You’re fortunate to be a member of an organization with over one million fellow Teamsters across North America — our “core industries” are parcel (UPS, DHL), trucking (Yellow, ABF, TForce), carhaul, warehouse, waste management, and beverage, though many other Teamsters work in a variety of other industries. It’s because you are a union member that you have rights not afforded to the millions of non-union workers in the United States, such as due process and collective bargaining.
The basic structure of our union starts at the most fundamental level, the Local. Well-operated Locals have monthly membership meetings where they discuss important matters like organizing campaigns, representational issues, and contract negotiations. All of these matters directly affect your ability to provide for your family, and it’s important to attend these meetings to stay informed. In many contracts, you can be relieved of work duties (if you are scheduled during the meeting) to attend, with the permission of your shop steward.
Above the Local are the Joint Councils, which adjudicate matters affecting issues between Locals in those are Joint Councils. The highest body of the Teamster organization is the International Union, or the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters). Current IBT leaders are General President Sean O’Brien and General Secretary Fred Zuckerman, who were elected by the membership in 2021 on a platform to re-vitalize the union and bring a more aggressive stance against the employers — so it’s more important now than ever to go from simply being a dues-paying member to a union activist, because leaders can’t do anything without the strong backing of the rank and file membership.
Our union has a proud history going back to 1903, though many public misperceptions still exist about the Teamsters.
Ever wonder why our union logo is represented by two horses? That’s because it started out as an organization of horse-and-buggy delivery Teamsters. As trucking developed as an alternative mode of transportation, Teamsters fought tooth and nail to organize in the trucking industry — one of the most important and bloodiest battles to organized trucking took place in 1934 in Minneapolis. Teamsters, led by a group of socialists who had a grand vision to organize every driver and dockworker in the city, led a series of strikes that shut down the city until they won their demands. They persevered through violent repression by the police and “deputized” agents of the employers.
Following the historic success in Minneapolis, these Teamsters essentially laid the groundwork for organizing trucking throughout the Midwest, eventually reaching all areas of the country. Combined with the leadership of up-and-comer former grocery worker James R. (“Jimmy”) Hoffa, union membership soared by hundreds of thousands over the next two decades. By the 1960s, the Teamsters were considered one of the most powerful unions in the country, capable of shutting down the entire shipping industry with a national strike, if it came to that.
Because of that potential power, the Federal Government took great interest in breaking the back of the Teamsters Union. They identified various connections with organizing crime — essentially a “deal with the devil” made under elements of the Hoffa leadership, dating back to when striking locals had to hire their own muscle to protect their picket lines and members from violent agents of the employers and police. Sadly, that deal with the devil only entrenched organized crime within the union, allowing them to use our considerable financial resources to finance mob investments in real estate, providing “no show” jobs to career criminals, and leading to a shift in focus from serving the membership to serving mafia syndicates. This problem only deepened after the murder of popular leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, as his replacements in leadership only deepened their ties to criminals.
But the rank and file began to get organized to stand up to corrupt leadership and the criminal syndicates beginning in the late 1970s. Members formed independent caucuses like Teamsters for a Decent Contract to push from below for desperately needed changes. Eventually this group combined with other caucuses to become Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which still exists to this day. Facing a renewed assault from the Federal Government in the 1980s and efforts to “trustee” (take over) the entire union, TDU advocated an alternative — why not let the members themselves vote on all convention delegates and top officers? They believed the members, not the government, should be responsible for cleaning up the union and they won. That is why members have the right to elect convention delegates and top officers of the IBT, overseen by independent observers to guarantee the integrity of the voting process.
Today, corruption and scandals no longer permeate the Teamsters Union. In fact, it is one of the cleanest and most democratic unions in the country, even if people tend to only remember the drama of the 1950s through 1980s. That is something to be extremely proud of, and participation in our democratic process should be considered our sacred right and duty. And nobody wants you to neglect this process more than your boss.
Teamsters and all unions are facing an existential struggle in the 21st century.
But the enemy is not internal — the enemy is a parasitic class of billionaires who want nothing more than to destroy every union, turning workers in decent jobs with health care benefits and pensions into slaves to a “gig economy” app without any legal rights to form unions and collectively bargain. Even though the number of union members has been stagnant or dropping for the last two decades, oligarchs like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and other modern “Robber Barons” are still willing to devote their virtually unlimited financial resources to revoke every last union card in America.
The billionaires of the world, which IBT General President O’Brien accurately calls a “white collar crime syndicate,” aren’t doing this just to make even more money. For the billionaire class, it is all about power — the power to determine the conditions of every working person’s life on and off the job, and the power to totally undermine the few shreds of democracy that still exist in our country. They don’t want to just rule the workplace. They want to ensure their rulership over the world, and to preserve the capitalist system that guarantees massive profits at the expense of the working class.
How do we stop them? The billionaire class is very conscious of their position in the world and highly organized to impact both major political parties in the US. Unfortunately, the working class is more disorganized than it has been since the 1920s. Union density, the measure of union members within the entire workforce, is so low that we have few sources of effective leverage against the power of millionaire and billionaire employers. The workers of America also largely lack class consciousness, which is a sense of belonging and solidarity with all fellow wage-earners against our common enemy.
Union activists who understand what we are up against follow the old slogan, “Agitate, Educate, and Organize.” We agitate against every violation of our rights in the workplace, bringing as many co-workers as possible into that struggle. We constantly educate co-workers on contractual work rules, the importance of belonging to their union, and about broader political issues facing working people as a whole. We aggressively organize wherever we can to bring more and more workers into our union, as well as supporting the organizing efforts of other unions.
The single-most effective “nuclear option” unionists have is the strike, or the refusal to work until an adequate compromise is met with the company, improving our standard of living and, equally important, involving every single member in a common struggle that strengthens our union for the next fight. It’s possible that UPS workers, the largest Teamster bargaining unit, could be facing a strike in 2023 and it’s incumbent on every member to support our brothers and sisters in that fight.
Unfortunately, not all locals have a realistic understanding of what it will take to build a more powerful union.
If you happen to be in one of these sleepy locals with officers who seem to do little more than passively collect a salary, it will be up to rank and file members to organize themselves and take matters into their own hands. While our potential has improved greatly with changes in our IBT leadership, not every officer or business agent is on board with the more aggressive position advocated by leaders like Sean O’Brien.
Fortunately, TDU exists to provide excellent education and advice to workplace militants looking to turn a bad local into a fighting local. Any Teamster, whether or not you are an official member of the TDU caucus, can contact them for advice via phone or e-mail. TDU regularly organizes educational and strategic meetings across the country wherever a group of rank and filers are in need of support. You can also be regularly informed about the work of TDU by becoming a member — and even better, attending the upcoming 2022 TDU Convention in Chicago, October 28-30 where you’ll meet hundreds of other Teamster militants with a vast collective knowledge of how to build union power.