Dorfman had used the pension fund as a piggy bank for the mob. He had split kickbacks with James Hoffa, Sr. and been a business partner of James Hoffa, Jr.

In 1983, Williams was charged with extortion and links to organized crime. Williams and Dorfman were plotting with the mob to take back control of the Central States Pension Fund. Williams later admitted in court that the Teamster leadership was controlled by organized crime.

The next Teamster President, Jackie Presser, was no better. At the time of the 1986 IBT Convention, he was under a multi-count indictment including charges of racketeering and embezzlement.

No Mob Control,No Government Control

As the extent of the corruption became clearer, pressure grew for government intervention. In 1988, the Justice Department prosecuted the union under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The suit stated that “the IBT has made a devil’s pact with La Cosa Nostra.” They proposed a federal trusteeship of the whole union.

TDU strongly opposed a government takeover. TDU’s position was that the best anti-corruption program would be to give members the Right to Vote.

The Right To Vote

In 1985, TDU launched a National Right to Vote petition to put pressure on the Teamster leadership to hold elections for national officers. Volunteers gathered signatures at worksites across the country. The petition, with tens of thousands of signatures, was presented to the 1986 Teamster convention. At the convention, TDU delegates supported a resolution for direct election of IBT officials, which was voted down.

When the RICO suit was announced, TDU National Organizer Ken Paff wrote the U.S. Attorney General saying “there is only one ‘reorganization’ under RICO that the government can effectively take: namely, to direct the IBT to hold rank-and-file elections”.

On March 13,1989, the Justice Department reached an agreement with the IBT to settle the RICO suit. It established a court supervised Independent Review Board to clean out corruption. Most important, it provided for the direct election of Teamster officers. TDU’s position against government trusteeship and for the right to vote had prevailed. The Wall Street Journal reported that “the terms of the settlement were greatly influenced by the concerns and platform of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.”

Rank-and-file Teamsters had won the right to vote. Now they were going to use it.

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)
Save Our Contracts, Pensions and the Right to Vote (2008-2013)
From Vote No, to Vote Them Out (2013-2020)  

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