June 30, 2006 – The long-running battle between reform-minded Teamsters and the unionâ€™s current leadership shifted gears this week with the opening of the organizationâ€™s 27th convention in Las Vegas. But observers see little fundamental change in the unionâ€™s future coming out of this yearâ€™s meeting, which began Monday and closes today.
Teamster delegates meet once every five years to nominate candidates for the unionâ€™s General Executive Board and to vote on resolutions. With about 7,000 attendees and 1,800 delegates considering dozens of resolutions and candidates, Teamsters communications director Galen Munroe said the 2006 convention compares â€œfavorablyâ€� to those in the recent past.
Indeed, the Las Vegas meetingâ€™s day-to-day happenings and results look very similar to the last convention in 2001 â€“ a fact that radical workersâ€™ rights activist Tom Wetzel said is unsurprising. He told The NewStandard that union conventions are similar to political ones: â€œmanaged and largely pre-determined.â€�
â€œTraditionally, union convention politics are dominated by paid officials of locals and the international,â€� Wetzel said. â€œThe whole paid hierarchy of any union has an agenda â€“ usually focused on maintaining their status â€“ and dissident voices are consistently out-voted. It is really kind of a political machine.â€�
The key to changing that, Wetzel suggested, is grassroots efforts like the 30-year-old Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which agitates for more local control and direct member participation in decision-making processes at the national level. Wetzel said that the concept, known as â€œunion democracy,â€� is the key to organized laborâ€™s long-term stability and growth.
â€œUnions right now are so â€˜top-downâ€™ that they suck up the resources that should be used for rank-and-file organizing and mobilizing,â€� said Wetzel. â€œWith so much power, energy and money at the top, members get neglected and organizing campaigns have, historically, foundered. TDU has fought for a long time to try to get control of, and give control to, union locals, and [to] democratize bylaws.â€�
This year is no different for TDU, which brought a slate of thirteen proposed resolutions to the convention, including bids for more-transparent financing, greater control for member locals and mandatory member-approval of dues increases. As of press time, none of the TDU resolutions had been approved, and most do not even appear in the official tally presented by the Teamsters leadership.
The convention delegates had approved all 43 resolutions announced prior to the convention, including one prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, another pledging to organize workers at the international communications company Quebecor, and a promise to support FedEx workersâ€™ right to organize, according to information provided by Teamsters officials. Wednesday, the union approved a motion initiating a campaign to tighten roadway safety for truckers across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
In its press releases and daily updates, the official Teamsters apparatus has highlighted the number of attendees, unity and â€œprogressiveâ€� reforms approved by members. It has not acknowledged TDUâ€™s daily reports of dissent and tension on the convention floor.
The TDU leadership says its proposed reforms are designed to open up the unionâ€™s internal processes to rank-and-file members. By pushing for mandatory votes on dues increases and member oversight of contract votes, the reformers hope to both wrest control of the unionâ€™s levers of power and re-engage members in the political processes inherent in the workersâ€™ rights movement and outside politics.
In addition, TDU has called for a â€œMembership Bill of Rights,â€� a three-part measure that would enshrine membersâ€™ rights to participate in contract negotiations and elect shop stewards â€“ the lowest position in organized labor and the people with whom rank-and-file workers have the most contact.
The Bill of Rights would also guarantee that local union elections are conducted through mail-in balloting, a method union strategists say increases turnout.
Seven of TDUâ€™s regional vice presidential candidates qualified for the fall election, as did one of its trustee candidates and seven of its nominees for vice president at-large. Results of presidential delegate voting are expected today.
Citing strict constitutional laws, Munroe declined to comment on the upcoming election or TDUâ€™s ongoing struggle to change the face of the 103-year-old union. Teamster President James P. Hoffaâ€™s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
At about 1.4 million members, the Teamsters are one of the largest unions in North America, and its leadership has always tried to play down cleavages during conventions, said Michael H. Belzer, an industrial relations professor at Wayne State University and former TDU activist. He agreed with Wetzel that holding such â€œmanagedâ€� events ultimately hurts the rank-and-file.
â€œMost unions are organized on a classic democratic-centralist principle,â€� said Belzer, who served as co-chair of the Chicago chapter of TDU from 1979-1986. â€œWhen it comes to conventions, most of the issues have already been decided, and thereâ€™s a desire to present a united front to the outside world â€“ regardless of the circumstances. It is still relatively unusual to see any sort of a showdown at union conventions.â€�
TDU formed in reaction to rampant corruption and apparent apathy among Teamster leadership during the mid-1970s and has been trying to crack the unionâ€™s power structure ever since. Most of the changes have been incremental but not insignificant, said Cornell University labor-studies professor Richard Hurd. He noted that TDU managed to get direct elections â€“ a provision imposed on the union in 1991 following a racketeering settlement with the federal government â€“ enshrined in the constitution in 2001.
In addition, TDU was instrumental in getting Ron Carey elected president in the organizationâ€™s first-ever direct election in 1991. Hurd described the feat as â€œTDUâ€™s most important achievement.â€�
The victory was short-lived, as Carey resigned in 1998 in the face of a campaign fund-raising scandal. Carey was not a TDU member, but his administration was more open to the organizationâ€™s goals than that of successor Hoffa, added Hurd.
Now, with the staged nature of the convention and the overwhelming notion that the union has already taken a progressive turn by joining Change to Win (CTW) coalition, TDUâ€™s prospects for pushing through change this year remain slim. The Teamsters, along with several other major US unions, left the AFL-CIO last year and co-founded Change to Win.
â€œI think this year is going to be difficult for TDU,â€� Hurd said. â€œChange to Win is viewed â€“ rightly or wrongly, we donâ€™t know â€“ as a progressive voice within the labor community. It is highly unlikely that the Teamsters will adopt any major changes until they see if this thing works out.â€�
The â€œthingâ€� Hurd refers to is CTWâ€™s plan for a new paradigm in worker organizing. At itâ€™s founding, the coalition cited the need to focus heavily on organizing US workers and pledged to institute a plan to organize whole industries, consolidate smaller unions and refund money to unions that achieve organizing goals.
â€œThe whole issue centers on who has the best growth model and what can bring more short-term efficacy,â€� Hurd said. â€œIs the consolidation model Change to Win is operating on ultimately going to help US workers? Or is [TDU presidential candidate Tom] Leedham right, and grassroots, rank-and-file worker action is what organized labor needs?â€�