Hoffa’s House Divided: The 2021 Teamster Election, Explained

Andy wrote this article on the IBT election for the publication In These Times. All Teamster members will get ballots in the mail beginning October 4th to vote — hopefully this helps inform your vote.

An election this November will decide who will lead the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the North American union of 1.4 million members representing workers in nearly every sector, including logistics, package delivery, construction, film and television, manufacturing, and transportation. For more than 20 years, the union has been run by James P. Hoffa, son of the notorious Jimmy Hoffa, the historic Teamster president with connections to organized crime. This election marks the closing of a chapter in Teamster history: the end of the federal government’s oversight of the union, and the first election in 25 years without the younger Hoffa on the ballot. Whoever wins will direct the union as it wrestles with today’s difficult environment: the growth of Amazon, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the next United Parcel Service (UPS) contract, and increasingly hostile employers and politicians.

Two slates are running for control of the IBT’s top offices: Teamster Power, led by Steve Vairma and running mate Ron Herrera, and Teamsters United, led by Sean O’Brien and running mate Fred Zuckerman. Five years ago, Teamsters United, then headed by Zuckerman, came only a few thousand votes shy of defeating Hoffa and winning the office of General President, 45.6% to 48.4%.

Backed by the reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Teamsters United built a campaign that drew on growing anger over a number of issues like concessionary contracts forced at UPS, inaction over a crisis in the union’s pension fund, and the decline of core industries (trucking and logistics). TDU, a grassroots organization of Teamster members formed in 1976, has a long history of campaigns to democratize the union, fight corruption, and organize for strong contracts. TDU’s campaigns resulted in the right to directly vote for top officials in 1989, as well as the election of Ron Carey as Teamster General President in 1991, and played a significant role in the successful 1997 UPS strike.

In 2016, Zuckerman narrowly lost to Hoffa, but Teamsters United won seats on the union’s General Executive Board for the Central and Southern districts, while Hoffa was able to swing the Eastern and Western regions as well as Teamsters Canada. The election revealed the deep dissatisfaction of Teamster members, the distance between the ranks and the leadership, and the existence of a base of members who could potentially change the course of the union. 

The 2021 election has been billed as a rematch five years in the making. Vairma, a relatively unknown principal officer out of Teamsters Local 455 in Colorado and member of the Hoffa-Ken Hall slate (the establishment caucus that won in 2016) since 2011, is considered Hoffa’s successor. Hoffa has endorsed Vairma’s Teamster Power, and the slate features many loyalists. If that was all there was to it, this election could be viewed as another round of the reformers vs. the Hoffa ​“old guard.” Without Hoffa’s name and incumbency to tie the sitting administration’s coalition together, the challengers should have the advantage after coming so close to victory in the last election. It would be Teamsters United’s election to lose.

But this time around, Teamsters United has taken a turn with the introduction of new leadership. In 2016, Teamsters United was fronted by Zuckerman, principal officer of Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville, Ky. — home of the UPS headquarters hub. Zuckerman is a quiet and straightforward union officer who found himself allied with TDU in opposition to Hoffa’s direction of UPS negotiations. Despite Zuckerman’s success at the top of the ticket five years ago, Teamsters United is now being led by O’Brien of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston.

O’Brien, like Vairma, was until recently a member of the Hoffa-Hall slate, elected to the IBT’s General Executive Board in 2011 as an International Vice President for the Teamsters Eastern Region. At the end of 2017, Hoffa fired O’Brien as the chief negotiator for the union with UPS, ostensibly for taking too hard a position against the company. O’Brien broke ranks with Hoffa and reached across the aisle to Teamsters United. Zuckerman, already reluctant to lead the ticket in 2016, then handed Teamsters United over to O’Brien and slid down to the number two position. TDU endorsed O’Brien and Teamsters United at its 2019 Convention and began its campaign for the slate.

In defecting from the Hoffa camp, O’Brien brings connections to other local officers and votes in the Eastern Region — but he isn’t without baggage. O’Brien has earned a reputation among officers and the ranks as an ambitious, hotheaded figure, with several charges filed against him in the union. In 2013, O’Brien threatened members of Providence-based Teamsters Local 251 for running an election campaign to challenge the local’s leadership. The incident was captured on video, and led to his suspension. Charges were again filed against him for threats to opponents at Teamster conventions but were ultimately dismissed.

In 2014, O’Brien’s Local 25 made national news when the union’s picket for the TV show Top Chef was recorded making a series of racist and sexist slurs towards members of the filming crew. Five men involved with the picket were then brought up on criminal extortion charges for threats to the production. (Local 25 officer Mark Harrington pleaded guilty; the remaining four were eventually acquitted. O’Brien denied wrongdoing, calling the accusations ​“fiction at best”.)

The underdog character of Teamsters United has changed with the new leadership. O’Brien’s connections through the IBT have brought so many local officers into the fold that Teamsters United led the delegate race going into this summer’s 2021 convention. Zuckerman had to fight to get onto the ballot in 2016, just clearing the minimum requirement by getting 8% of delegates to support his nomination. This year, O’Brien got on the ballot with 52% of delegates supporting him.

This half of local Teamster functionaries who supported O’Brien’s nomination have not suddenly been won to the 2016 Teamsters United platform for democracy and militancy. Delegates who supported O’Brien agreed to reform the most egregious issues that have driven rank-and-file anger, like delays on strike pay and the dreaded Two-Thirds Rule, a policy that requires a supermajority of ​“no” votes to reject a contract if fewer than 50% of members participate in ratification, which allowed Hoffa to impose the 2018 UPS contract despite a majority ​“no” vote. But their commitment ended there. 

Proposals that confronted the privileges of Teamster officials were all defeated. These sought to (1) limit the number of salaries union officials could collect; (2) require top officers to have experience as working Teamsters; (3) preserve the rule that candidates for president only need the support of 5% of delegates to qualify; and (4) bar any officials who have been suspended from the office of General President. As if to bold the point, Teamster delegates at the convention voted overwhelmingly to enshrine Hoffa Jr. as ​“General President Emeritus for Life.” My own Local 695 leadership endorsed O’Brien and his slate, while at the same time getting a fresh order of ​“TDU Sucks” pins for the hall.

“There’s no reform slate in this election,” says Tom Leedham, the three-time candidate for Teamster General President from 1997 to 2006. Leedham, who maintains that he is proud of his record with TDU, explained at a debrief of a recent debate, ​“People say this is the reform slate with TDU. There’s essentially five candidates [on the Teamsters United slate] that proudly carry a TDU moniker. Two of them will be in non-voting positions. It is so difficult to make anything happen when you have three seats on a 25-person board.” 

Rather than a referendum on reform, this election reveals a split in the old leadership of the union. Two candidates from the Hoffa administration are competing for the top office, pulling together different sections of the membership to try and carry them over the finish line. O’Brien has focused on the union members who fall under national contracts at UPS, UPS Freight (now TForce), and Yellow Roadway Corporation (YRC) Freight, drawing on the prestige of the 2016 Teamsters United campaign while also bringing along local leaders previously aligned with Hoffa. It makes sense: 70% of UPS Teamsters voted for Zuckerman last time.

Vairma and Teamsters Power have focused their message on the need to have a racially diverse leadership to match the changing demographics in the union, bringing with them the backing of the Teamsters National Black Caucus. Vairma is following Hoffa’s winning election strategy of drawing on the majority of Teamsters under local ​“white paper” agreements (standalone contracts specific to local unions), using the connections of allied local officers to turn out votes. ​“United Parcel Service is extremely important in this union, we have 325,000 members,” said Vairma in the first Teamsters 2021 Presidential Debate, ​“but we also have another million members in the ​‘white paper’ industry that want to know that their voices are going to be heard in this administration.” Vairma plainly rejected members’ concerns over bargaining at UPS: ​“The ​‘Vote No’ campaign down at UPS was a farce.” Many members of Vairma’s slate are directors of the union’s various divisions: warehouse, port, rail, public service, healthcare, construction trades. Vairma has doubled down on this approach by criticizing the union’s preoccupation with UPS.

O’Brien’s campaign has capitalized on his aggressive approach. ​“It’s clear that I’m ambitious and I want to run this union to the fullest extent,” said O’Brien in the same debate. ​“When you’re out there and you’re being aggressive, you’re taking calculated risks for the betterment of your members, of course there’s going to be controversy.” O’Brien is calling for defense of contracts, organizing core industries that have been neglected, and using the strike weapon. Vairma has leaned heavily into attacks on O’Brien’s record, painting himself as the safe bet. (Though Vairma has some skeletons in the closet as well: In 2017, the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found his Local 455 guilty of discrimination against a group of Somali workers they represented.)

How this will play out is difficult to predict. The Teamsters are rare among North American unions in that elections for top union office are held by direct member vote. (Most international unions determine their leadership by delegate convention.) Participation in Teamster elections has been declining since the direct vote was won in 1989 with the Federal government’s ​“consent decree”; in 2016, an abysmally low 200,000 of 1.4 million members cast ballots — roughly 15%. Anger over the 2013 UPS contract made for a perfect storm in 2016, with a clear choice between the officialdom and the alternative. In 2021, the merger of a section of the Hoffa leadership with the reformers from TDU blurs the lines. 

The slates differ largely in who they think will elect them, and then how they intend to confront employers (or not). Teamsters United, with materials almost exclusively for UPS workers, advertises that it’s ready to fight. Teamster Power, stitching together the union’s various sector conferences, appeals to candidates’ good character and asks for faith in their integrity while they stay the course. Mark Solomon, writer with FreightWaves magazine, stated it plainly in a question submitted to the Teamster Presidential debate: ​“You represent the status quo and are considered less militant than Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman.” Rank-and-file Teamsters will have to make the best of the situation, which starts with knowing who the candidates are and what they represent.

It’s the activity of union members on the shop floor that has pushed the IBT to adopt any changes. The reforms that were passed this year were the product of rank-and-file organizing over the past decade: the ​“Vote No” campaigns at UPS and YRC, the refusal of Teamster retirees to accept that their pensions could be lost, and the repeated challenges to local officers. With two disastrous debates for Vairma, O’Brien seems to have the lead. Regardless of who wins the election, members will need to be organized to keep the leadership accountable.

Andy Sernatinger is a member of Teamsters Local 695 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Metro Teamster #7

At Metro, we put together newsletters from time to time. There’s a long history of unions putting out their own information at the worksite — these are helpful in putting out workers’ news rather than the bosses. This edition takes up changes in our health insurance, Covid, and the IBT elections.

27 Votes Was the Difference

Earlier this year we ran a Rebuild 695 slate to represent our union at the Teamsters National Convention. Usually, the officers of the union run unopposed.
We ran to be able to vote on rules for the whole Teamsters union. Results came back early spring: they only beat us by 27 votes!

Schultz, Bruger, Whedan, and the rest of them sent mail calling our people “trash”.
They had all the advantages — contacts, incumbency, money — and even with that it was CLOSE.

Teamsters in 695 are looking for a change up. Let’s keep workin’ on this rebuild.

IBT Delegate Election: Vote REBUILD 695

It’s happening: we’re running a slate for the IBT Convention to represent Teamsters Local 695. Every five years, the Teamsters union has a Convention where every local sends representatives to vote on priorities and changes to the union.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER? Delegates nominate candidates for International Union office and they vote on changes to the Constitution that can create new membership rights or take members’ rights away. Hoffa told the media there will be a motion to increase the percentage needed to run for office, which could potentially end future International Union elections if we don’t reject it. We’re running to protect the rights of the rank and file, to vote against rules making it harder to participate in the union. More here from TDU. In August, every Teamster member will get a ballot to vote for the IBT officers, including the general president.

Ballots for 695’s delegates go out in the mail February 18th to all members of our local. Ballots must be returned by MARCH 23rd at 9am to be counted! (Don’t wait, vote early!)

Our slate: Matthew Sarenich, Sonci Stone, Cody Hanna, Andy Sernatinger, Mike Larson, Nikki Sampson, Gary Gilbertson. Vote REBUILD 695!

What’s going on in the union – December

Hello fellow teamsters,

Hell of a time living through coronavirus, kind of upending the year we expected. All the same, here’s some news on what’s going on in 695 and with the IBT:

  1. Membership meetings – Teamsters 695 has not held any membership meetings since the beginning of the pandemic. Usually these are held the third Tuesday of the month, with a break for the summer. Every meeting has been cancelled. Other unions have been holding meetings through Zoom or other online things to keep members involved — a quick check through the IBT constitution suggests that there’s no rule against this, so its something our local could do. The major consequence is that the set of bylaws Rebuild 695 put forward for regular steward elections, directly-elected bargaining committees, and just cause removal to end “gag orders” has been put on hold indefinitely. Soon as we know there will be a new meeting, we’ll put something out.
  2. IBT General Election – All Teamsters will get a direct vote for the Teamster international union top offices in the fall of 2021. Jimmy Hoffa Jr. is retiring, and there are a couple of big slates contending: Teamsters United (O’Brien/Zuckerman) and Teamster Power (Vairma). Why does this matter? It sets the general direction of the union: how the Teamsters union will deal with national contracts (UPS, UPS freight, YRC, etc), officer salaries, pension plans, politics, and organizing efforts.
  3. 695 Convention Delegate Elections – Every Teamster local gets a number of delegates for the IBT Convention in July in Las Vegas. The Convention formally nominates officer, but more importantly deals with the IBT Constitution — rules that bind the union and every local. The big thing that’ll get fought over this year at the Convention is the “2/3’s” rule, where even though the majority of UPS Teamster voted “No” on their national contract, the IBT ratified the contract anyway saying that it needed 2/3’s to vote it down.

    Delegates could also introduce items to the convention – for instance, lots of part-timers are sour that they pay the same dues as full-timers: that’s set in the constitution, so locals can’t change that on their own.

    These are elected positions, so 695 members will get to vote on who we want to send to the IBT Convention.

More updates soon.

COVID-19 Coronavirus

Sister and brother Teamsters,

By now everyone knows that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a serious pandemic that threatens serious illness and death. Governor Tony Evers has declared a state of emergency following more confirmed cases of the virus in Wisconsin, and is ordering public schools to close starting Wednesday, March 18th. It can’t be overstated how serious this public health crisis is.

As Teamsters, we’re not powerless here. We have not heard from Local 695, but there are examples from other Teamster locals we should take from. Local 705 in Chicago has been contacting their members’ employers asking them to suspend absentee discipline during the crisis: no one should lose their job to take care of themselves or a loved one.

The Chicago Teachers Union has called for additional paid sick time that line up with quarantine recommendations (15 days). Amazon warehouse workers, not represented by a union, petitioned and won paid sick leave protections; workers at the City of Madison, including rank and file Teamsters, are likewise petitioning for safe conditions, paid leave and job protection — while we’re working, we need a safe workplace that includes sanitizer, respirator masks and other gear to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International has released a brief calling for:

  • At least two weeks of paid sick leave for all workers;
  • Extension of unemployment benefits for workers temporarily laid off or whose work hours have been disrupted;
  • Payroll tax cuts for all lower- and middle-income workers; and
  • Protection against unfair termination or discrimination for those suspected of being exposed to the coronavirus.

There are things that can be done to protect our health and our livelihood. Read your contracts for any health and safety information, contact Local 695 asking them to get to work on this yesterday, and organize for what we need — we don’t expect anyone’s going to do it for us.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has put together a very good fact sheet regarding COVID-19 that we’d encourage everyone to read:

Solidarity — Rebuild 695.

Metro Teamsters: We Want Our Contract Meeting

“Whenever a collective bargaining agreement is about to be negotiated, modified or extended at the request of the employer or by this Local Union, the principle executive officer or business representative shall call a meeting at which the membership shall determine and authorize the bargaining demands to be made.”

Bylaws of Teamsters Local 695, Section 26 Negotiations, Ratification of Agreements, Strikes and Lockouts (A)

The contract at Madison Metro Transit (City of Madison) expired December 31st, 2018. According to our Local Union’s current bylaws, the union was supposed to call a meeting where “the membership shall determine and authorize the bargaining demands to be made.” Nearly a year later, this meeting still has not happened. Members have heard little about the status of the ongoing bargaining; “We’ll tell you when there’s something to know.” At the two meetings we’ve had in the last year and a half, both times business agents declared that we would not be talking about bargaining.

Rank and file Metro Teamsters are circulating a petition demanding that we get the meeting that was supposed to happen BEFORE the contract expired. Members need to be able to say what we want and what we’re willing to bargain to get it. We have dozens of signatures that we’ll submit soon — if you’d like to sign the petition but haven’t had a chance please email rebuild695@gmail.com and we’ll get you in touch with people who have them.

If you’re a 695 Teamster at another shop and want help putting something like this together, send us a message and we’ll help with what you need.

Have a great Thanksgiving all! Solidarity!

What We Got From Running

Its been a week since the vote count and the smoke has cleared some, so we can start to look at what we got from running in this election.

As we’ve said over and over, this was the first officer election in 20 years. The last election was in 1998 when a 695 business agent, Ruth Ann Stadola, ran the Stadola slate ran against incumbent officers. Teamsters Local 695 does not have a culture of engaging in the local, so not only did no one expect an election — most people didn’t even know we could have them! By running, we showed that members can fight for the direction of the union.

Second, we built connections across the local. When we started this campaign, we were mostly Teamsters at Madison Metro. That’s no secret. Local 695 has shops from outside Milwaukee to La Crosse — there are dozens of represented sites, but most of us only know Teamsters where we work. We went out to meet other Teamsters in Local 695, talked about the common issues we have and started to build the connections that we will need to rebuild this local.

Third, we educated about what is happening. We named out our issues: appointed stewards, secret contract bargaining, worse contracts, only 24 hours to read proposed contracts before we vote, union representatives too friendly with management. Wherever we went, we heard sister and brother Teamsters say, “I thought it was just us.” It ain’t. We exposed how Local 695 has continued to give themselves raises as our union membership declines and the quality of our representation gets worse.

Lastly, the results of the election clearly show that this isn’t “just a Metro thing” — just under half of our Local voted for Rebuild 695. Our message of democracy, member involvement and fighting for better conditions is something that resonates. The election administrator complimented us on a very competitive run, said we did extremely well for a first run.

The incumbents on the Schultz slate had all the advantages: more money, access to member information we could not have, access to the site lists, stewards who could push their message, knowledge of when we would make our mailings so they could make counter mailings, the ability to call craft meetings and tell people “remember to vote for us”. Any protests we made went to them as the sitting Executive Board to make determinations on — no justice there.

Even less than 100 days to assemble a slate and campaign, and with all of those advantages for the incumbents, we still took 47% of the vote. In 2016, only 475 members in Local 695 voted in the IBT General Presidential election; this election had 1097 votes, engaging the membership in a way that hadn’t been done in decades. We are damned proud.

We’re going to continue to be active in the local. We’ve received many questions about what to do next — we’ll be having a meeting in the coming weeks to regroup and to talk about what to do. Keep reading this website, we’ll post things as they come up. We also want to encourage Teamsters to submit news about what’s going on at your shop: rebuild695@gmail.com We have to give a big shout out to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, who helped give us advice and wrote the book on rank and file campaigning. If you haven’t already, JOIN TDU! This is a national organization of Teamster members fighting for the spirit of our union.