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The Teamster Election

Change, opportunities, and troubling trends


The Hoffa era is over but what comes next?

The landslide victory of the O’Brien-Zuckerman Teamsters United slate certainly represents a vote for a change. While the focus of discontent is centered at United Parcel Service (UPS), a broad swath of Teamsters across industry lines voted to move the union in a more militant direction. The question will be: will they get it?

It’s not surprising that UPS Teamsters have been at the center of the long election campaign. UPS is the largest Teamster employer as well as  being the largest private-sector unionized employer in the United States. It is a fabulously profitable corporation that boomed during the pandemic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in October,

The company’s net income for the quarter ended Sept. 30 was $2.33 billion, up 19% from the same period a year earlier. Its revenue grew 9.2% to $23.18 billion, extending a string of strong financial results since the pandemic as more consumers have goods delivered to their homes.

It’s hard to think of a year in living memory that UPS lost money. The pathetic attempt by Steve Vairma, the leader of the losing Teamster Power slate and Hoffa’s anointed successor, to paint the UPS Teamsters as the spoiled children of the union was another in a list of self-destructive flubs that wrecked his already weak campaign.

A growing revolt at UPS

During the last decade, a growing number of UPS Teamsters have grown increasingly bewildered and angered by the long list of concessions from health care to a new tier of lower-wage full-time drivers agreed to by the union. This came on top of four decades of concessions at the national level including multiple wage tiers and long progressions to top pay scale stuffed into the national contract. UPS, twenty-four years after the 1997 strike, is still a company where two-thirds of the workforce is part-time.

Starting in 2013, Teamsters repeatedly voted down supplements (mini-contracts over local or regional issues), while that same year the national contract was passed by a small margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. Discontent with Hoffa was so great by the 2016 Teamster election, he barely survived, winning by a mere 6,000 votes against Fred Zuckerman, leader of the largest UPS Teamster local union in the country. Local unions with big UPS contingents were vital to Zuckerman’s near victory.

The political situation in the union exploded in 2018. Soon after Hoffa fired Sean O’Brien, a Boston Teamster leader and former loyalist with a thuggish record, and replaced him with Denis Taylor as chief UPS negotiator, they agreed to a new round of concessions. In fact, it was Hoffa and Taylor that proposed a new tier of lower wage package car drivers. The new tier and the use of personal vehicles to deliver packages became real sore points.

Allegedly to deal with the exhausting, overtime burdens of existing package car drivers, the new lower wage full-time drivers was rightly seen as Hoffa and Taylor helping UPS  “Amazon” its workforce—a major  step towards decimating its full-time package car drivers. Package car drivers are one of the few remaining but shrinking islands of blue collar jobs that can provide the living wage and security for working class families in the United States.

UPS Teamsters voted down the proposed contract and many supplements in 2018 but using an obscure clause in the Teamster constitution originating in 1940, Hoffa declared the contract passed to the fury of the membership. Between his near defeat in 2016 and the fury at the 2018 contract sell-out, Hoffa soon announced that he was retiring. He had been losing support for many years from the old guard or conservative officials, who make up the bulk of Teamster officers.

In many ways, the growing Teamster rebellion at UPS during the past decade foreshadowed 2021’s industrial strike wave across the country where two-tier wage structure, exhausting overtime, and undemocratic union structures have propelled forward and simultaneously muffled the discontent among industrial workers. Hoffa’s retirement and the subsequent leadership fight may also foreshadow leadership fights to come in other unions.

The leadership change in the Teamsters is not a welcome development for major Teamsters employers such as UPS—who have a had predictable and loving relationship with the Hoffa administration for two decades—after short-lived reform leadership of Ron Carey that saw two national strikes against UPS, including the historic 1997 strike fought under the slogan of “Part Time America Won’t Work.” In its fury, UPS and its political and corporate allies worked to have Carey witch hunted out of the Union.

UPS is the largest Teamster employer as well as being the largest private-sector unionized employer in the United States. There has not been a national UPS strike since 1997. Photo by Frank Deandro.

Will there be a strike in 2023?

UPS and other major Teamster employers would have certainly preferred Steve Vairma to win the Teamster election. Vairma repeatedly denounced those who attacked the concessions in the 2018 UPS contract and implied that O’Brien and others were reckless in talking about a national strike in 2023 at UPS. Vairma showed his cards while he was already playing a losing hand. He clearly positioned himself as the cautious, pro-company candidate that few wanted.

O’Brien and Zuckerman won sweeping victory across the country with over sixty-six percent of the vote, including all of the vice-presidential spots including those elected on a regional basis, while Vairma and his running mate Ron Herrera won one-third of the vote. It was a huge rejection of the Hoffa legacy by the voting membership of Teamsters and not a welcome development for Teamster employers, who know O’Brien and Zuckerman very well but also know that they must deliver on their campaign promises.

This presents potentially a major opportunity for socialists and Teamster militants to wage a major fight against UPS in nearly a generation. Greg Kerwood, a UPS Teamster and newly elected member of the International Steering Committee of Teamsters for A Democratic Union (TDU), the long standing rank and file reform group, wrote in the Teamster Rebel website this past summer:

No one ever wants a strike. But given the corporate arrogance that exists after four decades of unfettered pursuit of profit, the frustration of UPS Teamsters after two decades of stalled progress, the signs of a broader labor push back, and the changing views of the public, a strike seems not only unavoidable, but necessary for the good of the country.

So the time is now, brothers and sisters, to prepare for what may be inevitable. Start saving your money, start engaging yourself and your fellow members in your local union, and start talking to your friends and neighbors about what life is like at UPS. Because the odds are good that we will have to take this fight to the streets — for ourselves, for our families, for the labor movement, for the whole working class, and indeed for our nation.

Whether a strike is inevitable is debatable but we should be campaigning for one. Certainly, a clash of contract expectations is coming between the Teamsters and UPS, and a national UPS strike would be of national political significance for the Left and the labor movement. Hopefully, Kerwood’s position foreshadows a change by TDU which has taken a cautious approach to fighting UPS during the past decade. It’s been a long time since TDU campaigned for a national strike.

Troubling trends

At the same time, there were troubling trends and missed opportunities that labor activists and socialists should take away from the Teamster election. The 2021 Teamster election was the lowest turnout for Teamster voters since rank and file direct elections began in 1991. Twenty-five thousand less Teamsters voted in 2021 than in the 2016 election or a mere 14.4% of the total membership. The greatest decline in turnout was in the union’s southern region where 45,000 less Teamsters voted for a two-thirds drop.

Two decades of Hoffa’s reign instilled a deep cynicism in the membership that was exacerbated by the union’s pathetic response to the pandemic. This is a serious danger sign that could impact the bargaining position for the Teamsters where only 9.6% of the membership voted for Sean O’Brien. UPS and other major Teamster employers can obviously read election returns and while they may be unhappy with the results, it will take quite an effort to gear the union up for a major contract fight.

The record low turnout can also be interpreted that a large number of Teamsters were not impressed by the appeals of either slate. Both Teamsters United and Teamster Power slates are overwhelmingly dominated by former Hoffa loyalists. For many it is the same old crowd running for office making campaign promises that they won’t keep. There was a time when Hoffa also promised to “Restore Teamster Power“ and run a clean union, however laughable that may seem now.

Meanwhile, issues concerning gender and racial diversity raised hypocritically by Vairma—given his own record—have fallen to the wayside. Vairma even managed to flub this issue in the most embarrassing way during his nationally broadcast debate with O’Brien. Chris Silvera, a New York Teamster leader and the former head of the Teamster National Black Caucus, raised these issues more straightforwardly in a series of Facebook Live conversations with Philadelphia Teamster leader Richard Hooker.

Industrial Pioneer, April 1926. Photo by Tobias Higbie.

Silvera also raised the question of the influence of far right ideas among the Teamster membership. Even Hoffa has admitted this is a serious issue. O’Brien and Zuckerman were largely silent on these issues—race, gender, and the far right—during the campaign.

While O’Brien and Zuckerman claim the mantle of reform in this election, largely because of the endorsement of TDU, Tom Leedham and Tim Sylvester, both former candidates for Teamster General President with TDU support, declared, “There’s no reform slate in this election” in a debrief following the first O’Brien-Vairma debate. Wisconsin Teamster activist and Tempest contributor Andy Sernatinger in a popular In These Times article described the election contest as first and foremost a split in the “House of Hoffa” where reformers are marginal to the O’Brien slate.

This highlights what is the most troubling trend in Teamster politics, the long decline of Teamster reform notably the political retreat of TDU. It is one thing to critically support candidates, it is another to uncritically throw your lot in with them as TDU has done with O’Brien, who is unapologetic about thuggish personal record and his local union’s acts of notorious racism or misogyny, is another.

TDU has for the past decade been accommodating itself to a growing number of former Hoffa loyalists hoping to achieve the type of political success that has eluded it since the Carey years in the 1990s. At the last TDU convention in early November, while the turnout was higher than previous years, they repealed its “Rank and File Bill of Rights,” one of its foundational documents. TDU has traveled a long way from its radical rank and file roots in the 1970s. Whether it can challenge the incoming O’Brien administration when necessary will be a challenge for it.

2021 has been a year that industrial workers have been trying to get off the knees with a mini-strike wave that has shaken up politics in many unions that haven’t been on strike or seen a leadership battle in a generation. Hopefully, the change in leadership will give rank and file Teamsters the opportunity to fight back at UPS and beyond.

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Joe Allen View All

Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer, and is a member of the Tempest Collective Steering Committee.