Can Auto Workers Win the Right to Vote? Here's How Teamsters Did It

When Teamsters won the right to vote for their top officers, they voted in insurgent candidate Ron Carey in 1991. Photo: TDU.

After former Auto Workers President Gary Jones pleaded guilty in June to charges of embezzling more than $1 million in union funds, the years-long federal investigation into corruption by senior UAW officials is set to move to a new phase.

The government has named the UAW itself as a co-conspirator. That creates a probability that the Department of Justice will bring a case against the union under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act—a maneuver that could result in a government takeover of the union.

Within the UAW, a movement of rank-and-file members known as Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) is arguing instead for the path taken by the Teamsters in 1989, when that union faced a similar possible government takeover.

For decades, the Teamster leadership had been notorious for its corruption and connections to the mob. Thirty years ago, the U.S. government prosecuted the union under RICO. But Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reform group within the union, strongly opposed a government takeover and argued that the best anti-corruption program would be giving members the right to directly vote for the union’s top leadership.

And TDU won!

In 1989, the Department of Justice reached a consent agreement with the Teamsters that mandated the direct election of top officers and created a court-supervised review board to hunt down corruption and oversee elections.

Now the UAW finds itself in a similar situation. UAWD has been pushing to amend the UAW Constitution and mandate the direct election of top officials through a “one member, one vote” system—just like the Teamsters have (as do the Steelworkers, Machinists, Postal Workers, and Laborers).

To learn about TDU’s history and how its members organize, and to dispel some of the criticism and concerns about one-member, one-vote elections, UAWD co-founder Justin Mayhugh interviewed Ken Paff, one of the founders and the longtime national organizer of TDU.

Justin Mayhugh: Could you give some background on when and how TDU first came together? What was the catalyst for the TDU movement being formed? 

Ken Paff: TDU actually began in opposition to weak contract bargaining by the International union. Yes, there was the issue of rampant corruption, including the fact that the Central States Pension Fund was the mob’s piggy bank, but that was like background music compared to the contract issue.

In September 1975, a handful of Teamsters came together to form Teamsters for a Decent Contract—TDC. Jimmy Hoffa had disappeared two months earlier. His loyal friend, Frank Fitzsimmons, had taken over the union when Hoffa went to prison in 1967. Fitz was supposed to follow Hoffa’s instructions from jail, but the errand boy decided he would run things himself.

Hoffa is seen as a tough union leader who was corrupt, and there is some truth to that. But by setting up a one-party dictatorship within the union, members were stifled, and the table was set for a do-nothing like Fitz, who preferred golfing with Nixon to using Teamster power to defend members.

TDC was really a ragtag group. We had some experienced people—some had formed an earlier group which didn’t last long: TURF, the Teamsters United Rank & File. Some were ’60s veterans such as myself. We lacked credible leaders, but we had determination and a few really good ideas.

The National Master Freight Agreement, which was Hoffa’s signature achievement, was set to expire on March 31, 1976. TDC issued contract demands, including a demand for a cost-of-living adjustment, and distributed leaflets by putting them in trailers, passing them out at gates, and by having road drivers carry them city to city.

It was a real novelty because the fear factor was big. We were threatened and physically attacked in some areas, including in my local in Cleveland. Instead of disappearing when that happened, we called the media and found a local lawyer to go to court.

It was scary but TDC looked bigger than it was.

In April 1976, Fitzsimmons called the first national Teamster strike in history, something Hoffa had never done. It lasted just two days. It was to let members blow off steam and deflate TDC. But the union won an unlimited cost-of-living clause, which protected wages against inflation. That clause was later given away in 1982.

That was the start. In the fall of 1976 the group came together at a meeting in Ohio and became Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Members there voted to form a national organization, and with local chapters. We kept the structure and the program simple.

A key goal was winning the “Right to Vote,” meaning a one-member, one-vote election for Teamster president and International officers. At the 1976 Teamsters Convention in Las Vegas, we had one delegate, out of about 2,000, from Local 299 in Detroit, which was the home local of Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Fitzsimmons. TDU member Pete Camarata took the mic to cast the only vote against Fitzsimmons’ “election” as president. He was beaten that evening on a sidewalk in Vegas.

We played that up to the media, again turning their intimidation to our advantage.

From that humble beginning amidst mob violence, how did TDU survive and grow?

First of all, we kept at it. We were small but found ways to reach out and to be active. Contract issues were very important, because the International union started selling concessions to members in the freight and trucking industry, and even at UPS, in the early 1980s.

Teamster officials tried to sell two-tier contracts, which members hated. We found that Teamster members believe in solidarity—and they oppose two-tier deals.

The Teamsters union is big and extremely diverse, rather different from the UAW, 1.4 million members and in a wide diversity of fields: trucking and warehousing, food and beverage, public employees, school bus drivers, and more. A typical Teamster local may negotiate 50 different contracts, some locals more than that.

So we started learning and getting contacts in various fields. We linked cannery workers in California with road drivers in Nashville and warehouse workers in Michigan.

But it was tough going. In 1984 we scored a victory on stopping concessions in a national contract, when members decisively defeated a two-tier concession deal in the national freight contract. Things like that gave us some credibility.

How did you win the right to one-member, one-vote elections?

Members of TDU started demanding that we target winning the right to vote for International officers. We were pushed into it, but then we went whole hog.

We had a petition signed by nearly 100,000 members. It had no legal standing, but it built support. We took it to the 1986 Teamster convention in Vegas, and got shut down there.

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We found an opening when the U.S. Justice Department talked about using the new RICO Act against the Teamster leadership. We got some great attorneys working on plans, established contacts, and took our plan to the media. Our slogan was “No Mob Control, No Government Control—Teamsters Want the Right to Vote!” The RICO case was very high-profile, and we got in on the publicity. We got major newspapers such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times to actually endorse our position.

So we took this negative attack on the union—the RICO lawsuit—and turned it to our advantage.

On March 14, 1989, we won it. The RICO settlement, made the day before the trial was to start, gave members a one-member, one-vote system, as well as something else we demanded: an impartial election supervisor, with a staff, to ensure a fair election.

Some of that story is told in a movie available on YouTube: Mother Trucker, the Diana Kilmury Story.

So, Teamsters have had one-member, one-vote since then. How has it changed the union?

The first election was in 1991. They are every five years. The next one will be in 2021, and campaigning is starting now. Petitioning to accredit candidates for International office just started in June and will continue this summer.

The right to vote opened up the union. Most of the mob-oriented officials and the ones making $500,000 a year in union salaries got weeded out.

In the 1990s we elected Ron Carey, a reformer, to lead the union. The 1997 UPS strike was a product of that victory and of the right to vote. It was labor’s biggest victory of the decade. But Carey was brought down in 1998 when his campaign manager was caught leveraging money.

What do you say to critics who say one-member, one-vote is a failure because Hoffa Jr. has been in control of the union since 1999?

It’s true that James Hoffa, Jr. was elected and re-elected since Carey, but whoever is elected has some accountability to members now. There are contested elections and issues are debated, and leaders who sign bad contracts pay a price in voting.

Even Hoffa has had to move in a better direction on some issues, because they were important to the members. For example, he did a 180 and adopted our position: he opposed pension cuts and anti-union pension legislation.

In the last election, in 2016, Hoffa won with 51 percent of the vote. We supported Fred Zuckerman and the Teamsters United slate, which fell short. But Teamsters United elected six Vice Presidents, all across the Midwest and South, to the General Executive Board. So it’s not a one-party union, but one with some openness.

With the right to vote, and with Teamsters United coming close in the last election, there has been a realignment of leadership. One International VP who ran on the Hoffa slate, Sean O’Brien, has linked up with Teamsters United. He and Fred Zuckerman have teamed up to form the O’Brien-Zuckerman Teamsters United slate for the next election.

That kind of fresh leadership team would be impossible without the right to vote for International officers. Change is in the wind.

What do you say to those who are worried that direct elections will lead to a lack of diversity among the union’s top leadership?

In TDU, we believe the Teamsters union—and all unions—needs more leaders coming up from below. Younger leaders, Black and Latino leaders, women leaders—we need a diverse leadership and lots more members getting involved. That’s one element of the right to vote that TDU works to use—membership involvement and leadership development. Both of the slates running now are more diverse than the current Teamster board. Eliminating the cronyism of the old system means more diversity and openness to new leaders.

Are there downsides to having one-member, one-vote elections?

We don’t see any downsides. Some officials do—we hear them say “elections are too divisive—we should all support the Hoffa leadership.” Or “it’s a waste of union funds to mail out ballots.”

Members don’t buy that. Unfortunately, the union is already divided—many members are alienated from the union. Bringing democracy into the union helps involve members and restore confidence in the union. It gives members a voice.

The one-member, one-vote elections are very popular across the board in the Teamsters. Any official who would argue that the union should return to the old delegate system wouldn’t get support.

Some critics have said that one-member, one-vote opens the union up to outside influences because of the cost of running a national campaign. Is that true?

Members fund the Teamster election campaigns of the candidates and slates for International office. Any member can donate, up to a maximum of $2,000 per member for the election cycle. Of course, most members don’t donate anything like that. But getting $20 from a number of members in your shop, that’s part of getting some ownership of the leadership and of the union.

And as I said before, elections for top offices can help get members involved: not just in elections, but in becoming local leaders, in participating in the union politically, in organizing, on local bargaining committees, and educational programs.

We’re out to grow the union and the labor movement. And that’s going to come from below, not just from the leadership.

There are some who are worried that a direct election system would disenfranchise small union locals. Has that been true in the Teamsters?

Direct elections do not disadvantage small locals in the Teamsters. In fact, there have been many cases where small locals have had a huge impact.

For example, during the 2016 elections, Local 19 in Texas had 75 votes for Hoffa and 602 votes for Zuckerman, so Zuckerman emerged from that local with a 527-vote lead over Hoffa. In Local 988 in Houston, Hoffa got 542 votes and Zuckerman got 302, so Zuckerman lost by 240 votes.

Local 988 is more than twice as big as Local 19, but Local 19 had more impact on the election due to the turnout and the margin of how many more votes one person got over another.

And who gets votes essentially comes down to who is the most organized in worksites and locals across the country. There are no shortcuts. It takes real work.

Can Auto Workers Win the Right to Vote? Here's How Teamsters Did It After former Auto Workers President Gary Jones pleaded guilty in June to charges of embezzling more than $1 million in union funds, the years-long federal investigation into corruption by senior UAW officials is set to move to a new phase. The government has named the UAW itself as a co-conspirator. That creates a probability that the Department of Justice will bring a case against the union un...