This past year we have seen a number of exciting developments in the U.S. labor movement. Two hundred Starbucks stores have unionized and another 316 stores have filed petitions to do the same. In the early spring, we saw a rank and file campaign of workers outside of the union officaldom put a chink in Amazon’s armor by unionizing the first warehouse in Staten Island, New York. We’ve also seen other retail outlets like Apple and REI begin to unionize. Many of these organizing initiatives, while in their initial stages, have shown the power of rank and file driven union campaigns.
Similarly, the Teamster general election results last fall are a welcome development and even historic in their own right. The elections resulted in a change in leadership of the union, which has been dominated by the top down, undemocratic, pro-business union practices of James P Hoffa since the late 1990s. In November 2021, the Teamster rank and file voted by a wide margin against Hoffa-backed candidates for officer positions, demonstrating members’ desire for a fundamental change in the union. This led to the election of Sean O’Brien as Teamster General President, along with his Teamsters United Slate.
This shake up in the union leadership—against those most closely aligned to the Hoffa old guard—as well as the O’Brien leadership’s bellicose talk of organizing industries like Amazon, has led to a plethora of reports and analysis that have heralded the coming of a more muscular union. Perhaps betting on the opening for greater Teamster militancy, even the long standing union reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)—which has traditionally organized for a fighting union and against Teamster corruption and bureaucracy—supported Teamsters United, despite Sean O’Brien’s historic ties to Hoffa.
Most recently, at the Labor Notes conference in June, O’Brien charged up the crowd with a blistering speech attacking America’s most wealthy business magnates, affirming the importance of the rank and file, and verbally committing the Teamsters to an assault on the citadels of corporate power.
After all of the tough talk, many questions remain about the new leadership team: Will they move away from the business unionism that has dominated the Teamsters for the past few decades? Will the new leadership make a turn toward a more combative approach that fights for better wages and working conditions for its members or will they continue to shove bad contracts down members’ throats like at UPS? Will the Teamsters adopt more of a class struggle union approach, fighting for the broader working class and taking on issues outside of basic wages and working conditions?
While it’s not entirely possible to understand the future of the Teamsters based on the past, nor can we look at the track record of one individual and claim to understand how the new Teamster union administration will lead, it is still worthwhile to examine the strategy, decisions and orientation of some of those closest to the O’Brien administration and who have been placed in national leadership roles.
Earlier this year, O’Brien appointed current Teamster Local 1150 Secretary-Treasurer and Principal Officer, Rocco Calo (a former Hoffa supporter), to lead the Industrial Trades Division under the new Teamsters United slate administration. The Industrial Trades Division is responsible for members holding the widest spectrum of jobs within the Union. Teamsters Local 1150 is the union local that represents close to 4,000 Sikorsky Aircraft (a Lockheed Martin subsidiary) production workers in Connecticut, Florida, and Alabama.
By examining Calo’s Teamsters Local 1150 and their recent interactions with Sikorsky we can begin to understand the currents of thought and action that will play a role in creating the dynamics of this new Teamster union. From this vantage point we may want to temper our excitement about the changes we see, recognize the new opening and opportunities that we have, and devise strategies and tactics that will be necessary to take on the bosses.
Rocco Calo and the 2006 strike
Rocco Calo—recently promoted to lead the Teamster’s International Industrial Trades division— the current Secretary Treasurer and Principal Officer of Teamsters Local 1150 has been in that position since 2001.
In 2006, Calo led the failed six-week strike for better healthcare against Sikorsky The 2006 strike was only the second one in the history of the company. The first was a failed strike in 1960 which led to the decertification of the United Auto Workers local 877. In the early 1940s the UAW-CIO in competition with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) set out to organize the aircraft industry. UAW local 877 gained representation of the workers at Sikorsky in 1943 . After the decertification vote there was a brief period in which the workers at Sikorsky flirted with an independent company backed union but ultimately sought representation with the Teamsters. That particular campaign became one of the Teamster’s largest single plant organizing victories in the run up to that decade and would see General President James R. Hoffa on hand in Bridgeport, CT. to rally workers before the election vote.
While he acknowledges the strike as a loss, today Calo sees the importance of that fight as setting a tone for the future relationship between the union and Sikorsky. After the loss, Calo said:
“The most important thing that came out of the strike is that we kind of knocked the arrogance out of UTC a little bit…They thought for sure they were going to break us in a couple of days, and they didn’t … It really set the tone for us and I think to this day Sikorsky believes that. Whether Lockheed Martin does or not? Hopefully we won’t have to prove that again.”
This optimism proved ill-founded.
Lockheed, The State of Connecticut and the Teamsters
In 2015, with Calo as principal officer, Local 1150 was put into financial trusteeship by the national union after the local president was found to be embezzling money from the union. While Calo wasn’t directly cited for embezzlement, the independent review board found that union officers had spent thousands of dollars on nonunion related expenses without the proper approval from the executive board or members of the local.
The same year Local 1150 was being put into trusteeship, long-time Sikorsky owner United Technologies Corporation (now merged with Raytheon) sold a profitable Sikorsky Aircraft to Lockheed Martin. That deal included close to $2 billion in tax breaks, extracted $220 million from the state of Connecticut, and forced Teamsters Local 1150 to adopt a two-tier contract that eroded retirement benefits and included a pay scale reduction of 25% for newly hired employees. Without the concessions and tax breaks, Lockheed threatened to take Sikorsky’s headquarters and parts of its production out of state.
Lockheed Martin is the world’s largest defense contractor, raking in about as much in Pentagon contracts as the next four companies below them do all together. In 2020, it took in $72.9 billion in Pentagon contracts. In 2018, Lockheed made $8.5 billion in profit with 85% of their revenue coming from government contracts. Having a virtual monopoly over many key segments of the defense industry, Lockheed not only devours a huge percentage of our tax dollars but is also able to extract big tax breaks and government subsidies.
On the eve of the member vote on the 2015 contract that instituted the two-tier contract, Local 1150’s leadership wrote this on the union website:
“Following a unanimous recommendation from the Executive Board, members of Teamsters Local 1150 in Connecticut and Florida today overwhelmingly ratified the company proposal, ensuring that Teamsters will build the CH-53K helicopters,”
Instead of seizing the opportunity to criticize the defense contractor for buying a profitable company at a discounted rate, the executive board of Local 1150 showed their inclination toward business unionism by unanimously endorsing and selling a bad deal to their members. Unfortunately, the only critical voice on this deal was a Republican Party state representative who likened the deal to the state being held “hostage,” a claim that isn’t entirely false.
Latest Corporate Welfare Deal
In May 2022, in the same week that we learned of 19 kids and two teachers being killed in a horrific Texas school shooting, Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Ned Lamont penned a new deal with Sikorsky Aircraft.
This most recent agreement between Sikorsky and the state will provide “up to $75 million in performance-based incentives in the form of sales and use tax offset and tax credits.” This is in exchange for a promise from Lockheed to keep Sikorsky in Connecticut for the next 20 years and add new helicopter production lines in the state if Lockheed wins the government contracts to build the replacement helicopter for the UH-60 Black Hawk.
Again, Teamsters Local 1150 leadership locked on to the possibility that jobs may be created and not that Lockheed was getting yet another deal at the expense of their members and everyone else in the state. Calo’s comments about the deal are telling. He said,
”As the proud leader of the Teamsters Local 1150, I want to thank Governor Lamont and our legislative leaders for passing this bill that will help sustain and create thousands of high wage union jobs…Our workers are the best in the world, and we want to continue building the best helicopters in the world right here in Connecticut.”
In less than 10 years Lockheed has threatened to leave Connecticut or shift new production elsewhere twice. These threats, along with the company’s insistence on corporate handouts and union concessions, have become a common occurrence in the way that they do business with the state and the Teamsters. In turn, the strategic failures of business unionism embraced by Teamsters Local 1150 and the majority of national unions means that there is little criticism and no organized opposition to these types of deals. This pattern of relations shows that this is not an oversight by Local 1150 but a systematic practice that has become a part of their long-term approach to dealing with the threats made by Sikorsky and their parent company. Unfortunately, this pattern of business can be found in most union locals in the US.
While Rocco Calo is only one voice inside of the new Teamsters union leadership, it stands to reason that those at the top of the Teamsters aren’t entirely ready to break with their past union practices, which have led to the current predicament much of organized labor has found itself in.
If the Teamsters are to truly take on corporate behemoths like Lockheed or Amazon they are going to have to move past tough talk and posturing. They will need to build coordinated movements that go beyond narrow bread-and-butter trade unionism, challenge the corporate business practices that are endorsed by our elected officials, and organize critical and active resistance to deals that hurt themselves and other working people. Getting more union jobs is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the union’s rank and file members or other working people. Lockheed and politicians don’t mind taking money out of our tax dollars that should go to social programs for working people, but our unions should care.
Narrowing the horizon on the perceived gains of one local won’t help workers at Sikorsky and can’t take the place of building a new labor movement that expresses solidarity with all working people.
Hopefully, through time and a renewed effort among rank and file workers some of these past lessons will be learned, and we will put these ineffective practices in the past.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Susan Melkisethian; modified by Tempest.
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Jay Poppa is a former Teamster and current socialist. He is also a union and community activist and veteran public school educator in Connecticut.