Failure to Organize in Core Jurisdictions Costs Teamsters Bargaining Power

January 2003

Stephen Lerner is right in arguing that unions have diluted their strength by organizing haphazardly merely to gain members (and dues money) rather than organizing for power in their core jurisdictions.

The Teamsters union is one of many that is guilty of failing to organize in the key Teamster industries-primarily trucking, distribution, and food processing and production.

For most of the past 30 years, Teamster organizing has been locally-driven, aimed at any possible unit, and without a coordinated strategy. Not surprisingly then, the union has shrunk from 2 million to 1.4 million members, even though trucking is a growth sector. And many locals have become general ones, free to ignore their core membership and strength, instead competing with other unions in unrelated fields. Teamster organizing has often been scattergun and aimed at small units, averaging fewer than 50 workers.

As a result of this failure to focus on building density, Teamster bargaining power has waned in trucking.

James Hoffa’s father, James R. Hoffa, understood the importance of strategic organizing, having learned it from radical Teamster organizers in Minneapolis and elsewhere. They organized on a regional (and later national) scale to bring wages in the South up to parity, take labor out of competition, and build bargaining power. They understood that union power came from union density, and built a powerful Teamsters union on that basis.

Without a coordinated strategy, the Teamsters Union has shrunk from 2 million to 1.4 million members, even though trucking is a growth sector.

The union did briefly reclaim this approach, and began to grow in the mid-1990s during the presidency of Ron Carey. One notable rank and file-driven campaign brought in 4,000 workers at Overnite Transportation, most of them in the South.


It was no accident that this organizing victory came at a time when the union was also making advances around member rights, pensions, and contract enforcement. The changes within our union generated member confidence and excitement and helped to recruit a small army of committed organizers.

In an abrupt turnaround, the movement at Overnite was killed off when the Hoffa administration fired the organizers, dropped the idea of patiently building a strong union base terminal by terminal, and instead launched an ill-considered strike that never involved more than a small percentage of Overnite workers. On October 24, the third anniversary of the strike, Hoffa shut down the strike and the organizing drive altogether.


Historically, the transportation of new vehicles from manufacturer to dealer showroom has been nearly 100% Teamster. Yet after just several years of coordinated attacks by the automakers and carhaul employers, this industry is now about 75% union.

What happened? Contracts to move vehicles had been held by unionized carriers for 40 to 50 years. In the 1990s, automakers, to cut costs, gave the work to new non-union companies. The International took only localized action to counter this trend in a core industry. This is a jurisdiction where coordinated campaigns with another union-the UAW-could have a major impact.


The Teamsters leadership has an opportunity right now to change course. In July the International’s budget was nearly doubled, to $150 million a year, by a huge dues increase. Ten percent is earmarked for organizing, and the leadership could boost that to 30% ($45 million) and still have more general funding than they had previously. So far no plan has been unveiled, and a mandated conference on strategic organizing has been postponed several times.

These new resources could be used to begin taking on some formidable opponents. Wal-Mart is entirely non-union. A combined Teamster/UFCW effort could marshal the resources needed to establish union beachheads in key locations in the distribution and retail network. And with six years to go until the next UPS contract, this would be an excellent time to make progress at non-union Fed-Ex.

Bargaining at already-organized units needs to be coordinated as well. For example, 11,000 Teamsters work at ConAgra, but they bargain entirely separately in small units, most in the hundreds.

The present Teamster leadership is unlikely to take this bold move. Local leaders and Teamster members need to demand both the funding and strategic orientation necessary to build the union’s clout, instead of competing with other unions in fields that do not enhance bargaining power.

Ken Paff is the organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union

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