Teamster Contest Reaches Fever Pitch

Buoyed up by a tide of anger over contract concessions, pension attacks, and corruption scandals that implicate high-ranking union leaders, the Teamsters United slate led by “pissed-off Teamster” and Local 89 President Fred Zuckerman is giving 17-year incumbent James P. Hoffa a run for his money. Photo: Teamsters United.

At last, November’s election deadline is almost here—clinching a dramatic race that featured a nail-biter of a nomination contest, a raucous convention, and an email scandal. Few undecided voters are left. The candidates have painted starkly different visions for the future of jobs, health care, retirement, and democracy itself. Now the outcome depends on how effectively each side can turn out its votes.

Trump vs. Clinton? Nope—I’m talking about the battle for the top seats in the Teamsters union. Ballots hit the mail October 6, and the vote count begins November 14.

Unusual among U.S. unions, members of the Teamsters are constitutionally guaranteed the right to directly elect their international union officers every five years—thanks to decades of dogged advocacy by the rank-and-file reform network Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

And this year, a fired-up slate called Teamsters United, supported by TDU, is giving 17-year incumbent James P. Hoffa a run for his money.

Local 89 President Fred Zuckerman, the self-described “pissed-off Teamster” who heads the Teamsters United ticket, has been on the front lines of resistance to the givebacks that Hoffa’s crew forced onto UPS workers—and the ones it’s still trying to force onto carhaulers, who voted down a contract offer for the second time this fall.

The challengers are buoyed up by a tide of anger over contract concessions, pension attacks, and corruption scandals that implicate high-ranking union leaders.

“If we did a straw poll in our barns we would win in a landslide,” said Dave Bernt, a UPS feeder driver in Chicago, running for trustee on the Teamsters United ticket. “But that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t get members to mail in their ballots.”

So rank-and-file volunteers who’ve spent the last two years talking to as many Teamsters as they could are kicking into high gear. It’s time to get out the vote.

TURNOUT IS THE KEY

Turnout is the name of the game, since only about 1 in 5 Teamsters voted in the last election. The challengers will need to boost that percentage. There’s no electoral college here—it’s one member, one vote.

To hone their local strategies, the activists have studied past election results. In Chicago, for instance, Hoffa won 2 to 1 in 2011. The biggest turnout came from Local 727, which International Vice President John Coli runs as practically a family business.

But this year, Chicago is “Fred Zuckerman Country,” Bernt said. True, the reformers are unlikely to flip Coli’s local—but it’s just one of 19 Teamster locals in the area, and not even the biggest.

Through 18 months of campaigning, the Chicago crew has mapped out support worksite by worksite. In the largest locals “we’ve campaigned at all of the major barns once, and several key barns have gotten a second or third visit,” Bernt said. “We’ve collected thousands of phone numbers and emails.

“We know the lay of the land, where we’re strong and where we’re not. We can win Chicago by getting out more votes in our strongholds.”

Over the weekend, members around the country received a robo-call from actor Danny DeVito urging all Teamsters to vote. The union paid for that as nonpartisan, though DeVito just happened to produce a movie called “Hoffa.”

The incumbents have the money advantage. Though only Teamsters may legally donate to these campaigns, Hoffa’s rich buddies in the union have come through, raising a campaign chest of more than $2 million.

Most eligible voters don’t work under national contracts or have Teamster pensions, and they may feel little connection to the union. Without big money for mailings and ads, the scrappy Teamsters United campaign is working hard to reach more members one on one.

“We’re all sacrificing for this,” said Joan-Elaine Miller, who delivers UPS packages in Philadelphia and serves on the TDU steering committee. “I’m using all my vacation time to campaign. It’s too important not to. This is an investment in my future.”

A VOICE FOR PART-TIMERS

The early weeks are crucial, before people have had time to misplace their ballots. Rank-and-file volunteers are organizing local phonebanks and leafleting at big workplaces to remind supporters to vote.

And on the job, they’re mobilizing co-worker communication networks. “I go to the seniority person and say, ‘You’ve got to make sure everyone on your line votes,’” said New York City UPS part-timer Dave Loobie, another Teamsters United candidate for trustee.

“You have to see them drop it in the mailbox. It’s not enough to just say they voted. If that means we all go the post office together, that’s what we have to do.” He’s telling his co-workers, “I’m going to ask you 100 times, so if you don’t want me to ask you, take a picture of yourself dropping it in the mailbox and send me the picture.”

Loobie, who’s worked at UPS for 19 years, is one of two part-timers on the slate, and Zuckerman has pledged to appoint him to the next contract negotiating committee.

Till now UPS part-timers haven’t had a voice at the bargaining table. They sort and load packages right alongside full-timers—but start at $10 an hour, and are guaranteed only three and a half hours of work per shift.

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Hoffa didn’t make it to the August presidential debate; he sent his running mate, Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall, to lock horns with Zuckerman on his behalf. Hall boasted that the average part-timer actually makes $31 an hour, if you factor in the cost of health benefits.

Loobie found that insulting. “I don’t remember the last time you could pay your rent with your health care,” he said, “or go to the grocery store with your health care.

“He made it sound like health care was some extra bonus, not something you deserve. Health care, which is a basic need of human beings. It was a funny thing to know that this is a man who sat and negotiated the part-time contract for UPS.”

SEAMY DETAILS EXPOSED

Besides sounding out of touch on workplace issues, the incumbents have been plagued by a string of racketeering and corruption charges.

The latest probe, announced last month, concerns how investment firm owner Charles Bertucio brokered a lucrative health insurance deal covering 20,000 Teamsters—after allegedly treating Hoffa and other top officers to European golf vacations and hiring Hoffa’s son.

Emails that came to light last month shed unflattering light on another case. After Teamsters in Minnesota unanimously voted down a contract offer, union Vice President Rome Aloise flew in from California and apparently forced the local union officer to accept the company’s concessionary terms.

Amid those negotiations, the emails show that Aloise asked the company for six tickets for Hoffa’s Chief of Staff Willie Smith to a Playboy-Crown Royal-sponsored Super Bowl party.

It’s illegal for union officers or staff to take gifts of value from employers, even if there’s no quid pro quo. But in this case, the quo isn’t hard to spot. The company negotiator praises Aloise for pushing the deal through, and passes his ticket request up the chain of command, in the very same email.

Meanwhile emails on the union side show how Teamsters honchos were scratching each other’s backs too. Aloise confirms that he’s lining up those Playboy party tickets for Smith—in reply to an email where Smith approves Aloise’s request for a weeklong, union-paid trip to Paris.

Hoffa received all these details in February, when the union’s Independent Review Board recommended he bring charges against Aloise. Instead he stalled. His slate nominated Aloise for reelection, and Smith is still on the job.

Aloise, perhaps not coincidentally, was the top fundraiser for Hoffa’s 2011 campaign.

RAMPANT BULLYING

In some locals, the campaigners are fighting on two fronts.

Teamsters United vice presidential candidate Kimberly Schultz swept the August election for the top seat in Florida’s Local 2011, winning an overwhelming 87 percent of the votes. Schultz had led the fight to end a five-year trusteeship of her local, which represents 4,000 workers at the Department of Corrections.

Harold Armstrong, who’s been delivering UPS packages in Memphis for 27 years, comes from a union family—his mother was a teacher, his father a postal worker. This year he got a message printed on the back of his T-shirt: “I’M PISSED OFF LIKE FRED!!”

Harassment is a major concern for UPS workers, full-time and part-time alike. Electronics track their every move. Supervisors may come after you for your rate of errors, your pace of deliveries or scans per hour, or how many seconds you had your foot on the brake.

So even when supervisors violate the contract by forcing drivers off their bid routes or short-shifting part-timers, “they scare employees so much that they don’t file a grievance,” Armstrong said.

To revive contract enforcement, he’s running for Local 667 trustee on a reform slate led by Jerry Yarbrough, also a Teamsters United candidate for vice president. They’re challenging local officers who are notorious for not putting in a full day’s work.

LET A LITTLE LIGHT IN

It was inaction on grueling production standards that inspired Ventura, California, warehouse worker Benny Hernandez to run for Local 186 president. He took office in January.

“They count every minute, every step you take,” he said. “They’re overloading trucks with groceries, creating an unsafe environment for workers, pushing them to their limits. They want the older seniority guys to retire.”

Hernandez has been a Teamster for 36 years, driving at Sysco Foods for 23 of them. A former Hoffa supporter, he gradually shifted his perspective and ultimately decided to challenge his local leaders after “seeing all the corruption, the lack of organizing, the complacency of officials, and the do-nothing leadership that doesn’t engage or educate the members.”

He wants to send members to a University of Wisconsin School for Workers program to learn exactly how the production standards work, so they won’t have to take the company’s word for it anymore. The previous administration shot down this idea.

In September, Hernandez and another grocery warehouse Teamster, Frank Villa, hopped in a motor home and took a trip around the state, campaigning for Teamsters United on their own dime. They met Teamsters who didn’t even know who Hoffa was, or what local they belonged to.

At a Safeway distribution yard in Tracy, California, a shop steward showed up to yell that they weren’t wanted. But “we turned around and there were so many people there wanting to engage us,” Hernandez said. “His own members told us not to listen to him.

“We said, ‘It really looks like you’ve got a lot of support here, buddy. That’s how you guys get elected, keeping people in the dark.’”

Read more: The low pay for part-timers at UPS is dragging down standards for postal workers, too.

Alexandra Bradbury is editor of Labor Notes.al@labornotes.org