Fighting for Change at Teamster Conventions Past and Present

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]

Get Advice Join TDU Donate

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