There are landslide elections, and then there areLANDSLIDEelections. The Teamsters just had the italicized all-caps version.
By a margin of two-to-one, Sean OBrien, who headed a slate of candidates opposed to outgoing president Jim Hoffa, defeated Hoffas preferred successor, Steve Vairma. (The vote counting was completed on Friday.) Even more impressive, the candidates on OBriens slate also won the unions number-two position (secretary-treasurer), and every other one of the 28 contests on the ballot.
Election outcomes like this are rare. Id say rare in union elections but for the fact that the vast majority of unions dont elect their leaders through rank-and-file balloting, but rather through the votes of elected delegates at their conventions. Three decades ago, when the Teamsters were glaringly mobbed up, the federal government put the union under governmental supervision, one element of which was a switch to the rank-and-file election of its leaders for five-year terms. The union has since been cleaned up and the feds trusteeship lifted, but the one element of the trusteeship that the union has opted to continue under its own aegis is the rank-and-file voting. (It has also continued to have New York attorney Richard Mark, who served as the court-appointed trustee, supervise the elections.)
Incoming president OBrien is an insider turned outsider. The longtime leader of a Boston local was a member of the victorious Hoffa slate five years ago, in which capacity he was in charge of the unions dealings with the unions largest employer, United Parcel Service, for which roughly 300,000 Teamsters are employed as drivers and warehouse workers.
When OBrien assembled his committee of regional and local leaders to bargain with UPS, however, he wanted to include the heads of large UPS locals, including Fred Zuckerman, who led a mammoth Louisville local and whod also been the candidate running (and losing) against Hoffa for the Teamster presidency in 2016. (Hoffa, the son of legendary Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa, has been president since 1998.)
That was enough to get OBrien banished from the Teamster inner circles. Soon after, he announced hed run against the Hoffa team in 2021, choosing Zuckerman as his secretary-treasurer running mate. Like Zuckerman in 2016, OBrien sought and won the endorsement of the unions longtime progressive opposition, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Like Zuckerman, whod also been a member of a Hoffa slate in previous elections, OBrien had actually spoken against TDU when hed been in the fold, saying at one rally in 2013 that TDU members would never be our friends and adding, they need to be punished. (He was suspended for two weeks for threatening the group.)
But that, as they say, was then. Again like Zuckerman, once hed declared his candidacy, OBrien came to a TDU conclave and affirmed his support for a number of the groups positions, including a requirement for majority rule in members voting on proposed contracts. The existing rule was that once union leaders recommended a contract to their members, it required two-thirds of the voting members, not 50 percent plus one, to reject it. Under pressure from OBriens campaign, union delegates abolished the two-thirds requirement at a convention this summer.
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A number of TDU members, including TDU official John Palmer, were among the OBrien slate candidates swept into office in this years election. But by no means is the incoming administration a TDU administration as such. On the incoming executive council (to which all the vice presidents belong), some are friendly to TDU and some are unfriendly, veteran TDU leader Ken Paff told theProspect.When OBrien came to speak to the TDU two years ago, which was when we endorsed him, he said his slate would be a coalition in which there would be some disagreements. He said this was the only way to begin to unify the union.
If theres a common thread to this years wave of labor militance, its the pushback against two-tier contracts.
It clearly was a way to help win the election, but so was OBriens advocacy of broadly popular positions, like the majority rule on contracts and the mobilization of members in campaigns for better contracts. OBrien took aim at the UPS contract that the Hoffa regime had negotiated without him, particularly at its two-tier provisions, under which many new hires are compelled to work for pay and benefits that would never come close to those of more senior employees.
If theres a common thread to this years wave of labor militance, its the pushback against two-tier contracts, which a number of unions felt compelled to agree to in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and the slow, incomplete recovery that followed in its wake. The UAW members who struck John Deere stayed out until they won a repeal of that companys two-tier provisions earlier this month; so, too, earlier this year, did members of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union at Frito Lay and Nabisco. (Theyre still on strike at Kellogg over the companys insistence on preserving two-tier and making it even more onerous.) OBrien rightly sees two-tier as both an immediate injustice and a long-term threat to the union, as more and more workers will fall short of decent pay and benefits as their number increases under the two-tier arrangement.
OBrien and Vairma, his opponent, each vowed that the union would take on Amazon if elected. As by far the largest employer of warehouse workers and, given the companys growth, likely to become the largest private-sector employer of drivers as well, Amazon poses an existential threat to the Teamsters.
Taking on Amazon, of course, is a mammoth undertaking requiring not just the mobilization of the companys employees, but coalitions with community and small business groups and local governments, as well as backing the kind of antitrust actions that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has called for. It also requires an action alliance with most of the trade-union movement, one reason why the Teamsters may rejoin the AFL-CIO.
The union left the federation shortly after Hoffa became president, chiefly because AFL-CIO leader Rich Trumka appeared to have improperly helped the re-election campaign of the Teamsters reformer president Ron Carey, whom Hoffa ousted in the unions presidential election 23 years ago. Trumka died earlier this year, and Hoffa will soon leave office (his term ends, and OBriens begins, in March), so whatever obstacles may have impeded the Teamsters reaffiliation seem to have been removed.
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OBrien is not to be misconstrued as the second coming of Carey, who had steered clear of the unions national leadership until he was elected president in the first contest after the federal supervisors sent theancien rgimepacking. OBrien, by contrast, is known to local leaders across the Teamster spectrum. He has worked with many of them before, he speaks their language (albeit with a heavy Boston accent), and is steeped in their culture and folkways. As such, he has a far better chance than Carey ever did in winning support for his policies. He also will have considerable support across the entire labor movement in building a campaignnecessarily, a long-range campaignto unionize Amazon. In a sense, OBriens trajectory is a little like Joe Bidens: Theyre both longtime regulars whove sensed a growing desire for change in their base and have responded by becoming establishment-guy reformers.