From colonial times to the turn of the last century, the men who drove horse-drawn wagons formed the backbone of North America’s wealth and prosperity. Despite their essential role as guardians of trade—the lifeblood of the economy—they remained unorganized and exploited.
In a teamster’s life, work was scarce, jobs were insecure, and poverty was commonplace. In 1900, the typical teamster worked 12-18 hours a day, seven days a week for an average wage of $2.00 per day. A teamster was expected not only to haul his load, but to also assume liability for bad accounts and for lost or damaged merchandise. The work left teamsters assuming all of the risks with little chance for reward.
In 1901, frustrated and angry drivers banded together to form the Team Drivers International Union (TDIU), with an initial membership of 1,700. The following year, some members broke away, forming a rival group, the Teamsters National Union.
Samuel Gompers, leader of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was concerned by what he saw as a waste of resources and energy, and convinced the competing unions to meet and work out their differences. Agreeing that they were stronger in solidarity than separately, they re-joined forces to create the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) at a joint convention in Niagara Falls, N.Y. in August 1903. Cornelius Shea was elected its first General President.
The early IBT struggled. Labor laws were nonexistent, and companies used anti-trust laws against unions. In 1905, the IBT backed a bloody strike at the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward Company. The strike lasted more than 100 days, tragically took 21 lives, and cost about $1 million. In the end, Montgomery Ward’s cutthroat tactics broke the strike. In the face of this setback and other issues, the union realized changes were needed.
At the 1907 Convention, Dan Tobin, a strong young leader from Local 25 in Boston was elected General President. His leadership, which would guide the Teamsters for the next 45 years, brought new momentum and vision to the fledgling union.