Election Will Determine Strike Power of US’s Largest Private-Sector Union

As a strike wave continues to roil the labor market this month as hundreds of thousands of workers find themselves newly empowered amid ongoing supply chain shortages and the Great Resignation, an election underway within the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters is set to determine how North America’s largest and most powerful international, private-sector union will meet a moment of rising militancy within the broader labor movement.

For the first time in 25 years, Teamsters rank-and-file members are being presented with a ballot that does not have the name of James P. Hoffa, son of the notorious Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamster president whose history and links to organized crime were depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 dramatic biopic, The Irishman.

The mid-November election will determine whether the 1.3 million-member union will chart a new direction away from the business-unionist polices of the younger Hoffa’s administration. It will also determine whether the union will leave behind its legacy of internal corruption: The election marks the first since the phasing out of a 1989 consent decree that put the union under federal government oversight to stamp out the influence of organized crime.

Whichever slate of candidates wins will lead workers in package delivery, transportation, manufacturing, construction, and film and television in some of the most important labor struggles of the day, including directing an ambitious, international initiative to unionize Amazon; negotiating the next United Parcel Service (UPS) contract; and heading the union amid a historic upsurge in labor activity and anti-labor employer and legislative backlash.

An insurgent slate of candidates has brought a coalition of reformers affiliated with grassroots advocacy group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) together with many old guard Hoffa loyalists. The slate, Teamsters United, promises a break from the union’s typical business-unionist approach, a bold approach to unionizing Amazon, and to use the strike more aggressively.

“I want Amazon to know that the Teamsters are coming for them. We’re coming for them hard,” says Sean O’Brien, who is leading the Teamsters United slate with running mate Fred Zuckerman. O’Brien pointed to his Boston local’s approach in getting city governments to pass anti-Amazon resolutions and engaging area politicians, while also urging the need to end independent contractor models through state-level legislation and passing the PRO Act at the national level.

Teamsters Local 25 President Sean O'Brien speaks at the Greater Boston Labor Council in Boston, Massachusetts, on September. 5, 2016.
Teamsters Local 25 President Sean O’Brien speaks at the Greater Boston Labor Council in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 5, 2016.

“We have to leverage our political power on a national level to look at how we take a deep dive into Amazon and get the politicians involved, look at the anti-trust laws, look at what the pressure points are at Amazon that’s going to help us organize,” he says.

Meanwhile, the Hoffa-endorsed Teamster Power slate, led by Steve Vairma and running mate Ron Herrera, is running on a continuation the Hoffa legacy and features a more diverse cast of longtime Hoffa loyalists. The Teamster Power slate has also promised a strong approach to unionizing Amazon, but has been less forthcoming about its overall strategy, saying in a recent debate that the team wanted to keep its plan closer to the vest in order to avoid revealing it to Amazon. The Teamster Power slate team did not respond to Truthout’s request for an interview.

In 2016, the Teamsters United slate was headed by Zuckerman, who only narrowly lost the presidency to Hoffa 45.6 percent to 48.4 percent, even as the slate won seats on the union’s General Executive Board for its central and southern districts. The election, TDU national organizer David Levin tells Truthout, was a “wake-up call on just how big of a divide there was between the membership and the top leadership of the union.” It also revealed how TDU, formed 1976 with a mission to democratize the union and fight corruption, stood poised to steer the union away from its traditionally business-friendly approach.

Since then, TDU has strengthened its hand by building a broader coalition among traditional Hoffa loyalists and campaigning on members’ widespread anger after the union leadership used a loophole in the constitution known as the “two-thirds rule” in 2018 to impose a UPS contract that was voted down, as well as failure to take action on the union’s dwindling pension fund, which was bailed out by the Labor Department as part of the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March.

The strategy has been largely successful: In 2016, reform candidate Zuckerman just cleared the minimum requirement by getting 8 percent of delegates to support his nomination. This year, O’Brien led the delegate race with 52 percent. Moreover, Levin says TDU collected 115,000 petition signatures to accredit O’Brien’s candidacy — the most that’s ever been collected, he says, since direct elections started in 1991.

“The Teamsters United campaign this time is more of a coalition that includes a broader range of officers who maybe supported the Hoffa administration in the past but kind of see you can’t succeed as an international union if the top leadership of the union has no confidence from the members that it’s negotiating for,” Levin tells Truthout. “On the one hand, [O’Brien] is the favorite at this point because of the years of grassroots organizing that has changed the union, but it doesn’t mean that he isn’t an insurgent.”

But some veteran TDU activists who left the organization after its endorsement of O’Brien say the group’s characterization of the Boston Local 25 and Joint Council 10 leader and his new coalition isn’t so rosy. Rather than a true reformer who defected from the Hoffa camp after he was fired in 2017 from his position as lead UPS contract negotiator, they see him as simply as an ambitious opportunist piggybacking off TDU’s successful appeals to disgruntled rank-and-file Teamsters.

They are joining with the Vairma-Herrera campaign in pointing to O’Brien and Local 25’s checkered past as just another continuation of Jimmy Hoffa-style corruption at a crucial moment for the labor movement to turn over a new leaf and organize today’s young, diverse, non-union workers with integrity.

“Even guys at my local that are staff have been saying that O’Brien has promised them that as soon as he wins, he’s dumping TDU, and believe me, I believe that,” says Edgar Esquivel, a 23-year UPS Teamster from Local 952 in Orange County, California, who left TDU over its endorsement of O’Brien. “He’s using TDU and their network to win. He’s a very, very smart guy.”

O’Brien was a member of Hoffa’s slate, elected in 2011 as international vice president for the Teamsters Eastern Region, prior to his firing by Hoffa in 2017 over reaching across the aisle to Teamsters United in an effort to take a stronger position against UPS. He was “a die-hard Hoffa guy,” Esquivel says. “In New England there was nobody that was more militant in supporting Hoffa than he was.” O’Brien’s record of union-filed charges and contract concessions under Hoffa, Esquivel says, makes TDU’s endorsement feel like a betrayal.

In 2013, O’Brien was caught on video threatening members of Teamsters Local 251 in Providence, Rhode Island, for running an election campaign to challenge the local’s leadership. The incident, in which O’Brien said the TDU-backed opposition needed “to be punished” for challenging the incumbent, led to his suspension. Similar charges have been filed against him for separate threats to opponents but have since been dismissed.

The next year, five men from O’Brien’s Local 25 made headlines after they were recorded hurling racist, sexist slurs and threats at members of a “Top Chef” film crew during a union picket of the production. Criminal extortion charges were later brought against the men involved, and four were eventually acquitted. O’Brien denied any wrongdoing.

Esquivel and others also point out that O’Brien’s deceased father, William “Billy” O’Brien, a movie crew chief out of Local 25, was indicted for a 1994 armored car robbery in New Hampshire that ended in the murder of two guards. The elder O’Brien was never charged for renting the getaway truck used in the heist, and many have speculated his cooperation with federal authorities is the reason why. Billy O’Brien was also closely associated with a reputed member of the Winter Hill Gang, James P. Flynn, the target of a federal racketeering probe into alleged union shakedowns of filmmakers. In fact, the elder O’Brien even joined Flynn in negotiations to bring a Tom Cruise production about the Winter Hill Gang to the big screen.

This history, Esquivel says, is important for members to understand at a time when the federal government’s oversight of the union is ending. O’Brien’s endorsement, coupled with the dynamics of Teamsters United’s new coalition, he says, has fundamentally changed TDU’s underdog, reform-centered character. Esquivel doesn’t see either slates of candidates as representing a real shift for the union’s legacy of corruption and business-unionist policies. “The same bureaucratic problems that have existed since Hoffa took power 23 years ago are going to continue: the multiple salaries, the multiple pensions, the entire bureaucracy of spending money outrageously, their lavish lifestyle — none of that is going to change,” he says.

O’Brien and TDU organizers strongly rebuff the idea that his new coalition won’t last. They point to the solid and monumental reforms that were passed during the Teamsters 2021 convention by delegates supporting the Teamsters United slate. Delegates ended delays on strike pay and the despised two-thirds rule that allowed leadership to impose UPS contract in 2018 because fewer than 50 percent of members participated in its ratification. They also amended the constitution to require that rank-and-file members be included on bargaining committees.

“For the first time ever, every coalition, every group in the Teamsters union will be represented on the General Executive Board,” O’Brien told Truthout, referring to his slate. “If people were truly genuine about change, then they should give it a chance, and if for some strange reason, which will not happen under our administration, these coalitions fall apart … then they can say, ‘I told you so,’ but until that happens, I think we’ve proven over the last three years that we’ve been very effective.”

As far as his past incidents, O’Brien insists that he has made good with members of the Providence local since his suspension, elevating its principal officer to executive board for Joint Council 10 and to his own slate as a candidate for vice president of the Eastern Region.

“A lot of that negative stuff is just a hangover from previous administrations and previous generations,” O’Brien says. “Is there always going to be this opinion that in 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s in the Teamsters union, not just Local 25, there was an influence of organized crime? I’m sure there’s always going to be that opinion because [we’ve had] a consent decree…. But that hasn’t been the case in the last 16 years that I’ve been running Local 25 or Joint Council 10.”

Moreover, TDU organizer Levin tells Truthout such criticisms aren’t representative of where the majority of TDU activists are, since TDU members voted overwhelmingly to endorse O’Brien in 2019 after 18 months of discussion and debate, with only two votes in opposition. He also points out that Zuckerman likewise started out as an opponent of TDU before building a durable, lasting partnership with the reform organization.

Still, other longtime reformers point out that the Teamsters United slate only has about five candidates who are strong TDU advocates, two of whom will be in non-voting positions. “It is so difficult to make anything happen when you have three seats on a 25-person board,” said Tom Leedham, a three-time, TDU-backed presidential candidate, going so far as to say that there simply is “no reform slate in this election.” The election is more so a contest between two factions of the old guard, rather than a real referendum on reform, he and others say.

Additionally, despite major victories on strike pay and constitutional reforms during the Teamsters convention in June, other proposals that confronted the privileges of Teamster officials, including limits on the number of salaries and pension contributions officials could collect, were defeated.

Regardless of who wins, these reformers say, the candidates will need to be held accountable. Those supporting the Vairma-Herrera Teamsters Power slate are doing because they say they are leery of O’Brien and Local 25’s past incidents and want to support a historically diverse slate backed by the Teamsters National Black Caucus that more closely matches the changing demographics of the union. They also cite the Teamster Power slate’s relationships with Washington, which some see as one of the driving reasons why the union’s pension issue was inserted into the COVID-relief package in March. Vairma for his part, is running on an ostensibly cleaner record that he characterizes as a safer bet.

The Vairma slate is relying on allied local officers overseeing the majority of Teamsters under smaller, standalone contracts specific to local unions, called “white paper agreements,” to turn out votes. He has downplayed the importance of bargaining at UPS, the union’s largest contract, calling members’ 2018 ​“Vote No” campaign at UPS “a farce.” O’Brien, meanwhile, is focusing on the union members who fall under national contracts at UPS, TForce and Yellow Roadway Corporation Freight.

O’Brien’s commitment to use the strike weapon, coupled with Teamsters recent changes to strike pay, could position the union as a more prominent leader amid a rising tide of labor militancy across North America: In Canada, Teamsters have filed for their first union election at an Amazon warehouse while workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island plan to file for union election Monday.

O’Brien told Truthout that he wants to invest heavily in the Canadian Amazon unionization campaign, especially since the country’s labor laws are more favorable, while also building stronger links with other international unions. Another key Teamsters United strategy is to wage a high-profile, fierce fight with UPS over the company’s next contract that would send a strong message to not just rank-and-file Teamsters but other, not-yet-unionized workers that the Teamsters are fighting back and winning.

“We’ve had a strike here and there, but on a national level we haven’t had a big strike in 24 years since the [the 1997] UPS agreement,” O’Brien says. “I’ve had many strikes in my local and under my leadership over the last 16 years…. I’ve never lost a strike. You may not get what you want at the end of the day, but it’s a great example to point to for the next employer up that says, ‘We want to come after your pension.’”

As labor unrest intensifies across the U.S. this month with 10,000 John Deere workers on strike, 31,000 Kaiser Permanente nurses authorizing walkouts, and 60,000 Hollywood production workers reaching a deal last week, workers are flexing newfound leverage in the job market. This is the kind of pandemic-era struggle that O’Brien says his team is ready to meet, despite any criticisms about his past.

“A lot of these companies like John Deere and Amazon and the rest of them had record profits as a result of this pandemic, and it wasn’t because of anything they were doing,” O’Brien tells Truthout. “It was because of the sweat and the curvature of the spine off a lot of [workers] that provided the delivery of goods and services. How fast they forget that we’re the people responsible for their success, we’re the people responsible for picking up their trash, for making certain their families are in their homes for COVID. It’s our time to be rewarded, and we need to be rewarded with the best contract.”