Teamsters Launch a New Era of Union Power at the Unity Conference
This year’s Unity Conference in May brought together a diverse crowd of Teamsters covering a wide range of industries, professions and regions of the country. But the gathering also set a course for the future as the union embarks on a new era of challenges and chances to build power for workers.
“We have to seize the moment and be united like never before. We don’t have the luxury of being divided,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa.
More than 1,600 Teamster brothers and sisters convened at Unity to share their experiences in the ongoing battles to protect and advance workers’ livelihoods throughout North America.
Hoffa and other speakers highlighted the continued state-level battles against right-to-work legislation as well as attacks on prevailing wages and project labor agreements.
“The best way to protect our union from these attacks is to organize. And we’re doing that across the U.S. and Canada—raising standards across entire industries, fundamentally improving the lives of workers,” said Jeff Farmer, Teamsters Organizing Director.
The conference put a spotlight on the organizing effort at XPO Logistics, one of the largest campaigns the union has taken on. Covering the freight, warehouse and port industries, Teamsters are meeting the global challenge of XPO’s vast supply chain with a global campaign that includes international partners in Europe.
“The Teamsters Union won’t rest until XPO workers are treated honestly and with respect,” said Ernie Soehl, Director of the Teamsters Freight Division.
“If it weren’t for strong unions like the Teamsters, we wouldn’t be able to fight back against greedy companies like XPO,” said Steve Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation who traveled from the UK to speak to Teamsters.
During the general session at Unity, attendees heard from workers like Domingo Avalos who spoke about XPO’s misclassification and wage theft at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. In a separate meeting, an XPO freight driver from Miami talked to Teamsters about the company’s relentless union busting and how the union is fighting for XPO workers’ rights.
Organizing in core industries was a major focal point of this year’s conference. Speakers noted progress made at FedEx Freight, where Teamsters are negotiating contracts at four locations. And in intermodal rail transport, the union is organizing more Parsec workers in addition to the more than 900 Parsec workers who joined the Teamsters last year. Upcoming negotiations at UPS also dominated the discussion.
“We are working on a strategy to win the best contract at UPS. This is an opportunity to pave the way for the next generation of UPS Teamsters. We have challenges—pensions, health care issues, schedule changes, e-commerce—but we have to be more focused than ever on listening to our members,” said Sean O’Brien, International Vice President and Director of the Teamsters Package Division.
Global Campaigns and Organizing
Another major organizing campaign of global proportions that took center stage at Unity was the battle to organize school bus workers at Durham, a company owned by UK-based National Express.
“To me, Durham is to the school bus industry what Walmart is to the retail industry,” said Sharon Jones, a Durham employee from Lake Villa, Ill., who spoke at Unity. Ongoing campaigns featured at the conference also included warehouse organizing at Sysco, American Red Cross and public sector campaigns.
General President Hoffa praised the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and looked forward to new talks to address problems with other unfair trade agreements, especially NAFTA.
François Laporte, President of Teamsters Canada, echoed that point.
“We know that NAFTA was designed to serve corporate greed, not working people. That’s why we must be at the bargaining table as talks begin on a revised NAFTA agreement,” Laporte said.
Laporte told Unity attendees that Teamsters Canada has been in major national negotiations, organizing thousands of new members, and fighting for Teamsters in campaigns to promote construction jobs, pipeline projects and more.
Strong Financial Footing
General Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall reported on the strong financial health of the union and addressed challenges that Teamsters are facing head on.
“I’m proud to say that our Strike and Defense Fund stands at more than $172.5 million. Our net assets have grown by $37.5 million since last year,” Hall said.
The relentless political attack on public sector unions was another topic that underscored the need for more effective internal organizing. Anti-union efforts to eliminate fair-share fees in the public sector are looming in the courts, namely in the form of Janus v. AFSCME.
“We’ve got great public sector contracts, but there are too many fair-share members not pulling their weight,” said Michael Filler, Director of the Teamsters Public Services Division.
Brian Aldes, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 320 in Minneapolis, told conference attendees how his local has successfully expanded its active membership among public employees to 90 percent.
Teamster political experts and lobbyists explained actions being taken in various states to push back against anti-worker policies as well as attacks coming from the federal level.
“We need to get more members signed up for DRIVE to push back against bad legislation that hurts working families,” said Jim Kabell, President of the Missouri-Kansas-Nebraska Conference of Teamsters.
The inauguration of the newly elected Executive Board took place at Unity, along with dozens of breakout sessions and meetings covering a variety of contract campaigns, divisions and other topics.
The gathering also provided a space for individual local leaders and members to meet and learn from each other’s experiences.
“One thing I learned this year at Unity is that we need to get together globally. Being global is very important for the Teamsters and for unions throughout the country,” said Robert Gardner, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 6 in St. Louis.
Juan Cepero, an XPO driver and member of Local 769, noted the sense of family from fellow Teamsters at the conference.
“Everyone here is a Teamster. Everyone knows what I’m going through. Two years ago we organized with the Teamsters at XPO to fight back against discrimination, favoritism and retaliation by the company. Here, I am treated like family. There is power in unity,” Cepero said.
Others at the conference saw the importance of that unity in both motivational and practical terms.
“I find that there’s a lot of information from other organizers around the country that come to the meetings, and this information is helpful for me in my organizing campaigns in Southern California,” said Stan Brown, an organizer with Local 952 in Orange, Calif.
“I think it’s important for us to build solidarity,” Brown added. “Even after you’ve become a Teamster, even after you start paying dues, even after you ratify your contract, you still have to work to maintain solidarity. That’s what this conference is about.”
Teamsters Warn of Anti-worker Legislative Fights Battle Against Right to Work is Front and Center
Teamster leaders and staff challenged local union officers and members to get educated and involved in the political battles facing hardworking Americans at the federal and state levels during the 2017 Unity Conference.
Front and center in those fights is right to work, a legislative ruse that corporate supporters use to trick the general public. Right to work is wrong—wrong for workers, wrong for the families they support and wrong for a nation that is trying to build good, stable jobs that pay a fair wage and can grow the U.S. middle class.
“Attacks on labor are widespread in 2017, spanning coast to coast,” said Tyler Longpine, the Teamsters Political Director. At the top of the list, he said, is “right to work, designed to drive down middle-class wages and increase corporate profits.”
“Now is definitely the time to educate our elected officials, strengthen support and prepare so we are ready when and if this fight comes to be,” said Sunshine McBride, the Teamsters Deputy Director for Federal Legislative Affairs. “It is essential that we be strategic and purposeful in our response.”
Right to work decimates the ability of workers to come together and collectively bargain for fair wages and benefits. Because it allows employees at union-represented companies to not pay fees that cover contract negotiations, those who don’t are “free riders” who glean benefits from those who do pay.
Over time, more and more workers could choose to do the same, robbing the union of much-needed resources that are necessary to represent workers properly. Less money could lead to less effective advocacy when it comes to fighting complaints filed against employees or standing up for workers against a union employer violating their contract.
The attack on unions and middle-class workers doesn’t end with right to work. Already this year, lawmakers in Iowa and Wisconsin have approved legislation that would end project labor agreements, jeopardizing the wages of those who construct public works projects.
Similarly, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) rolled out a bill earlier this year that proposes the elimination of prevailing wage on federal infrastructure and construction projects. The repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act would amount to a massive wage cut for millions of workers just as the federal government starts to move toward making real investments in infrastructure projects.
Taken together with right to work, further enactment of such measures would exacerbate the nation’s already growing income inequality problem. That’s not what workers need to improve their way of life.
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