Second of Two Reports on the Teamsters Convention

Cross-Border Solidarity and Class Politics Teamsters Convention Takes Wrong Road on Both Issues

by Charles Walker

[For the author’s first report on the Teamsters convention, click here.]

Today’s workers are faced with massive global joblessness. Nearly one-third of the world’s workforce is either jobless, underemployed, or earns less than it takes to escape poverty, reports the International Labor Organization. Consequently, poverty-stricken workers are daily fleeing their villages and hometowns. Many of those workers leave their homelands as well, though they are aware that poor migrants are seldom welcomed, even by a “nation of migrants”— such as the U.S.

Happily, there’s been a welcome change of attitude on the part of U.S. organized labor about migrants. The earliest changes were made by some local unions that organize laundry, hospital, restaurant, and similar workers and whose memberships more and more reflect the various nationalities of new arrivals from other lands. Also the AFL-CIO reversed its long-standing hostility to migrants and now favors new laws to provide job protections for undocumented migrants, including the right to join unions, as well as amnesty for some migrants.

At its June 2001 convention, the Teamsters union passed a resolution that parallels the position of the AFL-CIO and recognizes that “immigrant workers are among the most exploited and abused of the workforce.” However, the Teamsters also adopted a resolution on cross-border trucking that calls on the federal government “to keep the moratorium on cross-border trucking in place” until many substantial safety concerns are met.

But the union’s credibility is suspect, if only because of its refusal (not inability) up to now to fight the unionized trucking companies for safer equipment, shorter workdays, and the virtual piece-rate system at many trucking companies that prompts a multitude of safety violations. Despite members’ complaints, the Teamsters union, which for years had a contractual right to strike over grievances, including safety issues, refused to use it. So despite the union’s justifiable safety concerns (the Washington Post reports there are close to 5,000 fatalities yearly involving trucks), it’s not unreasonable to believe that the union is seeking to use highway safety issues as a cloak to hide its attempt to protect its members’ jobs from competition from poorly paid Mexican drivers.

Successful or not, a campaign to keep Mexican workers on the other side of the border, no matter what the pretext (safety, no government-sanctioned labor rights, etc.), will and should be understood by many Mexican workers in much the same way that many American women and minorities once viewed most U.S. unions — they believed that unions acted as job trusts of white males intent on keeping them out. It was only with the rise of industrial unionism, and later the Civil Rights and feminist movements that women and minorities got into many unions. Still, to this day there are unions that are close to being lily-white. And women and minorities in the building trades remain only a tiny fraction of the unionized construction workforce.

The Teamsters resolution says that the union’s “fight is not with the Mexican drivers who are … working every day to build a better life for themselves and their families…” The union resolution also speaks of working with “Mexican unions, politicians and workers to develop a strategy of ‘cross-border organizing’ to ensure that one day, all workers will share in the fruits of their labor and will not be used as bargaining chips against each other to drive down wages and working conditions in a corporate ‘race to the bottom.’”

But those Mexican workers who are eager to join hands in solidarity with U.S. unions were not present at the Teamsters Convention—nor is there any evidence that Teamsters President James P. Hoffa ever thought about inviting them to fraternally consult with the delegates. If they had been present, they could have explained that their present plight demands action right away to forge a cross-border strategic alliance based on workers’ solidarity. In other words they need much more than mere promises of a better day much further on down the road.

Of course, the delegates who support Tom Leedham, Hoffa’s rival for the union’s top post, could have told the delegates as much and perhaps added that it was absolutely necessary for the union to be seen as fighting the bosses to safeguard Teamsters much higher standard of living, and not Mexican workers. But they did not.

One day, Hoffa exclaimed that he had “some great news this morning” for the delegates. He announced that the House of Representatives, in effect, had blocked border-crossing by Mexican trucks. The convention minutes note that the news was received with a standing ovation as the “delegations chanted ‘Teamster Power.’ ” “Isn't that something? Isn't that something?” Hoffa proclaimed. “The newspapers today,” he continued, “are saying it’s a Teamster victory. Man, oh man, Is that great. It’s also proof that our bipartisan approach to politics really works… Man, oh man. What a way to get started today. Woo!”

But Teamsters will look high and low and not find any political pundits who say that Hoffa won anything more than a temporary delay in the implementation of the NAFTA provision that mandates cross-border trucking. Meanwhile Mexican drivers may well wonder how the Teamsters expect to carry out a cross-border organizing project if the border is sealed this way. Or even why.

“Bipartisan Approach to Politics”

What Hoffa calls his “bipartisan approach to politics,” is also a reaffirmation of the union bureaucracy's dependence on the twin political parties of the Democrats and the Republicans. The union’s political resolution states that the “international ‘race to the bottom’…has been supported by…leaders in both political parties and has resulted in…potentially the most damaging labor development of the past twenty years.” And the past twenty years of job losses and a drop in living standards have also seen a rise in what some commentators wrongly call workers’ political apathy. The union resolution notes that there are “50% of Teamster voters who label themselves as ‘Independents’ unwilling to attach themselves to one party or another…” (Emphasis added.)

Combined with those Teamsters who won't even register as “Independents” because they see nothing worthwhile for themselves or their families in the current political setup (and at least that proportion of labor feels the same way the Teamster ranks do), it’s clear that a majority of Teamsters would welcome a new union political policy.

A realistic union political policy would recognize that collaborating with the bosses inside the two capitalist parties is no different from collaborating with them on so-called labor-management schemes that keep workers bound hand and foot.

Elect Our Friends, Defeat Our Enemies”

Nevertheless, Hoffa inserted into the union’s political statement a pledge that the Teamsters “will not deviate from our longstanding commitment to ‘elect our friends and defeat our enemies.’” What many Teamsters may not know is that this “long-standing commitment” of subordination to the Big Business parties dates back at least to the time of Samuel Gompers, who headed the American Federation of Labor from its founding in 1886 until 1924. Even back then, at the turn of the last century, Gompers’s policy was criticized by respected trade unionists, such as Eugene V. Debs, as a slick way to tie workers to a political alliance that served the interests of the employers and not those of rank-and-file workers, and that also helped the labor bureaucracy maintain its privileged hold on the unions.

In recent years the Labor Party and other union critics of the moth-eaten and failed Gompers (and Hoffa) injunction to “elect our friends and defeat our enemies” have raised a different rallying cry:

The bosses have two parties, we [unions and workers] should have one of our own.”

That sentiment was not heard from the convention floor, however. And yet, members of the Labor Party (founded by some unions in 1996) were present in both the Hoffa and Leedham delegations. None is more prominent nor more influential in the Labor Party than Gerry Zero, a Hoffa delegate from Chicago's Teamsters Local Union 705 and a member of the Labor Party's Interim National Council. Whatever the reasons for the Labor Party members’ failure to speak out on the urgent need for all U.S. unions to break with the Gompers dictum and assert their own unshackled independent political power, it was more than a serious oversight. It was undeniably a subversion of their party’s most fundamental concept—the premise that justifies the party’s very existence and presumably deserves all Labor Party members’ allegiance.

Some delegates did challenge Hoffa and forced him to defend, in front of the convention, his successful advocacy of new oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, his successful advocacy of unlimited salaries, pensions, and benefits for union officers, his successful advocacy of higher payments from the local unions to the Washington headquarters, and much more. But none of those issues is as important to the union’s future, and the entire U.S. labor movement. as extending meaningful international labor solidarity to Mexican truckers today, or putting the union on the path to independent class-based political action. Clearly, some Teamster delegates held their fire on those vital issues, when what was called for was a militant, thunderous salvo.