Zuckerman v. Hoffa: Can a “Pissed-off Teamster” Push Out the Incumbent?

Alexandra Bradbury

Turnout is the name of the game, since only about 1 in 5 Teamsters voted in the last election. (Teamsters for a Democratic Union/ Facebook)

This arti­cle was first post­ed at Labor Notes.

At last, November’s elec­tion dead­line is almost here — clinch­ing a dra­mat­ic race that fea­tured a nail-biter of a nom­i­na­tion con­test, a rau­cous con­ven­tion, and an email scan­dal. Few unde­cid­ed vot­ers are left. The can­di­dates have paint­ed stark­ly dif­fer­ent visions for the future of jobs, health care, retire­ment, and democ­ra­cy itself. Now the out­come depends on how effec­tive­ly each side can turn out its votes.

Trump vs. Clin­ton? Nope — I’m talk­ing about the bat­tle for the top seats in the Team­sters Union. Bal­lots hit the mail Octo­ber 6, and the vote count begins Novem­ber 14.

Unusu­al among U.S. unions, mem­bers of the Team­sters are con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly guar­an­teed the right to direct­ly elect their inter­na­tion­al union offi­cers every five years — thanks to decades of dogged advo­ca­cy by the rank-and-file reform net­work Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union.

And this year, a fired-up slate called Team­sters Unit­ed, sup­port­ed by TDU, is giv­ing 17-year incum­bent James P. Hof­fa a run for his money.

Local 89 Pres­i­dent Fred Zuck­er­man, the self-described pissed-off Team­ster” who heads the Team­sters Unit­ed tick­et, has been on the front lines of resis­tance to the give­backs that Hoffa’s crew forced onto UPS work­ers—and the ones it’s still try­ing to force onto carhaulers, who vot­ed down a con­tract offer for the sec­ond time this fall.

The chal­lengers are buoyed up by a tide of anger over con­tract con­ces­sions, pen­sion attacks, and cor­rup­tion scan­dals that impli­cate high-rank­ing union leaders. 

If we did a straw poll in our barns we would win in a land­slide,” said Dave Bernt, a UPS feed­er dri­ver in Chica­go, run­ning for trustee on the Team­sters Unit­ed tick­et. But that doesn’t mean any­thing if we don’t get mem­bers to mail in their ballots.”

So rank-and-file vol­un­teers who’ve spent the last two years talk­ing to as many Team­sters as they could are kick­ing into high gear. It’s time to get out the vote.

Turnout is the key

Turnout is the name of the game, since only about 1 in 5 Team­sters vot­ed in the last elec­tion. The chal­lengers will need to boost that per­cent­age. There’s no elec­toral col­lege here — it’s one mem­ber, one vote.

To hone their local strate­gies, the activists have stud­ied past elec­tion results. In Chica­go, for instance, Hof­fa won 2 to 1 in 2011. The biggest turnout came from Local 727, which Inter­na­tion­al Vice Pres­i­dent John Coli runs as prac­ti­cal­ly a fam­i­ly business. 

But this year, Chica­go is Fred Zuck­er­man Coun­try,” Bernt said. True, the reform­ers are unlike­ly to flip Coli’s local — but it’s just one of 19 Team­ster locals in the area, and not even the biggest.

Through 18 months of cam­paign­ing, the Chica­go crew has mapped out sup­port work­site by work­site. In the largest locals we’ve cam­paigned at all of the major barns once, and sev­er­al key barns have got­ten a sec­ond or third vis­it,” Bernt said. We’ve col­lect­ed thou­sands of phone num­bers and emails.

We know the lay of the land, where we’re strong and where we’re not. We can win Chica­go by get­ting out more votes in our strongholds.”

Over the week­end, mem­bers around the coun­try received a robo-call from actor Dan­ny DeVi­to urg­ing all Team­sters to vote. The union paid for that as non­par­ti­san, though DeVi­to just hap­pened to pro­duce a movie called Hof­fa.”

The incum­bents have the mon­ey advan­tage. Though only Team­sters may legal­ly donate to these cam­paigns, Hoffa’s rich bud­dies in the union have come through, rais­ing a cam­paign chest of more than $2 million.

Most eli­gi­ble vot­ers don’t work under nation­al con­tracts or have Team­ster pen­sions, and they may feel lit­tle con­nec­tion to the union. With­out big mon­ey for mail­ings and ads, the scrap­py Team­sters Unit­ed cam­paign is work­ing hard to reach more mem­bers one on one.

We’re all sac­ri­fic­ing for this,” said Joan-Elaine Miller, who deliv­ers UPS pack­ages in Philadel­phia and serves on the TDU steer­ing com­mit­tee. I’m using all my vaca­tion time to cam­paign. It’s too impor­tant not to. This is an invest­ment in my future.”

A voice for part-timers

The ear­ly weeks are cru­cial, before peo­ple have had time to mis­place their bal­lots. Rank-and-file vol­un­teers are orga­niz­ing local phonebanks and leaflet­ing at big work­places to remind sup­port­ers to vote.

And on the job, they’re mobi­liz­ing co-work­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works. I go to the senior­i­ty per­son and say, You’ve got to make sure every­one on your line votes,’” said New York City UPS part-timer Dave Loo­bie, anoth­er Team­sters Unit­ed can­di­date for trustee.

You have to see them drop it in the mail­box. It’s not enough to just say they vot­ed. If that means we all go the post office togeth­er, that’s what we have to do.” He’s telling his co-work­ers, I’m going to ask you 100 times, so if you don’t want me to ask you, take a pic­ture of your­self drop­ping it in the mail­box and send me the picture.”

Loo­bie, who’s worked at UPS for 19 years, is one of two part-timers on the slate, and Zuck­er­man has pledged to appoint him to the next con­tract nego­ti­at­ing committee.

Till now UPS part-timers haven’t had a voice at the bar­gain­ing table. They sort and load pack­ages right along­side full-timers — but start at $10 an hour, and are guar­an­teed only three and a half hours of work per shift.

Hof­fa didn’t make it to the August pres­i­den­tial debate; he sent his run­ning mate, Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er Ken Hall, to lock horns with Zuck­er­man on his behalf. Hall boast­ed that the aver­age part-timer actu­al­ly makes $31 an hour, if you fac­tor in the cost of health benefits.

Loo­bie found that insult­ing. I don’t remem­ber the last time you could pay your rent with your health care,” he said, or go to the gro­cery store with your health care.

He made it sound like health care was some extra bonus, not some­thing you deserve. Health care, which is a basic need of human beings. It was a fun­ny thing to know that this is a man who sat and nego­ti­at­ed the part-time con­tract for UPS.”

Seamy details exposed

Besides sound­ing out of touch on work­place issues, the incum­bents have been plagued by a string of rack­e­teer­ing and cor­rup­tion charges.

The lat­est probe, announced last month, con­cerns how invest­ment firm own­er Charles Bertu­cio bro­kered a lucra­tive health insur­ance deal cov­er­ing 20,000 Team­sters — after alleged­ly treat­ing Hof­fa and oth­er top offi­cers to Euro­pean golf vaca­tions and hir­ing Hoffa’s son.

Emails that came to light last month shed unflat­ter­ing light on anoth­er case. After Team­sters in Min­neso­ta unan­i­mous­ly vot­ed down a con­tract offer, union Vice Pres­i­dent Rome Aloise flew in from Cal­i­for­nia and appar­ent­ly forced the local union offi­cer to accept the company’s con­ces­sion­ary terms.

Amid those nego­ti­a­tions, the emails show that Aloise asked the com­pa­ny for six tick­ets for Hoffa’s Chief of Staff Willie Smith to a Play­boy-Crown Roy­al-spon­sored Super Bowl party.

It’s ille­gal for union offi­cers or staff to take gifts of val­ue from employ­ers, even if there’s no quid pro quo. But in this case, the quo isn’t hard to spot. The com­pa­ny nego­tia­tor prais­es Aloise for push­ing the deal through, and pass­es his tick­et request up the chain of com­mand, in the very same email.

Mean­while emails on the union side show how Team­sters hon­chos were scratch­ing each other’s backs too. Aloise con­firms that he’s lin­ing up those Play­boy par­ty tick­ets for Smith — in reply to an email where Smith approves Aloise’s request for a week­long, union-paid trip to Paris.

Hof­fa received all these details in Feb­ru­ary, when the union’s Inde­pen­dent Review Board rec­om­mend­ed he bring charges against Aloise. Instead he stalled. His slate nom­i­nat­ed Aloise for reelec­tion, and Smith is still on the job.

Aloise, per­haps not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, was the top fundrais­er for Hoffa’s 2011 campaign.

Ram­pant bullying

In some locals, the cam­paign­ers are fight­ing on two fronts.

Team­sters Unit­ed vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Kim­ber­ly Schultz swept the August elec­tion for the top seat in Florida’s Local 2011, win­ning an over­whelm­ing 87 per­cent of the votes. Schultz had led the fight to end a five-year trustee­ship of her local, which rep­re­sents 4,000 work­ers at the Depart­ment of Corrections.

Harold Arm­strong, who’s been deliv­er­ing UPS pack­ages in Mem­phis for 27 years, comes from a union fam­i­ly — his moth­er was a teacher, his father a postal work­er. This year he got a mes­sage print­ed on the back of his T‑shirt: I’M PISSED OFF LIKE FRED!!”

Harass­ment is a major con­cern for UPS work­ers, full-time and part-time alike. Elec­tron­ics track their every move. Super­vi­sors may come after you for your rate of errors, your pace of deliv­er­ies or scans per hour, or how many sec­onds you had your foot on the brake.

So even when super­vi­sors vio­late the con­tract by forc­ing dri­vers off their bid routes or short-shift­ing part-timers, they scare employ­ees so much that they don’t file a griev­ance,” Arm­strong said.

To revive con­tract enforce­ment, he’s run­ning for Local 667 trustee on a reform slate led by Jer­ry Yarbrough, also a Team­sters Unit­ed can­di­date for vice pres­i­dent. They’re chal­leng­ing local offi­cers who are noto­ri­ous for not putting in a full day’s work.

Let a lit­tle light in

It was inac­tion on gru­el­ing pro­duc­tion stan­dards that inspired Ven­tu­ra, Cal­i­for­nia, ware­house work­er Ben­ny Her­nan­dez to run for Local 186 pres­i­dent. He took office in January.

They count every minute, every step you take,” he said. They’re over­load­ing trucks with gro­ceries, cre­at­ing an unsafe envi­ron­ment for work­ers, push­ing them to their lim­its. They want the old­er senior­i­ty guys to retire.”

Her­nan­dez has been a Team­ster for 36 years, dri­ving at Sysco Foods for 23 of them. A for­mer Hof­fa sup­port­er, he grad­u­al­ly shift­ed his per­spec­tive and ulti­mate­ly decid­ed to chal­lenge his local lead­ers after see­ing all the cor­rup­tion, the lack of orga­niz­ing, the com­pla­cen­cy of offi­cials, and the do-noth­ing lead­er­ship that doesn’t engage or edu­cate the members.”

He wants to send mem­bers to a Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin School for Work­ers pro­gram to learn exact­ly how the pro­duc­tion stan­dards work, so they won’t have to take the company’s word for it any­more. The pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion shot down this idea.

In Sep­tem­ber, Her­nan­dez and anoth­er gro­cery ware­house Team­ster, Frank Vil­la, hopped in a motor home and took a trip around the state, cam­paign­ing for Team­sters Unit­ed on their own dime. They met Team­sters who didn’t even know who Hof­fa was, or what local they belonged to.

At a Safe­way dis­tri­b­u­tion yard in Tra­cy, Cal­i­for­nia, a shop stew­ard showed up to yell that they weren’t want­ed. But we turned around and there were so many peo­ple there want­i­ng to engage us,” Her­nan­dez said. His own mem­bers told us not to lis­ten to him.

We said, It real­ly looks like you’ve got a lot of sup­port here, bud­dy. That’s how you guys get elect­ed, keep­ing peo­ple in the dark.’”

Alexan­dra Brad­bury is the edi­tor of Labor Notes, a mag­a­zine and orga­niz­ing project ded­i­cat­ed to putting the move­ment back in the labor movement.
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