After 41 Years, The Teamsters Reform Movement Is Finally Building Power

Stephen Franklin October 26, 2017

More than 40 years on, Teamsters for a Democratic Union is building power. (Teamsters for a Democratic Union)

In the begin­ning, Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union (TDU) was full of spunk. But they didn’t have any union lead­ers on their side, nor many rank and file sup­port­ers, nor much strat­e­gy about turn­ing around a cor­rup­tion-rid­dled union.

When they said we didn’t know what we were doing, it wasn’t total­ly false,” says Ken Paff, who has led the TDU almost since its found­ing 41 years ago. We knew what we didn’t know.”

In time, the TDU learned how to become a thorn in the union’s side, chal­leng­ing its con­tracts, fin­ger point­ing to offi­cials’ cor­rup­tion and lop­sided mul­ti­ple salaries, and elect­ing reform-mind­ed mem­bers to local and nation­al positions.

At its 41st con­ven­tion from Octo­ber 27 to 29 in Chica­go, TDU will mark last year’s nation­al cam­paign that fell only 6,000 votes short of oust­ing James P. Hof­fa. He has led the near­ly 1.3‑million-mem­ber union since 1999, four years longer than his father, James R. Hof­fa.

But the TDU is not just about elec­tions,” Paff says.

The talk dur­ing the upcom­ing con­ven­tion, accord­ing to Paff, will focus on win­ning strong con­tracts, con­vert­ing part-time jobs into full-time work, boost­ing wages that start for some at $11 an hour and pro­tect­ing pen­sions that have been under attack. And then there’s what the group has focused on since its start: devel­op­ing lead­ers, he adds. The union’s prob­lem, he explains, is not such bad lead­ers, but that we need more leaders.”

It’s a strat­e­gy of con­stant activ­i­ty that the TDU honed as it became one of a hand­ful of reform move­ments inside the nation’s largest unions. And it has sur­vived with a small Detroit-based staff and about 10,000 mem­bers, of whom half are behind on their dues, accord­ing to Paff. TDU has six full-time staff, all of whom earn the same salary, as well as two part-timers, Paff explained.

Paff joined the group in 1978 as a full-time nation­al orga­niz­er. But he didn’t fit the stereo­type of a hard­scrab­ble truck­er. He had an under­grad­u­ate degree in physics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley and had worked as a school­teacher. He was dri­ving for a truck­ing com­pa­ny in Cleve­land when he lined up with the union dis­si­dents. For inspi­ra­tion, he stud­ied the work of the Min­ers for Democ­ra­cy, learn­ing about their bat­tle with­in the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers union.

Look­ing for a way to make an impact, TDU began cam­paign­ing against the con­tracts signed by the union. It was a gut­sy strat­e­gy, since the group had no voice with­in the union. They [the con­tracts] were ter­ri­ble, and mem­bers knew it. And they [union lead­ers] didn’t have to pay any atten­tion to the mem­bers,” Paff recalls. The group won a law­suit requir­ing the union to put its con­tracts up for a major­i­ty vote. After a major pub­lic­i­ty push, mem­bers vot­ed down the union’s mas­ter freight agree­ment in 1987.

That real­ly caused peo­ple to take notice,” Paff says.

But the real turn­ing point came in 1989, when the U.S. gov­ern­ment took con­trol of the union in a con­sent order — and said the union had to hold its first-ever rank-and-file elec­tion. The gov­ern­ment described the union as vir­tu­al­ly a whol­ly owned sub­sidiary of orga­nized crime.

The union sought to put off the elec­tion, which final­ly took place two-and-a-half years lat­er. Iron­i­cal­ly, that was a gift for the TDU. It was per­fect for us. We weren’t able to hold an elec­tion and we lined up Ron Carey to win,” Paff recalls. Carey’s 1991 elec­tion led to reforms across the union.

But the changes were short-lived. An elec­tion vic­to­ry by Carey in 1996 was over­turned, and he was barred from the union by a court rul­ing as a result of elec­tion wrong­do­ing by his aides, lead­ing to a new elec­tion. Hof­fa beat a TDU-backed can­di­date in 1998 and has been in pow­er ever since.

For the last 35 years, the TDU has hec­tored the union about offi­cials’ salaries. Its lat­est report, issued in 2016, showed, that 46 union lead­ers earned over $200,000 in 2015. Hof­fa earned $387,244 in salary and com­pen­sa­tion in 2015, the TDU report­ed. He was ranked as the high­est paid leader of a major union in 2016, accord­ing to news reports.

John Coli, the once-pow­er­ful head of Chica­go area Team­sters, was among the high­est-paid Team­sters in 2015, with $337,215 in salary and com­pen­sa­tion, accord­ing to the TDU. He was indict­ed this year by fed­er­al offi­cials for an alleged extor­tion scheme that net­ted him $325,000 from a major Team­ster employ­er in Chica­go. A major inter­nal inves­ti­ga­tion of union cor­rup­tion that focused on Chica­go col­lapsed in 2004, alleged­ly when Chica­go Team­ster lead­ers protest­ed to Hoffa.

By con­stant­ly point­ing to the union’s high salaries and voic­ing the con­cerns with­in the union, Paff claims that the atten­tion helped spur changes. Once we got the right to vote, we start­ed dri­ving down the salaries. [Jack­ie] Press­er made $500,000 in the 1980s, and today they make in the 300,000s,” Paff says.

Some of the TDU’s chal­lenges have not dis­ap­peared, how­ev­er. At the union’s last con­ven­tion, only 8 per­cent of the del­e­gates were aligned with the group. Fur­ther­more, TDU has been unable to raise the mon­ey required to run a major nation­al cam­paign. Hof­fa and his slate spent about $3 mil­lion on the nation­al elec­tion in 2016.

And yet the Team­sters Unit­ed slate, backed by the TDU, won in the Mid­west and South, sweep­ing the votes in the Chica­go area for the first time ever. One of its can­di­dates for vice pres­i­dent came with­in rough­ly 4,000 votes of win­ning, accord­ing to Paff. The vote totals show you the dis­crep­an­cy between the rank-and-file and local offi­cials,” he adds.

With many more Team­sters com­ing from jobs out­side pris­ons and pub­lic ser­vices — the union’s tra­di­tion­al truck­ing base — the union is see­ing more mem­bers who don’t have the same inter­ests or long-term loy­al­ties to Hof­fa and his sup­port­ers. Paff sees yet more poten­tial for change. At 71 years old, he expects to pass the baton to oth­ers in the com­ing years.

There’s no expec­ta­tion with­in the TDU that jobs are passed down to fam­i­ly, friends or long-term allies — as is the case in some unions, he says. Paff under­scores, We still have peo­ple out there who can help.”

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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