Teamsters & The Right to Vote
September 25, 2014: Jimmy Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and the Teamster leadership, already heavily penetrated by the mob, became more and more a tool of employers.
In response, members started to demand the Right to Vote on International officers. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) took up the challenge, and in 1989 Teamster members beat the mob and won the Right to Vote in International Union elections.
How did a grassroots movement of working Teamster beat the odds and make history? First, we had a plan.
In 1985, TDU members launched a national Right to Vote petition to put pressure on the Teamster leadership to hold elections for national officers.
Volunteers collected signatures at worksites across the country. The petition, with tens of thousands of signatures, was presented to the 1986 Teamster convention.
“The Funeral of TDU”
At the convention, TDU delegates supported an amendment to the IBT constitution for direct election of IBT officials. Old guard officials voted it down overwhelmingly. Jackie Presser was elected at that convention over challenger Sam Theodus by a vote of 1792 to 24, or nearly 99%. Presser announced from the podium that it was “the funeral of TDU.”
TDU was planning ahead. The fact that the most hated president in Teamster history could get 99% support from local union officials only showed how rotten the system was.
Five years later, Sam Theodus was elected as part of the Carey slate.
TDU worked with the President’s Commission on Organized Crime. We documented how mobsters and corrupt officials were ripping off Teamster members. And we put forward a detailed plan for Teamster elections.
In 1988 the U.S. Justice Department sued the Teamster leadership under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The government’s suit called for the Teamsters to come under federal trusteeship to “reorganize” the union.
TDU fought the trusteeship, and proposed the Right to Vote as a positive alternative. A public campaign by TDU won the support of major newspapers, as well as members of the President's Commission.
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.”
Our amicus briefs in court, and our public campaign were getting traction.
The Right to Vote is Won
On March 13, 1989, one day before the trial was to begin, the Teamster officials threw in the towel to head off the trial.
The consent order established a court supervised Independent Review Board to clean out corruption. Most important, it provided for the direct election of Teamster officers.
The Wall Street Journal reported the next day that “the terms of the settlement were greatly influenced by the concerns and platform of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.”
TDU’s position against government trusteeship and for the right to vote had prevailed.
Winning Fair Rules
Once we won the Right to Vote, TDU focused on winning fair rules that leveled the playing field. The Right to Vote isn’t worth much if the incumbents control the rules and the election.
TDU filed briefs in federal court to strengthen the independent Election Supervisor—and we won. In an important change, the Election Supervisor took charge of delegate elections. Members who run for Convention Delegate won the right to run in a fair election that was not controlled by their local officers.
We fought for numerous changes in the Election Rules. For example, we proposed an Accredited Candidate Petition Procedure so candidates with proven membership support could get their message out to the members by having access to the Teamster membership list.
We proposed that candidates be given worksite lists for all locals so Teamsters could campaign member-to-member. We won that too and a whole lot more.
The Teamster leadership fought every single improvement in the rules. In fact, they opposed the whole idea of having Election Rules.
What’s at Stake in the Current Fight?
Today, elections are a part of the Teamsters Union.
Hoffa would not dare come flat-out for abolishing the Right to Vote. Instead, he is trying to gut members’ voting rights through the back door—by getting rid of the independent election supervisor and eliminating fair election rules.
The Hoffa administration already successfully passed an amendment to the Teamster Constitution that would give Hoffa’s GEB the power to handpick the election supervisor and write their own election rules. (See Article III, Section 5(a)(2))
The consent order agreement with the Justice Department is the only thing standing in the way of an election with sham rules and a phony election supervisor controlled by Hoffa.
The biggest rule change the Hoffa administration wants governs nominations.
Right now, candidates get on the ballot if they have the support of 5% of the delegates to the Teamster Convention.
The Hoffa administration wants to change this rule to make it harder or impossible for opposition candidates to get on the ballot.
Then Hoffa’s real goal will be achieved: the elimination of International Union elections altogether.
That’s what’s at stake. We cannot and will not let that happen.
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