Teamsters for a Democratic Union Meet in Cleveland

by Charles Walker

For the second time in two years, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) held its annual convention in Cleveland, Ohio, where the union caucus was founded in 1976. At that time, 24 years ago, according to TDU leaders, “Teamsters fighting for good contracts were saddled with the ‘two-thirds rule,’ meaning that concessions could be passed with only a one-third vote…members had no right to vote [for international union officers] …There was no tolerance of dissent…And reformers had no organization.”

As reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “About 400 TDU activists are expected to attend the three-day convention, where they were to evaluate the record of their foe, union President James P. Hoffa; plan election strategy; and hear from Tom Leedham, the man they’re backing to head the 1.5 million member union.” However, Leedham claims that recent government statistics show that the union has shrunk to 1.4 million members, losing 100,000 Teamsters since Hoffa took office just 19 months ago. Leedham asserts that part of the membership loss is tied to Hoffa’s drastic cutbacks in the union’s organizing department.

What the daily press failed to report were the convention’s firebrand oratory, the boisterous singing of revered union songs (sometimes with new lyrics), and reports of local union victories over bosses and sometimes over bureaucratic Teamster misleaders. And there was humor. One speaker suggested that the Teamsters union could save a lot of travel money by permanently moving to Las Vegas, money that Hoffa could use to provide at least 17 more multiple salaries to compliant officers.

Aside from the looming electoral contest between Hoffa and Leedham and their respective slates, the main business of the activists was focused on the needs of Teamsters as they struggle on the job against corporate America. Useful information from veteran unionists was provided the delegates in workshops on how to write and win grievances, bargaining strategies, legal rights on the job, beating production standards, building unity and worksite power, and fighting for a good contract when union officials won’t.

A Surge in TDU Recruitment

Two reports that stood out concerned TDU’s recruitment surge in Canada and Pennsylvania. Apparently, there’s been an explosive growth in membership in Philadelphia by TDU since Hoffa put Local Union 115 under trusteeship. At the time, Local 115 was headed by John Morris, a Philadelphia legend whose kin were Irish-born anthracite coal miners, and “Molly Maguire” militants, during the rough-and-tumble years of the mine workers union. Morris, a Ron Carey ally, was ousted from his elected posts by what Morris supporters say was a kangaroo court, sanctioned soon after Hoffa took office.

The TDU leaders said they needed to raise $40,000 so that the group could successfully meet the challenges of the new year, as it did during the present year. They pointed out that organizing expenses continue to eat up the groups finances, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. An examination of the group’s financial reports revealed that TDU’s ending bank balance for the fiscal year was an anemic $6,612. The delegates were asked to dig deep, and when the collection plates and envelopes were passed to the front, after the group’s Saturday night meal, they contained more than $50,000.

Leedham Speaks to Convention

Not surprisingly, Tom Leedham, who was endorsed by TDU last May, was invited to address the activists. Recently, TDU helped collect over 60,000 signatures from Teamsters in the U.S. and Canada to qualify Leedham for space in the union’s magazine and to ensure that the Teamster ranks are provided all points of view before electing a new president for a five-year term. Leedham praised the many veteran campaigners from previous reform efforts and contract campaigns going back even before Ron Carey’s stunning victory in 1991 over a divided and complaisant officialdom. Leedham also welcomed the many younger activists and praised their idealism and energy. (An estimated 20 percent of the delegates were attending a TDU convention for the first time.)

Leedham said that the Teamster ranks were in a funk after Ron Carey’s ouster from the union, following the historic 1997 UPS strike. But now, he said, the ranks were growing ever more ready to fight back. Leedham noted the growing anger with Hoffa by brewery workers, flight attendants, cannery workers, and carhaulers. Leedham charged that Hoffa’s record of talking tough, settling cheap, and claiming unprecedented victories should be an unmistakable warning to all UPS and freight workers, whose contracts expire after next year’s IBT election.

Clearly, Leedham believes that the UPS and freight contracts must not be negotiated by Hoffa, if the Teamsters union is to be the powerhouse of the U.S. labor movement. Leedham pledged to back up those contract negotiations with the largest mobilization of the ranks the union has ever seen. He said the much smaller Carpenters union has added 600 organizers to its staff and pledged that if elected, he would add 1,000 organizers and recruit them from the Teamster membership.

Commenting on the recent employer-sponsored-and-paid-for Las Vegas golf tournament attended by the union’s top brass, Leedham noted that grievances settled by the 18th hole were more likely to harm than help the rank-and-file grievant. Leedham said he would put an end to Teamster officials socializing with the bosses.

Finally, Leedham said that after Hoffa took office he fired excellent people who refused to be turncoats. That was a big mistake, he said. That’s going to hurt Hoffa and help reformers because those fired Teamsters returned to their jobs in shops, barns, and on the road to organize for a well-deserved defeat of Hoffa in 2001.