Running for Local Union Office: Members Tell "Why We Won"

February 21, 2008: In most Teamster locals, members get a chance to vote for their officers every three years.

In some locals where the officers do a poor job, members put together a slate to change the leadership.

Members who run against an incumbent face an uphill battle. Here are some lessons from members who ran against the odds last year, and won.

Last fall, Teamsters in Chicago Local 743 narrowly voted to replace their old-guard leaders with the reformers of the New Leadership Slate.

“It all started with the members,” said John Watkins, a member of Local 743 at the University of Chicago Hospitals. “The old leadership wasn’t responding to our grievances. We felt that the new leadership could make a change.”

Concerned Teamsters campaigned on the issues that mattered to other members at the U of C Hospitals. “We listened to the problems other members were having with management,” Watkins explained. “We told them that to turn their situation around, we needed to put in new leadership.”

Be Positive

The situation was different in Hagerstown Local 992. There, the principal officer was a strong, progressive leader. But after the majority of the local’s executive board split and formed their own slate, rank-and-file members had to put together a slate to run with the principal officer.

“We had three slates running against each other, and the other two slates ran a really negative campaign,” said Doug Meals, a Yellow road driver in Local 992.

“We tried to keep our campaign positive. We stuck to the issues that mattered to members—like our pension fund. When members asked us a question about the local, we gave them an honest, clear answer. Jim Hoffa Sr. once said if you slight the individual, they’ll always remember you for that. But if you tell them the truth, and they don’t like it, they’ll always respect you.”

Starting Early

Meals was elected trustee on the Local 992 executive board, and his whole slate, including five first-time officers, swept the election.

No matter how strong your issues are, members won’t vote for you if your message doesn’t reach them, or if they don’t know who you are.

Successful campaigns start early to build organization and name recognition.

“As soon as we found out that the New Leadership Slate was running, we started campaigning,” said Watkins. “We passed out lots of flyers to let members know that they could make a change in this election.”

In Hagerstown, members started preparing a year early for the election, said Meals: “Whenever we went out to campaign early on, we would get members’ phone numbers. That way we could call our supporters once the ballots were out.”

“Early on, I scheduled my vacation for the first week of voting. That really paid off when it came time to get out the vote.”

Raising Money

Starting early also gives you time to raise money. You’ll need money to cover at least one first-class mailing to the membership, plus flyers, phone banking, t-shirts, pole stickers, and other costs.

If you’re running against an incumbent, you can be sure they’ll spend money on mailings and phone banking. An early raffle or petition fundraiser can help raise money and build your phone list.

In both Hagerstown and Chicago the winning slates paid for mailings to the entire membership and phone-banked.

The Long-Haul

Many reform campaigns do not succeed the first time—but that doesn’t mean the campaigns are a failure. Campaigns that don’t win can help build for a future win when members use the campaign to build their organization and support in the local.

“It took us three tries to get Richard Berg elected,” remembered Jean Moore, a Local 743 Teamster at the University of Chicago Hospitals. “But he stuck to it and so did we.”

“We went all out this election to spread the word and get out the vote,” Moore said. “We worked our butts off, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. Together we can start building a stronger union for our members.”

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