Teamsters and Civil Rights

Dignity in the workplace does not only come from good contracts. It comes from equality, something the Teamsters Union has fought for from its beginning.

Women’s rights, civil rights, the rights of migrant workers, protections for minor, senior and disabled workers are just a few of the causes the Teamsters have taken up in the name of fairness.

Through legislation, donations and activism, the Teamsters Union has made more of a difference in these areas than perhaps any union or single organization in North America. Wherever working men and women marched for jobs, civil rights or justice, the Teamsters were on the front lines.

This does not mean it has been an easy road for minorities or women of any color. Overall, however, the Teamsters Union tried to do the right thing and protect all its members. And it’s usually been ahead of the other unions and society in general. There still is much to do, but the Teamsters have a good history to build upon.

Equal Pay for All

The Teamsters did not just talk equality, they lived it. Early Teamsters would not allow Southern locals to follow the practice of segregation, and in fact threatened to pull charters in cases where this was violated. The first local in New Orleans was governed by an Executive Board that consisted of black and white members. By 1906, editorials in the Teamsters magazine were making impassioned pleas for all local unions, but especially those in the South, to organize African-American workers.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters also championed the cause of women’s rights early on. The following was printed in the July 1917 issue of the Teamsters Journal:

“Equal pay for equal work should become a constant, vigorous slogan among all employees in all crafts. The strength and brains of women and girls are exploited the world over and especially so in the United States. All working men and women should become actively, and, if necessary, drastically interested in fighting for equal pay for duties performed by either sex. The standard of living in every workingman’s home is lowered by sexual inequality of pay and both sexes should band together and swat the curse from all parts of the earth where it exists.”

Later that same year the Teamsters won a clause in a contract for women laundry workers that required equal pay regardless of race. This was a huge achievement and became the first “color blind” contract for workers. This action brought criticism and even threats to the union and its leaders, but they would not be intimidated. By 1919 the Teamsters adopted “Equal Pay for All” as their national slogan.

The Civil Rights Movement

As the civil rights movement grew in the 1950s and 1960s the Teamsters became very involved. The union provided money and supplies to many civil rights groups, including the more than 700 families living in “Freedom Village,” who faced retribution for registering to vote in 1960.

The Teamsters had a good working relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with representatives on civil rights boards and committees. And, union members and leaders were active participants in the movement at a time when such actions were considered risky, if not downright dangerous for any organization.

Scores of Teamsters were among the more than 200,000 people who participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963. Buses carrying Teamsters arrived from near and far, some driving through the night to join the activities on time. Members who attended described the event as “the greatest peaceable demonstration in the history of the nation.” Others reported feeling great pride in the union for its support of the civil rights movement.

But the Teamsters’ involvement in social causes was not without consequences.

Viola Liuzzo, the wife of a Teamster business agent, was murdered as she drove marchers to Selma, Ala. in 1965. Dr. King as well as many rank-and-file members, James R. Hoffa and other Teamster leaders attended her funeral.

The union continues to strive for political and social justice. The Teamsters have many different caucuses keeping an eye on inequality in the workplace and in Washington. The union’s Human Rights Commission includes delegates from caucuses—the Teamsters National Black Caucus, the Teamsters Hispanic Caucus, the Teamsters Women’s Caucus and the Teamsters LGBTQ+ Caucus—are all hard at work to support Teamster diversity.