The First Weekend of November, 2023, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) held its annual convention at a hotel near O’Hare Airport outside of Chicago. It was the 48th convention since the rank-and-file union reform movement’s founding in 1976.
The mood was confident and upbeat, with organizers announcing an attendance of 500 Teamster members from across the country. It was the largest TDU convention since 1997.
The Friday dinner banquet speaker was Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien, who took stock of what his administration had accomplished since taking office in March 2022.
He focused especially on the union’s contract fight at package giant UPS this past summer, which culminated in the best contract ever negotiated at the company. He also spoke of the union’s plans to organize Amazon, an existential threat to the union.
On Saturday evening, the featured speaker and guest of honor at the dinner banquet was United Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain, who was fresh off of leading an unprecedented strike against all three of the Big Three automakers, dubbed the “Stand-Up Strike.”
The six-week strike had resulted in the best auto contracts negotiated in decades, with Fain grabbing national headlines for his militant class war message, combined with an “aw shucks” demeanor befitting his small-town roots in Kokomo, Indiana.
On stage at the TDU convention, though, Fain was playing the role of fiery working-class tribune far more than that of friendly uncle. He brought the crowd of rank-and-file Teamster activists to its feet with a no-holds-barred speech that denounced the billionaire class and held up the Stand-Up Strike as a fight not just for UAW autoworkers, but the entire working class. Importantly, he connected the new militancy in the UAW directly to the rank-and-file union reform movement that TDU has played a key role in building for the past several decades.
As he put it, “there is no Stand-Up Strike without TDU.” As Fain left the stage, the crowd erupted in spontaneous chants of “Eat the Rich,” Fain’s signature slogan, appropriated from a profile of him in the New York Times.
An Improbable Scenario
This entire scenario would have been improbable a year ago, and unthinkable seven years ago.
In November 2022, Fain was still a long-shot presidential candidate in the first-ever direct election for top officers in the UAW. He was still a few weeks away from being part of one of the biggest upsets in U.S. labor history, and a few months away from taking office as the first directly elected president of the UAW. In late 2016, O’Brien was still a loyal lieutenant of old-guard Teamster General President James P. Hoffa, who had then been in office for close to two decades. Far from being friendly with TDU, O’Brien had served a two-week suspension from his IBT positions in 2014 for threatening TDU activists who were challenging an ally of his in Rhode Island Local 251 (O’Brien has since apologized and expressed regret for his actions, and the Local 251 Teamsters he once threatened are now some of his staunchest supporters).
For its part, TDU had kept up the fight through the years of the Hoffa administration, but it was hard to point to concrete gains beyond some defensive victories. The 2016 leadership election campaign had been a shot in the arm though, as TDU-aligned candidate Fred Zuckerman, head of Louisville Local 89, had come within a few thousand votes of defeating Hoffa, and TDU-aligned candidates won spots on the IBT General Executive Board for the first time since 1996. Still, times were tough, and TDU organizers would work hard to build TDU Conventions that were half the size of this year’s event.
As for the UAW, starting in 2017, it was in the thick of a corruption scandal that saw 13 top union officials, including two former presidents, serve prison time. The federal investigation into the union uncovered cartoonish levels of malfeasance, with top UAW officials literally taking company payoffs in exchange for contract concessions, and using members’ dues money to fund lavish getaways, expensive cigars, vacation homes, and more.
Meanwhile, successive generations of UAW leadership had given away the store at the bargaining table, allowing the auto companies to introduce multiple tiers of workers who were paid different rates for doing the same work, and routinely agreeing to concessions in exchange for vague company promises of new investment in plants.
With UAW wages and working conditions eroding, it is unsurprising that they found themselves unable to organize any new auto plants, even as unionized companies used the non-union competition as a rationale for driving down standards even further. People looking for signs of life in the U.S. labor movement were not looking to the UAW.
Things are different now. Amidst a new resurgence of worker organizing and militancy, the Teamsters and the UAW are at the forefront.
The UPS contract campaign this summer, followed by the Big Three auto campaign in the fall, mobilized hundreds of thousands of workers around ambitious demands. In both cases, the campaigns resulted in the best contracts in decades.
This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at Dollars&Sense on December 4, 2023.
About the Author: Barry Eidlin is an associate professor of sociology at McGill University and the author of Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada. Between 1997 and 2003, prior to embarking on his academic training, he worked on the staff of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
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