by Evren Pallares Ó Laoghaire, Teamsters Local 170 (personal capacity)
This article was originally published in Socialism Today, the paper of the Independent Socialist Group. Subscribe to the paper to receive each issue in print and read the articles before they’re published online!
This past November Teamsters Union members voted in new national leadership after incumbent President James Hoffa Jr. decided not to seek a sixth term. The election took place against the backdrop of a wildly unpopular 2018 UPS contract where 54% of the rank-and-file voted no along with 98% voting to strike. Hoffa forced the contract through and ignored the strike vote, stoking anger and frustration against his administration. This caused part of Hoffa’s former supporters in the leadership to make an alliance with Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reform caucus that organized against Hoffa.
The Teamsters United (TU) slate headed by Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman defeated the Hoffa-backed Teamsters Power (TP) slate by a 2:1 margin. O’Brien’s campaign promised to raise UPS starting wage from $14 to $20, eliminate forced overtime plus the controversial two-tier pay system for delivery drivers, fight against subcontracting, and strike if necessary to win a fair contract. O’Brien also vowed to organize Amazon and to strengthen the union’s organizing in industries like waste collection and cannabis production.
We in the Independent Socialist Group support rank-and-file union members organizing to take back their unions. The TU victory reflects the rank-and-file’s rejection of complacent union leadership in the workplace. Our Teamster members critically supported O’Brien against the Hoffa-backed TP slate, but we have no illusions in O’Brien. Many of the top leaders on the TU slate, including O’Brien, are former bureaucrats who broke with Hoffa opportunistically. There’s a real possibility these leaders may go back on their promises, especially once they’ve held office for a while.
TDU should continue to organize independently of TU. Union members must be willing to replace leaders if they fail to fight for the reforms needed to improve workers’ protections, benefits, and wages. Under capitalism, workers hold tremendous power by being skilled in jobs management often cannot do. Withholding our labor shuts the whole system down. Organizing strikes and using strikes strategically are crucial for labor to win. With new leadership claiming to reinvigorate the Teamsters Union, it’s up to the rank-and-file to hold that leadership accountable and prepare ourselves for upcoming struggles.