On August 21st, one of the two major candidates in a presidential election to be decided this November appeared in Rhode Island to raise money and rally his supporters -- but his name was not Clinton or Trump. Candidate for International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) general president Fred Zuckerman appeared at Teamsters Local 251’s hall in East Providence with members of his Teamsters United slate, including former president of New York Local 804 and candidate for general secretary-treasurer Tim Sylvester, 2011 presidential candidate Sandy Pope, now running for an at-large vice president position, and Local 251 Principal Officer Matt Taibi, running for one of the Eastern Region vice presidential slots.

Fred Zuckerman is the president of Kentucky Local 89, one of the largest local unions in the Teamsters. His campaign bio cites how he “united Local 89 members to vote against concessions in freight, at UPS Freight and at UPS where Local 89 members voted to reject contract givebacks by 94 percent” as an example of his leadership. Zuckerman joined the Teamsters when he helped organize Chemical Express in Houston Texas in 1979, and later took a job as a carhauler in Kentucky Local 89. After serving as steward for 7 years, Zuckerman became a business agent and was elected President in 2000. Zuckerman served as a grievance panel chair under President Carey and President Hoffa, and was the IBT Carhaul Director, until he broke with the Hoffa administration in 2008. He is also the President of Joint Council 94.

Zuckerman is opposing Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa, the only son of James R. “Jimmy” Hoffa, former general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. According to the Teamsters website, Hoffa worked in the 1960’s as Teamster laborer in Detroit and Alaska. He was a labor lawyer in Detroit for 25 years, before serving as Administrative Assistant to the President of Michigan Joint Council 43 for five years. Hoffa has been IBT general president since 1999, winning four consecutive elections. Hoffa is a member of the Department of Labor Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and Trade Policy and United States Trade Representative Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations.

Teamsters Electoral History

The Teamsters have a unique system of direct member voting for national leadership as a result of a 1988 racketeering lawsuit brought by then United States Attorney Rudy Giuliani which accused the IBT of making a "devil’s pact with La Cosa Nostra," asserting that "for decades the I.B.T.'s leadership has permitted La Cosa Nostra figures to dominate and corrupt important teamsters' locals, joint councils and benefit funds."

Typically a successful suit such as this one would have led to the union being put into receivership, but since the 1970’s a dissident group within the IBT called Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) had been pushing for a set of reforms centering around direct election of officers by the membership. The TDU platform influenced the 1989 consent decree signed by the IBT and the Justice Department to settle the RICO lawsuit which established, among other changes, a system of direct election by mail in ballot for international officers, which has now been enshrined in the IBT Constitution.

The first general election for IBT president was won in 1991 in an upset by TDU backed reformer Ron Carey, who collected 48% of the vote while two “old guard” slates split the remaining vote. Carey faced off against James P. Hoffa for the first time in 1996, and won narrowly, but in 1997 a kickback scheme regarding donations to Carey’s campaign came to light, leading to a re-run of the ‘96 election in January 1998, from which Carey was eventually barred from participating. Hoffa won in ‘98 and has been undefeated in each five year term since. The campaign kickback scheme cooked up by Carey’s consultants tainted and fractured a vibrant Teamsters reform movement twenty years in the making.

In 2011, Hoffa carried 60% of the vote, with TDU-backed Sandy Pope and Fred Gegare, a union vice president who had formerly supported Hoffa, splitting the opposition vote.

The Hoffa Campaign

From the perspective of an outside observer reading Hoffa campaign materials and watching the Teamster presidential debate, it is clear that Hoffa is not trying to run an issues oriented campaign. Hoffa sat out the officially sanctioned debate, sending Vice President Hall in his place. Hall managed to shovel mud at Zuckerman just as fast as Zuckerman threw it at him, leading to an inconclusive, unsatisfying affair to my eyes.

In their “battle pages,” 10 pages of information each side is granted by election rule in the August Teamster magazine, Hoffa/Hall’s most prominent factual claim is that they have “taken the strike fund from zero to $158 million dollars,” which allows them to win stronger contracts “because employers fear we have the resources to strike and win.” They don’t actually cite any particular strong contracts they’ve won thanks to this pile of cash, and one has to wonder whether an proudly unspent strike fund is really that intimidating to bosses.

Of course, Hoffa’s message is not targeted at outside observers attempting to analyze his rhetoric. His real pitch is simple and repeated relentlessly: In every election, the TDU tries to divide, weaken and tear down our union. This time, flip-flopping Fred Zuckerman has joined them. Don’t let it happen! According to Hoffa, real Teamsters are loyal Teamsters, and loyal Teamsters vote for Hoffa, full-stop.

Beyond that, the Hoffa/Hall campaign states its highest priorities as:

  • Protecting your pension.
  • Protecting your retirement benefits.
  • Protecting your health care benefits.
  • Fighting for strong contracts.

There aren’t a lot of additional details, but as Hoffa has been Teamster president for 20 years, Teamsters should know by know if Hoffa has delivered these things to them. Hoffa has won four terms on more or less this formula, so its effectiveness should not be underestimated.

Zuckerman and the Teamsters United Slate

At Local 251, Zuckerman’s Teamsters United slate attempted to bring together the longstanding concerns of TDU activists with other Teamsters who have become disillusioned with Hoffa over the years. As Tim Sylvester put it, “Our union has been fighting each other for the past 25 years, instead of fighting corporations. It is time to put our differences aside and fight together, and form this coalition. We brought Sandy Pope on board to solidify it.”

Representing the TDU activist wing of the slate, Sandy Pope explicitly tied the campaign to the fleeting successes of the Carey administration:

"For many of us, since Ron Carey was taken out of this union, we've been fighting ever since to restore and try to bring back what Ron had started, which was fabulous, where the members got involved, got educated. We had big campaigns. We had smart, hardworking international staff spread all over the country helping the locals, helping the members to work together to coordinate to fight the big corporations. Not just UPS, but the UPS strike was an incredible thing that was organized by thousands of people in this union over the period of a year. We haven't seen anything like that in years... I still think about those days."

Zuckerman welcomes TDU into the unity slate, but made it clear -- particularly in the televised debate -- that he has never been a member of that organization. One strong part of his speech at the hall illustrated on how companies buy influence and favorable treatment at the bargaining table:

"Corruption goes throughout our whole union. Panels, particularly at UPS… draw these business agents that sit on these panels in, and they try to make friends with them. Right? If you ever go to a national committee meeting, at 5:00 you go to the bar and all the union guys sitting on the panel are at the bar with UPS, and they're hugging each other, patting each other on the back, having a big time with UPS picking up the bill. They're friends. They're buddies, they're having a great time. Then they leave the bar and go out to dinner, and UPS buys them a big steak, and they're laughing and joking. It's a big social event for them. And then they come back to the bar and get a couple drinks before they go to bed.

"They get up in the morning, a little cloudy headed, and then they've got to sit across the table from UPS and try to represent the membership. Tell me how that works... That's corruption too."

At my local union, I have the largest local union of UPS workers in the country. I've got eight UPS business agents. For all my business agents I've got a policy that they're not allowed to socialize with management. I give them a credit card, they can buy their own damn dinner. I ain't buying their drinks, and if you don't like that policy you can go work for UPS."

Or, as Local 251’s Taibi put it more pithily: “We stand against sweetheart deals.” From my perspective, this seems to be the central question of the campaign: Under Hoffa has the IBT fought hard enough for the strongest possible contracts? Rank and filers may not follow the politics of pension bailouts and trade deals, and even organizing new members can seem like a remote issue at times -- but workers know how they feel about their own contracts and know how they’ve been treated by both their boss and their local.

The biggest flashpoint is the current UPS contract, negotiated in 2013 by Hoffa running mate Ken Hall. There was strong rank and file opposition to that deal, and UPS Teamsters registered their opposition by voting down local supplements and riders to the national contract, including at Zuckerman’s Local 89, which includes a massive UPS air hub and voted against their contract supplement by 94 percent. If enough Teamsters nationwide believe Zuckerman and his slate can get them better contracts, the Teamsters United slate has a shot at an upset.

Enthusiastic local support

In 2011, Sandy Pope told New York Magazine that running for IBT president was “like running for City Council and going to coffee klatches, but it’s across North America.” In East Providence, about 75 Teamsters were in attendance, predominantly from Local 251, but also including activists from other nearby locals. As you would expect in an event billed as a fundraiser, those in attendance were already enthusiastic supporters, but there was real intensity in the crowd which at times contrasted with Zuckerman and Taibi’s rather subdued speaking styles.

Historically, TDU and other dissident Teamster campaigns have succeeded when and where they were able to mobilize a substantial rank and file, member to member ground game. If this meeting in East Providence is any indication, the Teamsters United may do well here.

Ballots will be mailed out October 6th. Counting will start on November 14.