In Wisconsin, the Teamsters Faced a Revolt from Below

Alice Herman December 3, 2019

Sonci Stone, who ran on the Rebuild 695 slate, says she wants her union to fight harder for its members during contract negotiations. (Photo: Alice Herman)

Every day, Nik­ki Samp­son dri­ves from her home in Portage to Madi­son, where she works as a dis­patch­er for the city’s bus ser­vice. To get there, she dri­ves along a 40-mile stretch of high­way, which cross­es the Wis­con­sin Riv­er twice and then slices south through farms and munic­i­pal­i­ties. That road lies at the heart of the region rep­re­sent­ed by Sampson’s 4,256-strong union — Team­sters Local 695.

Samp­son has worked for Metro tran­sit for over 20 years, and says that as a younger employ­ee there, she count­ed on the union to fight for work­ers in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions and file griev­ances on their behalf when things went wrong. But over the last two decades, Samp­son says, the union has devel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as weak­er, and unable — even unwill­ing — to push back against man­age­r­i­al wrongdoing. 

We on the floor are our own union rep­re­sen­ta­tion. We assist each oth­er with fil­ing a griev­ance,” says Samp­son. We go to fel­low cowork­ers and we get togeth­er and we look over our union con­tract.” Samp­son says that she has reg­u­lar­ly looked into griev­ances on behalf of her cowork­ers — rather than stew­ards, the work­ers who rep­re­sent the union on the shop floor. 

So Samp­son and her col­leagues ran a cam­paign to elect a new slate of offi­cials to head the Team­sters local. The slate, which called itself Rebuild 695 and was com­prised most­ly of Madi­son Metro Tran­sit employ­ees, came 96 votes short of unseat­ing the incum­bent lead­er­ship of the local on Fri­day, Octo­ber 25

Giv­en that the slate had only a 100-day notice for the elec­tion, it is notable that it came this close to winning.

The reform push in the Wis­con­sin local has grown out of a broad­er push to reform Team­sters by elect­ing mem­bers to lead­er­ship local­ly and nation­al­ly. In the last two years, Team­sters mem­bers in Wash­ing­ton D.C.,Texas and, most recent­ly, North Car­oli­na, have suc­cess­ful­ly installed reform­ers in office at their locals. 

The recent reform cam­paign by mem­bers of Team­sters Local 71 in North Car­oli­na yield­ed an over­whelm­ing win for the reform slate, with 757 votes cast for reform can­di­dates and 286 for the incum­bent. Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union (TDU), a coali­tion of Team­sters mem­bers that has fought cor­rup­tion in the union and won mem­bers the right to elect the union’s lead­er­ship, hailed the North Car­oli­na reform effort a grass­roots vic­to­ry” and wrote in a blog post about the elec­tion that lead­er­ship had paid the price for being out-of-touch with the rank-and-file.” 

Formed in 1976, TDU has pushed for more equi­table pay struc­tures with­in the union and backed reform cam­paigns nation­al­ly. In 2016, TDU-backed Fred Zuck­er­man near­ly unseat­ed Team­sters pres­i­dent James P. Hof­fa, who has held office since 1999 and has faced cor­rup­tion investigations. 

For reform-mind­ed union activists like those at Madison’s Metro Tran­sit, TDU offers guid­ance for run­ning a local cam­paign. Accord­ing to Jake Puls, who ran for pres­i­dent of the Rebuild 695 slate, the reform­ers con­sult­ed TDU mate­ri­als in prepa­ra­tion for its campaign. 

The Local 695 reform can­di­dates point­ed to declin­ing mem­ber­ship and increas­ing salaries for lead­er­ship of the local as evi­dence of a dis­con­nect between work­ers and their rep­re­sen­ta­tives: Mem­ber­ship fell by about 40% between 2000 and 2018, and the top three union offi­cials earned approx­i­mate­ly $130,000 as of last year. The reform cam­paign attrib­ut­es mem­ber attri­tion to dis­en­chant­ment with the union, while cur­rent lead­er­ship at 695 argues that the clo­sure of busi­ness­es explains most of the decline in mem­ber­ship since 2000. The union has lost 223 mem­bers to decer­ti­fi­ca­tion, which accounts for about 16% of mem­ber­ship loss since 2011

Local 695 offi­cials defend their salaries, argu­ing that offi­cer salaries are on par with oth­er union lead­ers in the coun­try and that it is a good pay­ing job, but so are oth­er jobs that require years of expe­ri­ence and no time off.” 

Mem­bers also iden­ti­fied aspects of the local’s cur­rent bylaws as unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic. The bylaws include, for exam­ple, a rule that stew­ards shall be select­ed and removed in such a man­ner as the local union exec­u­tive board or the prin­ci­pal exec­u­tive offi­cer may direct.” This word­ing indi­cates that whether stew­ards are elect­ed or appoint­ed is up to the exec­u­tive board, which can over­ride the results of an elec­tion with its own appointee.

Samp­son, who has spo­ken about racism in her work­place since as ear­ly as 2014, says that she has found lit­tle sup­port from stew­ards at her local in chal­leng­ing dis­crim­i­na­to­ry hir­ing and dis­ci­pli­nary prac­tices by man­age­ment. And when she ran for the posi­tion of stew­ard, Samp­son says she was met with resis­tance from the union.

I was vot­ed in as a union stew­ard, and they did not like that at all,” said Samp­son. Two weeks after she took the posi­tion, Samp­son says, she was removed and replaced by a stew­ard that the union appointed. 

The Rebuild plat­form promised to adjust salaries for union lead­er­ship and cam­paigned on a plat­form to expand com­mu­ni­ca­tion between union offi­cials and mem­ber­ship by “[build­ing] a web­site for our local, send[ing] emails & text mes­sages and start[ing] newslet­ters so that Team­ster mem­bers know what is hap­pen­ing in the local and know how to get involved.” 

Instead of union lead­er­ship reserv­ing the right to appoint shop stew­ards, the Rebuild slate said that it would work with mem­bers to insti­tute reg­u­lar elec­tions for the stew­ard posi­tion, argu­ing that elec­tions will make sure union stew­ards are doing what the mem­bers want.” 

Samp­son said that she hoped the Rebuild can­di­dates would push hard against con­tract vio­la­tions by man­age­ment. “[Man­age­ment] under­stands that we have such a weak union at this point,” says Samp­son. In 2014, Samp­son and three oth­er Metro Tran­sit work­ers went to local press to protest what they iden­ti­fied as racist hir­ing and pro­mo­tion­al prac­tices, which were pro­hib­it­ed by the union con­tract. Samp­son is emphat­ic that the union did not help and has not been friend­ly to her and her cowork­ers’ com­plaints of racial discrimination.

I want to go back to the union that I was intro­duced to 24 years ago. A strong, sol­id, unit­ed front,” said Samp­son. A union that rep­re­sents you and under­stands what a union is about, to fight for the rights of the file and the rep­re­sent­ed, not the man­age­ment.” Once, she said, while dri­ving to work, she was greet­ed by honks of approval — a fel­low Team­ster, see­ing the Rebuild 695 stick­ers on her car, rolled town the win­dow to cheer her along. 

Puls said that the cam­paign was pred­i­cat­ed on the goal of estab­lish­ing direct chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between mem­bers and the local, and avenues for mem­bers to fight for bet­ter work conditions.

The more you get peo­ple to feel like they mat­ter and that they have a voice, the more they stick togeth­er and the stronger the union becomes,” says Puls. 

The Rebuild slate and its sup­port­ers also say that union mem­bers at shops around the state per­ceive stew­ards as reluc­tant to file griev­ances and slow to meet with work­ers to talk about issues at work. 

We always went to our stew­ards. And our stew­ards would just blow it off. You have no idea how many times we were told by stew­ards, Oh no, you shouldn’t file a griev­ance, oh no, you can’t file a griev­ance,’” says Samp­son. She says that while cam­paign­ing, the reform slate met with mem­bers at oth­er shops com­plained that stew­ards were best friends with man­age­ment” and unwill­ing to help file a grievance.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of local 695 respond­ed to the alle­ga­tion that mem­bers around the state did not have knowl­edge of union oper­a­tions and per­son­nel such as busi­ness agents (who are the pri­ma­ry point of con­tact between shops and the local head­quar­ters), call­ing the claim just sil­ly.” Union lead­ers also dis­missed claims that they had not main­tained com­mu­ni­ca­tion with mem­bers in a cam­paign blog post: Mem­bers can attend our Gen­er­al Meet­ings that are held on the third Tues­day of every month…Be active in the Union, run for steward!”

Still, Son­cerethia (Son­ci) Stone, who cur­rent­ly works as a bus dri­ver for Metro Tran­sit and ran for vice pres­i­dent of 695, empha­sized the need for trans­paren­cy between the lead­er­ship and its mem­bers dur­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions in her local.

The city of Madi­son is get­ting a whole lot off our backs. And noth­ing is returned. In some cas­es our work con­di­tions are absolute­ly hor­ri­ble, and they look at us like, Oh yeah, be glad you got a job,’” says Stone, cit­ing 16-hour work­days and long peri­ods with­out a bath­room break. 

Our plan going for­ward first off is to be total­ly trans­par­ent about what’s going on, about what man­age­ment is try­ing to do, what we can try to fix and how we can fix it, whether or not man­age­ment is work­ing with us or against us,” Stone con­tin­ues. The employ­ees need to know every detail of what’s going on, espe­cial­ly as far as con­tract nego­ti­a­tion goes.”

Work­ers at Madison’s Metro Tran­sit account for approx­i­mate­ly 11% of the labor force in Team­sters 695, which rep­re­sents union mem­bers in trans­porta­tion, con­struc­tion and oth­er occu­pa­tions across South­west Wis­con­sin. To reach work­ers across the Wis­con­sin local, can­di­dates on the Rebuild 695 slate trav­eled across the state, wait­ing near shops to inter­cept work­ers before and after shifts. 

Can­di­dates cam­paign­ing for the Rebuild slate were joined by fel­low union mem­bers at Metro tran­sit in Madi­son — some of whom say that they put in up to 20 hours a week off-the-clock on the campaign. 

Cody Han­na, a mechan­ic at Metro tran­sit, says that his famil­iar­i­ty with pres­i­dent-hope­ful Puls, plus a sense of dis­il­lu­sion­ment with cur­rent union lead­er­ship, pushed him to not only sup­port but active­ly cam­paign on behalf of the Rebuild team. Han­na says that he trav­eled to Janesville — about an hour dri­ve from Madi­son — to speak with Team­sters mem­bers at shops there. 

You get a lot of peo­ple who are say­ing our con­tracts are so weak and our nego­ti­a­tion teams just kin­da go with it and they don’t fight it,” Han­na says.

The elec­tion on Octo­ber 25 was the first chal­lenge the cur­rent lead­er­ship of local 695 has faced since 1998. Most top offi­cials at the local have served for over 15 years; the incum­bent offi­cials — call­ing them­selves the Wayne Schultz slate, in a nod to the cur­rent sec­re­tary trea­sur­er — have run a cam­paign whose focal point was the rel­a­tive expe­ri­ence of each set of candidates. 

A fly­er cir­cu­lat­ed by the incum­bent cam­paign states, It takes years of knowl­edge and train­ing to keep the local run­ning smooth­ly, and we know they don’t have it.” 

Puls says the reform push in Wis­con­sin is far from over: We have three years to plan for the next time … We’re not done, we’re not giv­ing up. And they know we’re pay­ing atten­tion as mem­bers. Hope­ful­ly we’ve wok­en them up.”

Alice Her­man is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.

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