In 1976 the Teamsters Union was in big trouble. Union leaders had allowed organized crime to infiltrate the highest levels of the union. The mob was raiding members’ pension funds to build casinos in Las Vegas. Teamster officials were taking payoffs from employers and selling out the members. “There is no jurisdiction of safety within our ranks,” a Los Angeles Teamster said at the time, “and anyone who speaks with conviction shall be haunted by a specter of fear.”
Teamsters for a Decent Contract
It was in these difficult circumstances that a small group of freight Teamsters met in Chicago in late 1975 to talk about the national freight contract being negotiated the following year. They drew up a list of contract demands and made plans to print and distribute a brochure to freight workers and organize meetings around the country. The group called itself Teamsters for a Decent Contract (TDC).
TDC distributed thousands of flyers to freight Teamsters, organized meetings in dozens of cities, and held a demonstration in front of IBT headquarters in Washington, D.C. They demanded that Teamster President Frank Fitzsimmons hold the line for a strong contract. The small group grew in numbers as freight workers responded to their message.
The New York Times wrote that TDC was “creating a tremendous pressure on Mr. Fitzsimmons to bring home a contract that he can sell to the membership.” Under this pressure, Fitzsimmons called the first national strike in the Teamsters’ history. TDC pushed hard for an unlimited cost of living allowance clause and it was won. (The union leadership later gave away the unlimited COLA in 1982.)
TDU is Formed
At about the same time that TDC began, UPS workers concerned about the attack on their working conditions started their own organization, UPSurge. On June 5, 1976, 35 TDC and UPSurge members from various cities met in Cleveland to form a new group that would unite freight and UPS Teamsters. They called themselves Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). TDU’s goal would be to build a rank-and-file movement to reform the union and fight for strong contracts.
TDU took its message to the 1976 Teamster Convention in Las Vegas. TDU’s only delegate, Pete Camarata, proposed convention resolutions calling for direct election of officers, a limit on officers’ salaries and the right to a separate vote on contract supplements. The proposals were ignored. Later, Camarata was beaten by thugs outside the convention.
Teamster President Fitzsimmons told the convention that reformers could “go to hell.” TDU leader Doug Allan responded that they would “go to hell and back to reform the union.”
First TDU Convention
On Sept. 18, 1976, nearly two hundred Teamsters met at Kent State University in Ohio for TDU’s founding convention. In some locals, members took up collections to be able to send a representative. “It was exciting, it was new, it was dynamic,” said Pennsylvania Roadway dockworker Keith Gallagher of that first convention. “People were actually trying to say something that I had felt for several years, that the union belonged to the members, not to the officials.”
Members voted to form a national organization with local chapters. The group drafted a constitution stating that, “The object of this organization is to build a national, unified movement of rank-and-file Teamsters that is organized to fight for rank-and-file rights on the job and in the union.” They also decided to reach out beyond TDU’s base with truck drivers and dock workers, and include Teamsters from all industries.
The new organization drew up a ten-point “Rank-and-File Bill of Rights” to be their program. Some of the items in the TDU Bill of Rights included:
- direct election officers
- majority rule on contract votes
- fair grievance procedure with innocent until proven guilty provisions
- no multiple salaries for union officials
- an end to race and sex discrimination
- 25-and-out pensions
In the coming years, TDU would win many of these goals and make substantial progress on others.
Organizing, Strikes, Contracts
TDU members returned from the convention to organize on the shop floor and at the union hall. Some introduced motions to democratize their local union bylaws. Some ran for local union office.
TDU organized members at UPS, freight, steelhaul and carhaul to push for stronger contracts during negotiations in 1979. That year, some carhaulers and steelhaulers went out on wildcat strikes demanding contract improvements. After a four-week strike, steelhaulers won higher pay, sick days and a fuel allowance. In carhaul, the union imposed a poor agreement even though the majority of members voted it down.
A United Movement
In addition to TDU another reform group existed, the Professional Drivers’ Council (PROD). PROD initially focused on truck driver health and safety, and later took on issues of corruption and union democracy. While TDU generally had more experience with contracts and union elections, PROD had more experience in litigation and lobbying. Both groups had a base among Teamster members throughout the country.
In late 1979, PROD and TDU members approved a merger of the two groups. At the convention where the TDU-PROD merger was ratified, Oakland carhauler Bill Slater told members, “Our time will come, and when it does, we must be prepared.” The rank and file were now united to face the challenges ahead.
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)