At the Teamster convention, rank-and-file delegates explain who’s behind the TDU-backed candidate
LAS VEGAS – Behind every good man, one finds a good woman, or so we’re told. In this year’s contest for the Teamster presidency, that traditional gender-based relationship has been reversed — at least in Sandy Pope’s campaign. Here in Las Vegas last night, it was a small band of good men (plus a handful of union sisters) who rallied successfully behind a very unusual woman, one of only sixteen who currently serve as Teamster local leaders. As a result of their efforts, Pope — the candidate backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) — made it into the next stage of a three-way race that culminates in mail ballot voting by 1.3 million IBT members this fall.
Nominated along with Pope, president of Local 805 in New York City, was fellow opposition candidate Fred Gegare, a Teamster regional leader from Wisconsin. (Both Gegare and Pope received just over eight percent of the delegate vote – a minimum of 5 percent was necessary to be nominated.) Current IBT president James P. Hoffa and his slate won the backing of more than 83 percent of the delegates at a convention completely dominated and controlled by the incumbent leadership.
If these results seemed lopsided to some observers, they didn’t bother John Lattanzio, a mustachioed 57-year-old freight handler from Spokane, Wa., who helped Pope sign up 50,000 rank-and-file supporters last November. Nor was Lattanzio particularly rattled by the orchestrated booing that drowned out the delegates who nominated Pope and Gegare, along with the candidates themselves, when they tried to speak briefly yesterday morning. (“If you got out of line at these conventions in the past, they just knocked you on your ass,” Lattanzio observed. “At least no one is getting beat up this year.”)
Lattanzio and other TDUers recall that, when Pope ran for secretary-treasurer on a reform slated headed by Tom Leedham in 2006, she was nominated with just 6 percent of Teamster delegates but then received 36 percent of the membership vote.
And two decades ago, the most successful TDU-backed candidate ever, Ron Carey, became president of the Teamsters after winning 48 percent of the rank-and-file vote in a similar three-way race. Carey’s support, on the convention floor among similarly hostile local officials, was only 14 percent in 1991, when top Teamster officials fell out among themselves as Hoffa and Gegare have done today.
The disconnect between delegate sentiment, heavily pro-Hoffa, and the actual grassroots electoral support already demonstrated by Pope (during her signature gathering last fall) was not the only source of cognitive dissonance in Las Vegas this week.
Lattanzio, who works at the troubled freight carrier known as YRCW, has suffered a 15 percent pay cut and faces the loss of defined benefit pension coverage and other contract protections as well. So he found the bombastic rhetoric of top Teamster officials to be quite out of touch with work place reality in the trucking industry. “We used to have 2.2 million members,” he says with a mixture of wonderment and disgust.
“Now we’re down to 1.3 million Teamsters and these assholes are bragging about it?” Lattanzio believes that many local union officials are privately “scared to death.”
According to Lattanzio, “They realize things need to change or we’re dead…. Even Fred Gegare, who’s on Hoffa’s own executive board, can see that the union is not going in the right direction.”
Lattanzio and his fellow delegates from Spokane got to Las Vegas the hard way, because none of them are full-time union officials. They ran as rank-and-filers, pledged to Pope, and defeated a slate of pro-Hoffa Local 690 officers and executive board members in a Teamster affiliate with 3,000 members. Along with another TDU activist, Tim Hill, who works as a feeder driver at United Parcel Service in Spokane, Lattanzio spent this week handing out Pope flyers, talking to other delegates who are working members (a minority of those attending) and posting nightly accounts of convention activity on You-Tube, Facebook, and the “Local 690/Teamsters United” website.
At a Pope for President fundraiser last Sunday night that raised $15,000 in cash and pledges, Hill donated a week’s pay – $800 – to the campaign, even though he has worked only five full weeks so far this year.
A TDU re-union
Lattanzio first became a union dissident in the 1970s – a second-generation member of TDU – after returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam and becoming a Teamster like his father. Rocky Lattanzio, who is 80 now and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, attended the 1976 Teamster convention in Las Vegas where soon-to-be TDU co-founder Pete Camarata, was badly beaten by union goons.
Camarata had spoken out on the floor, against the inflated (and, often, multiple) salaries of top Teamster officials, a patronage system problem that persists today. He then further enraged the officialdom by casting the only delegate vote against Frank Fitzsimmons, a member of his own Local 299 in Detroit, who was running for re-election as IBT president.
Four decades ago, the IBT had no well-organized reform caucus, membership voting on the top leadership, or any type of judicial oversight. The union was a cesspool of mob influence, benefit fund corruption, various forms of racketeering, and violence against dissidents and wildcat strike leaders like Camarata. Among the union gangsters at the convention in 1976 were those from Delaware and New Jersey who had only recently engineered the killing of James R. Hoffa, the convicted felon and former IBT president who sired the current one. (The body of the senior Hoffa, lauded by his son on Monday, as “the greatest Teamster ever,” has never been found.)
Now retired from the Teamsters after a long career as a rank-and-file activist, Camarata talked about his encounter with John Lattanzio’s father, during dinner with Local 690 delegates this week in Las Vegas. “It took a lot of nerve for Rocky to come up and say he was with us. I had no friends at all at that convention,” Camarata recalled. Further impressed by Pete, after reading a favorable article on TDU in Readers Digest (titled, “Can the Rank-and-File Clean Up the Teamsters?”). the Lattanzios invited Camarata to speak in Spokane in 1978.
Following a script that hasn’t varied in four decades, local officials began red-baiting their visitor and his local hosts. Soon, the word was out, on the street that a notorious Teamster radical from Detroit – Pete “Commie-rata” – was coming to town.
John Lattanzio describes his mother as a woman “not afraid of anything.” But, knowing what her husband and son were up against in the Teamsters, even she was worried. “What are you involved in?” she asked Rocky. To line up a hotel banquet facility for Camarata’s appearance, John Lattanzio had to empty his own personal savings account. But the TDU fundraiser and recruitment event proved to be a huge success. It helped establish the local TDU chapter that, two years later, backed Rocky’s run for president of the local in an early victory for the reform movement.
Now John Lattanzio is mentoring and supporting a third generation TDUers in the same local, who remind him of himself at the same age. Thirty-three year old Tim Hill has long side-burns, colorful tattoos on both arms, and an affinity for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Hill’s Wobbly ties and active grievance-filing almost got him fired early in his 12-year Teamster career when he was working as a part-time package sorter for UPS. The charge was “sabotage.” The supporting “evidence”? IWW tracts downloaded by a UPS labor relations manager and presented at Hill’s own grievance hearing. His discharge was changed to a month-long suspension (a result that could have been worse since Hill’s business agent sided with the company during the presentation of his case.)
An opening for reform?
Lattanzio believes there is a political opening for the reform movement, nationally and in Local 690 when officer elections are held next year. “People are ready for a change,” he says. “It’s a whole lot different because of what’s happening in UPS, grocery, and freight. In 1967, the NMFA [National Master Freight Agreement] was so strong, so solid, that everyone got to live a normal home life and we had decent working conditions.” Now, at YRCW, “they’re able to work us 11 or 12 hours a day continuously,” with variable start times, and a back-logged grievance procedure that does little to curb contracting-out and other contract violations.
Both John and Tim are, nevertheless, encouraged by the national publicity their photogenic and articulate candidate for president has been getting in the New York Times, on CNN, and CBS this week. Pope has 33 years of experience to draw upon in the grueling four months of campaigning that lies ahead. As an experienced local officer with a track record of accomplishment, Pope may even have far more sympathy and support among other delegates than was apparent, publicly, this week in Las Vegas.
As Camarata, Lattanzio, Hill and I were wrapping up our dinner discussion Wednesday night, a hulking Teamster delegate seated at a nearby table got up and approached ours. A prison guard back home, he wanted to wish the two Local 690 delegates well. Both he and his heavily muscled companion were clearly troubled by the convention chairing tactics and booing of delegates that made it impossible for Pope supporters to be heard on any issue. “We’re Hoffa-Hall,” he said, with an almost embarrassed shrug. “But we don’t agree with what’s been going on. This is America and people have a right to disagree.”“
By Friday morning, the final day of the convention, John Lattanzio – one those people unafraid to disagree – was among those Teamsters joining Pope on stage when she proudly delivered her acceptance speech. This time, there was no way of drowning out the fact of her nomination or the real vote that lies ahead.
Steve Early is in Las Vegas reporting on the Teamsters convention for In These Times and Labor Notes, where this article was cross-posted. He was active in the Teamster reform movement in the late 1970s as an organizer for the Professional Drivers’ Council, which became part of TDU.
Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of several books, including Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City (Beacon Press).