Rebuilding Teamster Power (TDU History 1991-1997)

Rank-and-file Teamsters won the right to vote for top Teamster officers after a decade-long fight led by TDU. In the 1990s members used that right to elect new leaders and change our union’s direction.

This period saw new successes for the reform movement, including: electing a new leadership, financial reforms that cut dues waste at the IBT, reversing decades of membership losses, and the UPS strike victory — labor’s most important victory in decades.

But the 1990s also confronted our movement with serious challenges as employers tried to undercut the union’s power and old guard officials launched a civil war to try to block Teamster reform.

TDU wasn’t satisfied with just changing our union’s top leadership. We saw that change as an opening for rank-and-file Teamsters to make our union stronger by getting involved at all levels. TDU members kept the pressure on resistant local officials and provided many of the troops to carry out the IBT’s programs.

While supporting the new leadership’s good work, TDU also pushed for deeper reforms in areas such as the grievance procedure and pension benefits. TDU remained the watchdog group for Teamsters, publishing the $100,000 Club and other nonpartisan information and demanding accountability at all levels.

1991 IBT Election

At the November 1989 TDU Convention, members debated and voted to endorse Local 804 President Ron Carey, who was putting a slate together and planning to run for Teamster President. Carey was not a TDU member, but a militant and independent local leader who was not afraid to challenge employers or corrupt officials. Carey put together a coalition that included rank-and-file activists, TDU leaders, and local officers who opposed corruption.

Two other slates were running, headed by IBT Vice Presidents R.V. Durham and Walter Shea. Some 95 percent of Teamster officials lined up behind either Durham or Shea. But Carey had a powerful weapon the other candidates did not — a committed network of TDU activists and an energized rank and file.

When the ballots were counted on Dec. 13, 1991, the Carey slate had won a huge upset victory. The Carey slate won 48 percent, the Durham slate 33 percent, and the Shea slate 18. All 16 members of the Carey slate were elected.

Changes at the IBT

The new IBT leadership immediately began implementing reforms that old guard officials had opposed for decades.

Financial reforms: Carey sold the IBT’s luxury jets and stretch limousine. He cut his salary by $75,000 and many members of his executive board cut their own salaries or turned down multiple salaries. In 1994, the four wasteful Area Conferences were eliminated, saving $11 million a year and eliminating 62 multiple salaries.

The Affiliates Plan, an extra pension for Teamster officials, was frozen, saving $16 million a year.

These financial reforms freed up money for organizing and other membership programs.

New Organizing: When Carey took office, the union’s membership had dropped by 500,000 members in the previous 15 years. The IBT created a real organizing department and a volunteer organizer program. By 1995, our union was growing again. At Overnite, the IBT launched the first organizing drive against a national freight carrier since deregulation and successfully organized some 20 terminals. That organizing drive was later defeated when the Hoffa administration launched an unsuccessful strike at Overnite in 1999.

Taking on employers: Our union also slowed the employers’ drive for concessions. The IBT began to involve members in contract campaigns. In the 1992 and 1995 carhaul contracts, we stopped companies from shifting more work to nonunion subsidiaries. Our union also won “innocent until proven guilty” provisions in national contracts — a right that the Hoffa administration later negotiated out of the freight agreement in most areas.

The 1997 UPS strike proved what reform leadership and a mobilized rank and file could achieve. A year before the contract expired, the International Union began to mobilize members for negotiations. Solidarity was built through surveys, rallies and workplace actions. TDU activists coordinated nationally to help implement our union’s plan. Members were temporarily pulled off the job to serve as campaign coordinators.

When UPS refused to create more full-time jobs and tried to raid Teamster pension funds, 185,000 UPS Teamsters went on strike in the largest work stoppage in decades. Our union’s message that “a part-time America won’t work” won overwhelming popular support

After two weeks, UPS gave in. Our union had won a contract with 10,000 new full-time jobs, a ban on subcontracting, and big pay and benefit increases. The press called it labor’s greatest victory of the decade. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told the New York Times, “It ends the PATCO syndrome. A 16-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization is over.”

The Teamsters Union stood at the forefront of the labor movement.

Old Guard Opposition Continues

Not everyone was happy with the IBT’s new direction. Many powerful Teamster officials had lost multiple salaries, been removed from office for corruption, or saw their cozy relationship with employers threatened. This old guard within the union fought Carey and did everything they could to undercut union programs. In 1994, most of them ordered their members to scab on the one-day safety strike at UPS.

In the 1996 IBT election, the old guard united around James Hoffa, a lawyer who had represented old-guard officials and some employers. Hoffa lacked experience as a working Teamster or union leader, but he had a very famous Teamster name.

Hoffa made big promises to “Restore the Power” and improve pension benefits. His slate’s name was “No Dues Increase—No Corruption—25 and Out.” He received many illegal campaign contributions from employers; he was later forced to return over $200,000 in illegal contributions.

TDU launched a rank-and-file mobilization to counter this threat. Members around the country visited worksites and encouraged members to reelect the Carey slate.

TDU members and other active Teamsters helped Carey beat Hoffa despite a vicious campaign by old-guard officials.

Challenges Ahead

The UPS strike victory marked how far the union had come in six years. But employers and the Teamster old guard continued to resist our union’s new direction. And two consultants hired by the Ron Carey campaign were under investigation for illegally diverting over $200,000 to the campaign.

Teamster reformers would soon face new fronts in the battle to protect Teamster democracy and strengthen our union.

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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