African American Teamsters Push for Leadership Opportunities

June 30, 2008: Hundreds of thousands of Teamsters are African American, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the Teamsters General Executive Board. Out of 26 voting members, only one is Black.

“We need a union leadership that looks like our membership,” says Willie Hardy, a retiree and long-time Teamster and community leader in Memphis Local 667.

“Our top leadership is less diverse than the boards of many of the companies we fight against.”

Black Teamsters have been working for decades to win more representation for African Americans in leadership at all levels of our union. Their work has built our union’s power for everyone.

More progress needs to be made if we’re going to build a union that taps the leadership skills of all of our members.

Teamsters National Black Caucus

At the 1971 Teamster Convention in Miami, Black officers and union representatives decided to do something about the lack of representation in the union’s top spots. Back then, there were no African Americans on the General Executive Board.

Black Teamsters were also angry that organizer jobs at the International were off-limits to African-Americans.

This group of local officers and representatives gave birth to the Teamster National Black Caucus.

In 1976, Black Teamsters won a victory at the next convention, when John Cleveland, the head of Washington, D.C. Local 730, became the first African American added to the union’s executive board.

But even that victory was bittersweet, recalled Ed Kornegay, the late head of Local 922 in D.C.

Frank Fitzsimmons, Teamster General President at the time, kept the appointment secret from Cleveland until he announced it on the floor of the convention. “Otherwise,” Kornegay remembered, “we would have had time to make sure family and supporters were in the hall and could celebrate this historic moment.”

The National Black Caucus will hold its next meeting on Aug. 18-24 in St. Louis.

More Progress Needed

Cleveland and other TNBC pioneers helped make our union stronger and more inclusive. But there’s more work needed.

Latinos and women make up a growing section of our union. But there’s only one woman with a vote on the GEB—and no Latinos. (One other woman and a Latino hold non-voting trustee positions).

Our International Union created a Human Rights Commission under the slogan, “A Strong Union Involves Everyone.” But actions speak louder than words.

Last year, our union had an opportunity to increase representation on the GEB, when Frank Gillen was removed as an International Vice President.

The General Executive Board filled the vacancy with Bill Hamilton—ignoring the many qualified Black, Latino and women leaders in our union. Out of 26 voting members on the General Executive Board, 24 are white men.

“The lack of representation sends a message to employers that they can treat members as second-class citizens,” says Michael Savwoir, a UPS feeder driver in Kansas City Local 41. “We’ve got to send a different message.”

New Leaders

“We need change in our union at all levels,” says Toni Jackson, a UPS Teamster in Memphis Local 667. “It starts with educating members to enforce our contracts and recruiting members to run for steward. That’s what I try to do in my local.”

In 2006, Jackson took her long experience as a steward to the next level, when she ran for Southern Region Vice President on the Tom Leedham Strong Contracts, Good Pensions Slate. She narrowly lost.

More Black Teamsters are taking up the challenge by becoming leaders at the local level—as officers, stewards, and active members.

“The fact that only one African American is on this board is sad. We have hundreds of thousands of African Americans who pay dues,” says Nichele Fulmore, a steward in North Carolina Local 391. “It’s up to us to change our union. Those of us who are active in the union have to motivate other members to get involved.”

“TDU has been training Teamster members for 32 years on how to get more involved in our union,” says Willie Hardy. “We give members the tools they need to deal with grievances, win strong contracts, or run for local union office.”

A strong union involves everyone. And it’s up to all of us to make it happen.

Black Teamsters will have a special meeting at the upcoming Teamsters for a Democratic Union Convention, Oct. 24-26 in Cleveland.

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