Hoffa’s House Divided: The 2021 Teamster Election, Explained

A rank-and-file Teamster describes what’s at stake.

Andy Sernatinger

An election this November will decide who will lead the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the North American union of 1.4 million members representing workers in nearly every sector, including logistics, package delivery, construction, film and television, manufacturing, and transportation. For more than 20 years, the union has been run by James P. Hoffa, son of the notorious Jimmy Hoffa, the historic Teamster president with connections to organized crime. This election marks the closing of a chapter in Teamster history: the end of the federal government’s oversight of the union, and the first election in 25 years without the younger Hoffa on the ballot. Whoever wins will direct the union as it wrestles with today’s difficult environment: the growth of Amazon, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the next United Parcel Service (UPS) contract, and increasingly hostile employers and politicians.

Two slates are running for control of the IBT’s top offices: Teamster Power, led by Steve Vairma and running mate Ron Herrera, and Teamsters United, led by Sean O’Brien and running mate Fred Zuckerman. Five years ago, Teamsters United, then headed by Zuckerman, came only a few thousand votes shy of defeating Hoffa and winning the office of General President, 45.6% to 48.4%.

Backed by the reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Teamsters United built a campaign that drew on growing anger over a number of issues like concessionary contracts forced at UPS, inaction over a crisis in the union’s pension fund, and the decline of core industries (trucking and logistics). TDU, a grassroots organization of Teamster members formed in 1976, has a long history of campaigns to democratize the union, fight corruption, and organize for strong contracts. TDU’s campaigns resulted in the right to directly vote for top officials in 1989, as well as the election of Ron Carey as Teamster General President in 1991, and played a significant role in the successful 1997 UPS strike.

In 2016, Zuckerman narrowly lost to Hoffa, but Teamsters United won seats on the union’s General Executive Board for the Central and Southern districts, while Hoffa was able to swing the Eastern and Western regions as well as Teamsters Canada. The election revealed the deep dissatisfaction of Teamster members, the distance between the ranks and the leadership, and the existence of a base of members who could potentially change the course of the union. 

The 2021 election has been billed as a rematch five years in the making. Vairma, a relatively unknown principal officer out of Teamsters Local 455 in Colorado and member of the Hoffa-Ken Hall slate (the establishment caucus that won in 2016) since 2011, is considered Hoffa’s successor. Hoffa has endorsed Vairma’s Teamster Power, and the slate features many loyalists. If that was all there was to it, this election could be viewed as another round of the reformers vs. the Hoffa old guard.” Without Hoffa’s name and incumbency to tie the sitting administration’s coalition together, the challengers should have the advantage after coming so close to victory in the last election. It would be Teamsters United’s election to lose.

But this time around, Teamsters United has taken a turn with the introduction of new leadership. In 2016, Teamsters United was fronted by Zuckerman, principal officer of Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville, Ky. — home of the UPS headquarters hub. Zuckerman is a quiet and straightforward union officer who found himself allied with TDU in opposition to Hoffa’s direction of UPS negotiations. Despite Zuckerman’s success at the top of the ticket five years ago, Teamsters United is now being led by O’Brien of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston.

O’Brien, like Vairma, was until recently a member of the Hoffa-Hall slate, elected to the IBT’s General Executive Board in 2011 as an International Vice President for the Teamsters Eastern Region. At the end of 2017, Hoffa fired O’Brien as the chief negotiator for the union with UPS, ostensibly for taking too hard a position against the company. O’Brien broke ranks with Hoffa and reached across the aisle to Teamsters United. Zuckerman, already reluctant to lead the ticket in 2016, then handed Teamsters United over to O’Brien and slid down to the number two position. TDU endorsed O’Brien and Teamsters United at its 2019 Convention and began its campaign for the slate.

In defecting from the Hoffa camp, O’Brien brings connections to other local officers and votes in the Eastern Region — but he isn’t without baggage. O’Brien has earned a reputation among officers and the ranks as an ambitious, hotheaded figure, with several charges filed against him in the union. In 2013, O’Brien threatened members of Providence-based Teamsters Local 251 for running an election campaign to challenge the local’s leadership. The incident was captured on video, and led to his suspension. Charges were again filed against him for threats to opponents at Teamster conventions but were ultimately dismissed.

In 2014, O’Brien’s Local 25 made national news when the union’s picket for the TV show Top Chef was recorded making a series of racist and sexist slurs towards members of the filming crew. Five men involved with the picket were then brought up on criminal extortion charges for threats to the production. (Local 25 officer Mark Harrington pleaded guilty; the remaining four were eventually acquitted. O’Brien denied wrongdoing, calling the accusations fiction at best”.)

The underdog character of Teamsters United has changed with the new leadership. O’Brien’s connections through the IBT have brought so many local officers into the fold that Teamsters United led the delegate race going into this summer’s 2021 convention. Zuckerman had to fight to get onto the ballot in 2016, just clearing the minimum requirement by getting 8% of delegates to support his nomination. This year, O’Brien got on the ballot with 52% of delegates supporting him.

This half of local Teamster functionaries who supported O’Brien’s nomination have not suddenly been won to the 2016 Teamsters United platform for democracy and militancy. Delegates who supported O’Brien agreed to reform the most egregious issues that have driven rank-and-file anger, like delays on strike pay and the dreaded Two-Thirds Rule, a policy that requires a supermajority of no” votes to reject a contract if fewer than 50% of members participate in ratification, which allowed Hoffa to impose the 2018 UPS contract despite a majority no” vote. But their commitment ended there. 

Proposals that confronted the privileges of Teamster officials were all defeated. These sought to (1) limit the number of salaries union officials could collect; (2) require top officers to have experience as working Teamsters; (3) preserve the rule that candidates for president only need the support of 5% of delegates to qualify; and (4) bar any officials who have been suspended from the office of General President. As if to bold the point, Teamster delegates at the convention voted overwhelmingly to enshrine Hoffa Jr. as General President Emeritus for Life.” My own Local 695 leadership endorsed O’Brien and his slate, while at the same time getting a fresh order of TDU Sucks” pins for the hall.

There’s no reform slate in this election,” says Tom Leedham, the three-time candidate for Teamster General President from 1997 to 2006. Leedham, who maintains that he is proud of his record with TDU, explained at a debrief of a recent debate, People say this is the reform slate with TDU. There’s essentially five candidates [on the Teamsters United slate] that proudly carry a TDU moniker. Two of them will be in non-voting positions. It is so difficult to make anything happen when you have three seats on a 25-person board.” 

Rather than a referendum on reform, this election reveals a split in the old leadership of the union. Two candidates from the Hoffa administration are competing for the top office, pulling together different sections of the membership to try and carry them over the finish line. O’Brien has focused on the union members who fall under national contracts at UPS, UPS Freight (now TForce), and Yellow Roadway Corporation (YRC) Freight, drawing on the prestige of the 2016 Teamsters United campaign while also bringing along local leaders previously aligned with Hoffa. It makes sense: 70% of UPS Teamsters voted for Zuckerman last time.

Vairma and Teamsters Power have focused their message on the need to have a racially diverse leadership to match the changing demographics in the union, bringing with them the backing of the Teamsters National Black Caucus. Vairma is following Hoffa’s winning election strategy of drawing on the majority of Teamsters under local white paper” agreements (standalone contracts specific to local unions), using the connections of allied local officers to turn out votes. United Parcel Service is extremely important in this union, we have 325,000 members,” said Vairma in the first Teamsters 2021 Presidential Debate, but we also have another million members in the white paper’ industry that want to know that their voices are going to be heard in this administration.” Vairma plainly rejected members’ concerns over bargaining at UPS: The Vote No’ campaign down at UPS was a farce.” Many members of Vairma’s slate are directors of the union’s various divisions: warehouse, port, rail, public service, healthcare, construction trades. Vairma has doubled down on this approach by criticizing the union’s preoccupation with UPS.

O’Brien’s campaign has capitalized on his aggressive approach. It’s clear that I’m ambitious and I want to run this union to the fullest extent,” said O’Brien in the same debate. When you’re out there and you’re being aggressive, you’re taking calculated risks for the betterment of your members, of course there’s going to be controversy.” O’Brien is calling for defense of contracts, organizing core industries that have been neglected, and using the strike weapon. Vairma has leaned heavily into attacks on O’Brien’s record, painting himself as the safe bet. (Though Vairma has some skeletons in the closet as well: In 2017, the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found his Local 455 guilty of discrimination against a group of Somali workers they represented.)

How this will play out is difficult to predict. The Teamsters are rare among North American unions in that elections for top union office are held by direct member vote. (Most international unions determine their leadership by delegate convention.) Participation in Teamster elections has been declining since the direct vote was won in 1989 with the Federal government’s consent decree”; in 2016, an abysmally low 200,000 of 1.4 million members cast ballots — roughly 15%. Anger over the 2013 UPS contract made for a perfect storm in 2016, with a clear choice between the officialdom and the alternative. In 2021, the merger of a section of the Hoffa leadership with the reformers from TDU blurs the lines. 

The slates differ largely in who they think will elect them, and then how they intend to confront employers (or not). Teamsters United, with materials almost exclusively for UPS workers, advertises that it’s ready to fight. Teamster Power, stitching together the union’s various sector conferences, appeals to candidates’ good character and asks for faith in their integrity while they stay the course. Mark Solomon, writer with FreightWaves magazine, stated it plainly in a question submitted to the Teamster Presidential debate: You represent the status quo and are considered less militant than Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman.” Rank-and-file Teamsters will have to make the best of the situation, which starts with knowing who the candidates are and what they represent.

It’s the activity of union members on the shop floor that has pushed the IBT to adopt any changes. The reforms that were passed this year were the product of rank-and-file organizing over the past decade: the Vote No” campaigns at UPS and YRC, the refusal of Teamster retirees to accept that their pensions could be lost, and the repeated challenges to local officers. With two disastrous debates for Vairma, O’Brien seems to have the lead. Regardless of who wins the election, members will need to be organized to keep the leadership accountable.

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Andy Sernatinger is a member of Teamsters Local 695 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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