With major challenges facing workers and the 2020 elections looming, the importance of mobilizing members is more critical than ever, Teamster leaders heard at the annual Unity Conference in early May.
Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said 2018 was important because Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives, so-called right to work was repealed in Missouri and numerous anti-worker governors were unseated, including Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
Similar fights face the union and its 1.4 million members, which makes member mobilization and action so important.
“We’ve got to work hard to keep our momentum strong,” Hoffa told the 1,800 leaders at Unity. Attendees also gathered for dozens of divisional meetings to get updates about the latest campaigns, challenges and priorities heading into 2020.
Hoffa, who recently celebrated 20 years as Teamsters General President, thanked the attendees for their support over the years.
“We’ve been here 20 years because of you,” Hoffa said. “We’ve rebuilt this union from the bottom up. I’m so proud of where we are today.”
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, welcomed the leaders and congratulated the union for recent organizing victories at casinos and hotels along the Las Vegas Strip.
“I stand with organized labor because it’s the right thing to do…and because together we can build a better Nevada and a better country,” Gov. Sisolak said.
Teamsters General-Secretary Ken Hall, who noted that the union’s finances are in excellent condition, said member involvement is critical in all issues, but will be particularly important as the union fights to solve the pension crisis.
“Nothing replaces boots on the ground and nothing replaces our members’ involvement,” Hall said. “We can’t win without the most important aspect of our union, and that’s our membership. The Teamsters Union is all about our membership.”
Jason Rabinowitz, Director of the Teamsters Public Services Division, said member involvement has been critical to fight the well-funded, sustained attacks against public employees and their unions. These attacks will continue, he said.
“This is an attack on all of labor,” he said. “Every worker must have the right of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is a human right.”
The Teamsters have fought back by educating public employees about the importance of union representation, and Rabinowitz said overall public service membership is on the rise. More than 209,000 public employees are Teamsters, “whose work makes America work every day,” Rabinowitz said.
Gregory Floyd, President of Local 237 in New York City, said his local prepared for last year’s anti-union Janus decision by reaching out to every public employee member, signing up workers, holding union open houses, implementing member-only programs and other efforts. The result: members stood by their union and continued their membership, Floyd said.
Kathleen Brennan, President of Local 1932 in San Bernardino, Calif., said when an anti-union group tried to get Local 1932 public employees to stop paying dues, it angered the local’s members. Members urged the local to prepare its own literature to distribute to the anti-union group’s representatives. Local 1932 members confronted the anti-union group representatives, telling them why they support being Teamsters.
“Not only are we proud Teamsters, but we are well-educated Teamsters,” said Brennan, who noted that the anti-union group hasn’t been heard from in months.
Nina Bugbee, Director of the new Teamsters Health Care Division, told the Unity audience that the division represents more than 50,000 members at hospitals, nursing homes, the American Red Cross, ambulance workers and others. The division will work hard to provide top-notch representation, secure excellent contracts and organize workers.
“I feel strongly that no one person gets much done alone,” she said.
Power in the Public Sector
One of the biggest focuses of the Unity Conference was building Teamster power in the public sector.
“Our Teamster public service workers make our communities safer, healthier, better places to live, and they deserve fair treatment at work,” Rabinowitz said. “That’s why it is so important that we come together and develop strategies to build Teamster power in public service, organize thousands of workers and give our existing membership the best representation that they could possibly have.”
On the third day of the conference Teamsters from all over the country held a rally in support of Senate Bill 135 (a law since passed by the Nevada legislature that will strengthen collective bargaining rights for state employees).
Local 237 represents over 20,000 workers in the public sector. Floyd addressed the crowd, emphasizing that laws like SB 135 have been an important part of New York Teamsters’ success.
“We are as powerful as we are because we have collective bargaining in New York State,” Floyd said. “If it wasn’t for collective bargaining, we would have to grovel. Because of collective bargaining we have built strength and that is what we are trying to do in Nevada.”
Local 117 President Michelle Woodrow also addressed the audience. Local 117 represents thousands of workers throughout the Seattle metropolitan area.
“I know that Washington state workers, just like the workers in Nevada, provide vital services for our communities—education, health care, transportation, public safety—and for that, they deserve the freedom to negotiate over their wages and working conditions,” Woodrow said.
A Helping Hand
Dave Hawley, President of Joint Council 7 and Secretary-Treasurer of Local 137 in Redding, Calif., told union leaders about the Local 137 and Local 2010 members who lost their homes in the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. in November 2018, and the union’s incredible response. The fire destroyed 14,000 homes, including the homes of 150 Teamsters.
In a matter of weeks, more than $325,000 was raised by Teamster local unions across the country for fire victims, including $150,000 from the International Union.
“Nobody stepped up like the Teamsters did, and as quickly as the Teamsters did,” Hawley said.
Bruce Dick, a member of Local 137 who works as a social services case manager for Butte County, Calif., said everything he owned except for the clothes on his back and his truck were destroyed in the fire.
“I had a check from the Teamsters Disaster Relief Fund less than 24 hours after the fire, which was great, because I didn’t have anywhere to stay,” Dick said. “That check is how I got a hotel. What that says is that when the rubber hits the road, the Teamsters react.
“The minute—literally, the minute—that the call went out from our business agent letting Teamster locals and the International Union know that brothers and sisters had lost their houses and needed help, the donations started pouring in,” Dick said. “The money was there for us. The leadership was there for us. If we needed $10 to get us through, or for gas money, a shoulder to cry on, a pat on the back, whatever it was, we got it.”
Victoria Sinclair, a member of Local 137, said at one point she thought she would die and left voice messages for her loved ones. She survived, and thanks to the support of the Teamsters Union, made it through the tragedy.
“That’s where we knew who had our backs,” Sinclair said of the union’s response. “Knowing that I’m not alone because of my brothers and sisters, that’s what keeps us going.”
François Laporte, President of Teamsters Canada, said the local unions in Canada have organized thousands of workers over the past five years, helping the membership to “grow twice as fast as the Canadian economy.”
The organizing has taken place in the retirement home industry, hospitals, freight, construction and many other areas, he said.
Les Leopold, executive director and co-founder of The Labor Institute, a nonprofit organization that designs research and educational programs for unions and other groups, discussed the rampant “runaway inequality” in the United States.
“Runaway inequality will not cure itself,” Leopold said. “It’s going to take a massive movement to counter runaway inequality, and you as Teamster leaders can help lead this effort.”
Jeff Farmer, Director of the Teamsters Organizing Department, discussed some of the major campaigns under way, including XPO Logistics, passenger transportation, Sysco, Las Vegas casinos and the recent victory by nurses at a hospital in Lewiston, Idaho. Despite huge challenges facing the union, the “Teamsters have held our own and built our union over 1.4 million members strong,” he said.
“These are tough times,” Farmer said. “We need to be as militant as these times demand.”
Ladell Roberts, a member of Local 120 in Minnesota, is a Sysco worker and steward who has been a Teamster for 20 years.
“I have worked on several organizing campaigns, and we fight for those who cannot fight for themselves,” Roberts said. “Workers deserve what we all fight for. I’m proud to be working with Sysco workers. I’m proud to be a member of Local 120 and I’m proud to be a Teamster.”
Blanca Aquilar, a Teamster for 22 years, currently works at Bally’s Hotel in Las Vegas after 15 years at the now-closed Riviera Hotel. Aquilar is a shop steward and has helped on recent organizing campaigns at hotels and casinos in Las Vegas.
“My union is always there for me, having my back, helping me stay employed with good Teamster wages and benefits,” she said. “To these companies, we are all just a number. But together we are many and strong.”
Rebecca Gibson, a lost-timer from Local 483 in Boise, Idaho who works at UPS as a feeder driver, helped on the recent victory by nurses at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, Idaho. The nurses voted 157-44 to join Local 690 in Spokane, Wash.
“It was a landslide and we made history in Idaho that night,” Gibson said. “Working on an organizing campaign gave me a unique opportunity to share my story. I wanted the nurses to know that members do make a difference.”
The Unity plenary wrapped with a focus on the importance of the 2020 elections and the need for local unions and members to get involved, including the importance of electing Teamsters and signing members up for DRIVE, the union’s political action committee.
Susie Martinez, a Nevada Assemblywoman elected in 2018, has worked in the Las Vegas hospitality industry and has been a Teamster for over 30 years.
“As a front desk agent and shop steward for Teamsters Local 986, I’ve fought for fair wages and better working conditions for my co-workers, and I’m a proud Teamster,” she said.
Bill Hamilton, an International Vice President and President of the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters, told local leaders about success electing Teamsters to the state legislature and helping to re-elect labor-friendly politicians, including Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
“We had lost-timers and others working across Pennsylvania to educate members and get them involved in all the races,” Hamilton said. “I’m especially proud that we elected four Teamsters to the statehouse.”
Jesse Case, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 238 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, introduced newly organized staff members of the Iowa Democratic Party and field staff of presidential candidate Eric Swalwell, a member of Congress from California.
“These Teamster campaign workers will be active on campaigns this year and into the future and some of them will be elected to political office in the future,” Case said.
Later, Mauricio Diaz, a District Organizing Director for the Iowa Democratic Party and new member of Local 238, reflected on being part of a growing movement of political campaign staffers who are unionizing ahead of the 2020 elections.
“The fact that more and more campaign workers are organizing is good for both unions and the Democratic Party in the long term,” Diaz said. “Campaign staffers are promoting the culture of unionism within the world of democratic campaigns. Field organizers aren’t just going to stay in Iowa after the election is over. They will be bringing those values to other campaigns where they are advocating on behalf of workers’ rights all over the country. What we are doing in Iowa is destined to snowball into something greater.”
Unity Meetings Focus on Priorities Heading Into Election Year
At this year’s Unity Conference, attendees took part in dozens of divisional meetings to discuss priorities that need to be tackled now and into the future.
The Teamsters Airline Division convened to discuss the biggest issues facing workers. A productive discussion was held around building effective Go Teams—the aviation professionals responsible for reacting to a crisis. One of the most important pieces of a Go Team response is implementing effective Critical Incident Response Programs (CIRP). CIRPs are protocols in place to provide members in the airline industry with the support they need to get through a traumatic event—especially a plane crash—occurring on the job.
Local 1224 Member Vin Connor is an Atlas Air Pilot who serves as the chairman of the CIRP team at Atlas Air.
“Our role is to assess what people’s needs are right away,” Connor said. “The biggest positive impact we’ve seen comes from allowing crew members to process what happened. If our crew members need to talk to someone or take time off, we make sure they have those needs met; we walk them through the whole process and get them restored as soon as we can.”
At the National Freight Division meeting, the audience gave Director Ernie Soehl and the Negotiating Committee a standing ovation for their job negotiating the YRC Freight, Holland and New Penn National Master Freight Agreement.
The contract took effect on May 14—shortly after Unity wrapped up, after the last supplement was ratified.
Those attending Unity said the plenary, meetings and other events were very helpful, giving them knowledge that they will bring back to their local unions.
“One of the most helpful classes for me was the trustee workshop,” said Bob Downing, a UPS shop steward and member of Local 710 in Chicago. “As a Local 710 Trustee, it’s helpful to learn more about how we can be the best possible overseers of our organization’s financial resources.”
Chris Gallegos, a Business Agent at Local 952 in Orange County, Calif., said that speaking with business agents from across the country who have contracts with the same companies as Local 952 offered him opportunities to learn new tactics.
“I want to learn as much as I can about how to address automation in the workplace,” Gallegos said. “Being here has given me the opportunity to talk to business agents from the East Coast who already have language around automation written into some of their existing contracts. Learning how they are addressing this issue has given me some ideas that I can take back to our membership.”