With numerous challenges facing the Teamsters—including the Janus case, the spread of right to work and the crucial midterm elections—action and working together are more important than ever.
This was a major theme and focus for the more than 1,600 union leaders attending the 2018 Unity Conference in May.
“Every election year they say, ‘This is the most important election in our lifetime,’” General President Jim Hoffa said. “Well guess what? In regards to the upcoming midterms, it’s actually the truth. We’ve got to go to the polls and vote like never before.”
Hoffa told union leaders that they must get their members to vote for candidates who will support working families.
“We’ve got a chance to take back the Congress this time,” Hoffa said. “We’ve got to go out and fight for people who believe in us.”
This also includes electing pro-worker governors in Illinois, Ohio and Michigan, among other states “who can block right to work,” Hoffa said.
Other speakers echoed the theme.
“Over the course of the past year, both our membership and our assets have increased—but we need to remain vigilant,” Teamsters General Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall said.
“The middle class is under siege and that has to stop. The only thing that stands up for them is a strong labor movement,” said Teamsters National Freight Division Director Ernie Soehl. “We need to stop corporate interests from buying influence toward elected officials. We need to focus on voting for government officials based on their views on labor, not on the issues that divide us.”
“With Janus, right to work and the pension crisis, this is the time where solidarity and the word unity mean something very special,” said Randy Cammack, President of Joint Council 42. “The strength of this great union has always been the solidarity of our membership, the solidarity of our leadership. This is the time to demonstrate that.”
Despite challenges, the Teamsters continue to grow thanks to aggressive organizing. The Unity Conference focused on the major organizing campaigns in passenger transit, freight, airline, intermodal, warehouse and tankhaul.
Newly organized workers inspired conference attendees.
Tony Inglett, a fuel delivery truck driver at APP/World Fuel Services, waved a contract from the podium that he and his co-workers recently ratified—their first.
“This simple document means so much for me and my co-workers because it will help us get the fair treatment we deserve,” said Inglett, who along with 89 co-workers joined Local 174 in Seattle and ratified their first contract early this year.
Katie Williams, a driver at Durham School Services in Chattanooga, Tenn., spoke just a few days before voting to join Local 327 in Nashville. Williams and her co-workers started organizing after a tragic 2016 school bus accident took the lives of six school children.
“Ever since that day we’ve been fighting for a voice and finally, with your help, we have been heard,” Williams said.
Joe Chung, a driver at FreshPoint, a subsidiary of Sysco in southeast Florida, joined Local 769 in Miami.
Chung and his co-workers recently ratified their first contract that provided significant wage increases, strong grievance procedures and job security for members who faced management threats of facility closure, job losses and other reprisals when they first sought union representation.
“You guys changed our lives,” Chung said. “Thank you for that.”
Leroy Pass, a school bus driver at Durham in Metropolis, Ill., voted to join Local 50 in Swansea, Ill. in August 2017. Safety was a top concern for the workers, who have documented broken equipment, numerous mechanical problems and even airborne mold on the buses that went unaddressed by the company.
Pass talked about the importance of unity as the campaign to organize Durham workers continues.
“We are a chain,” Pass said. “What affects you, affects me. Don’t let Durham find that weak link in that chain and break that chain. We must stand together.”
Devon Horner, a warehouse loader at Sysco in Post Falls, Idaho, voted recently to join Local 690 in Spokane, Wash. Horner and his co-workers ratified their first contract recently after approving a strike-authorization vote.
“The company did not respect seniority and our health care continually got worse,” Horner said. “We figured the best way to get treated with respect was to organize as Teamsters. We got a solid first contract and we look forward to making further gains in the future.”
Leaders discussed the serious repercussions from the Janus v. AFSCME case, an anti-union effort to eliminate fair-share fees in the public sector. Several leaders shared how they are preparing for the court decision’s impact.
In Iowa, the state’s Republican-led government passed a new law where workers were forced to revote on whether to remain in their union. Local 238, with the help of the International Union, was forced to run 69 state-sponsored recertification elections for 2,200 bargaining unit members.
“A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral,” said Jesse Case, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 238 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “We won. We won because we know how to organize.”
Of the 1,888 members who voted, 1,828 voted to remain with the Teamsters–97 percent of voters.
Gabrielle Carteris, President of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), talked about the importance of getting younger people, women and under-represented people involved with the labor movement.
“Young people have the potential to reinvigorate our movements with fresh ideas and new energy,” Carteris said. “If we do not walk the walk of labor and reflect the true diversity of our country and our workforces, how long do you think we remain strong?
“We need to change and we need to grow,” she said. “They (members) need to see themselves in the ranks of the leadership.”
Francois Laporte, President of Teamsters Canada, presented an overview of the key projects he and his colleagues are tackling, which includes organizing in construction, dairy, the armored car industry, freight, food processing and beverage. Teamster leaders in Canada are also closely involved with the NAFTA renegotiations, making sure the interests of all Teamsters are protected.
“Like never before, we need to stick together, to fight together,” Laporte said.
International Union Vice President George Miranda, President of Joint Council 16 in New York City, talked about the union’s tremendous response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the latter of which was the worst disaster to ever hit Puerto Rico.
“After Hurricane Maria, more than 500 members contacted Joint Council 16 and the IBT offering to help,” Miranda said. “About 100 members were selected and they spent two weeks delivering water, food and supplies in Puerto Rico. I’ve never been so proud of this union.”
Miranda introduced Marcos Cruz, a member of Local 631 in Las Vegas. Crus sold his motorcycle so he could afford to make the trip to help people in Puerto Rico.
“Within 45 minutes of arriving I was picking up water from the airport and delivering it,” Cruz said. “I’m extremely grateful to have been given the chance to help.”
Several times at Unity, leaders heard about the abhorrent conditions that XPO Logistics’ workers are facing at a warehouse in Memphis, Tenn. Workers face rampant sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, and a total lack of respect. One worker, Linda Neal, died on the job and her body was left unattended for more than a half hour as her colleagues worked around her body. Workers at the Memphis facility are fighting to form their union, and the overall situation has been the focus of media attention in recent months.
“We will organize XPO and bring justice to the workers,” Hoffa said. “We are the beacon of hope. We are a strong union. We have the ideas. We will bring justice to Linda Neal and her memory and everyone at XPO and we’ll do it together.”
Organizers Discuss Building Teamster Power
Teamster organizers from local unions, Joint Councils and the International Union shared ideas and strategies about building Teamster power during an organizing conference that coincided with the Unity Conference.
This year’s theme was “Building a Better Local Union: Powerhouse Targeting.”
Attendees learned an overview of the key elements for building a strong local union organizing program, how to pick organizing targets that maximize success and building local union power. They also learned about building local union organizing capacity and heard stories about what local unions are doing, including a successful volunteer organizing program at Local 777 in the Chicago area.
“We do a lot of local union organizing already but it was valuable to hear all the examples that were discussed and seeing if we can use some of these strategies,” said Catherine Cobb, President of Local 2010 in California. “It’s also helpful to learn about all the national campaigns the Teamsters are working on now.”
“I will take much of this information back to our members,” said Jackie Spears, Local 2010 Trustee who began as a steward like Cobb. “All these anecdotes about successful organizing really shows that we can all work together for the members.”
Sami Gabriel, President of Local 320 in Minnesota that represents public employees, talked about the importance of internal organizing.
About 18 months ago, the local began a campaign that asked public employee members to recommit to their membership. As a result, the number of full-membership public employees has increased from 78 percent to 86 percent as the union prepared for the Janus decision.
“Internal organizing is just as important as external organizing,” Gabriel said.
Leaders Learn Latest at Division Meetings
Unity was a great opportunity for local union leaders to come together to connect, share stories and resources.
Leaders of local unions that represent workers in the Trade Show and Convention Centers Division discussed the influence of automation and the importance of training and preparing workers for the changes coming in the industries.
“We need to start working technology into our contracts; that is the number one issue. With robots at check-in and more places, technology is really impacting these jobs,” said Tommy Blitsch, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 631 in Las Vegas.
Other meetings at Unity offered attendees the chance to discover that what they thought of as a regional problem unique to their local actually affected several locals across multiple regions, as was the case at the AWG (Associated Wholesale Grocers) meeting.
Issues related to hiring and turnover at an AWG facility in Kenosha, Wis. are not unique in that it is also occurring in Memphis and other locations. Due to AWG’s inability to hire, retain and properly train workers, current employees are facing long hours and grueling working conditions where quality control and timeliness are disregarded.
“Right now the biggest thing for our guys is the hours and long days, the quality of life, money and organizing the nonunion locations,” said Tom Bennett, President of Local 200.
At the Sysco meeting, which was standing room only, attendees shared horror stories that workers are experiencing every day. Workers face high levels of intimidation and threats of shutdowns when organizing takes place. At Sysco subsidiary FreshPoint, contract negotiations were dragging. But after workers approved a strike-authorization vote and threatened a strike, the company finally got serious and bargained a contract, which workers ratified.
“The company’s mistreatment drove us to the point where we weren’t going to accept it anymore, and we had support all across the country” said Joe Chung, a FreshPoint driver.