UPS and the teamsters

The recent International Brotherhood of Teamsters' (IBT) victory over United Parcel Service is part of a historic struggle to transform the American trade unions into instruments of class struggle. Back in 1934, socialists organized a powerful teamsters strike in the mid-west city of Minneapolis, a transpiration hub. Its overwhelming success was the first step in turning the Teamsters into a fighting, class-conscious union. When Jimmy Hoffa took over the Teamsters in the 1940s, he purged the union of the Minneapolis radicals while making alliances with organized crime. The retreat of the Teamsters was part of a general reactionary drift in the American labor movement that persisted until the 1960s.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), born in the mid 1970's, attempted to rid the union of Hoffa's bureaucrats and criminals. Without the TDU, Ron Carey could have never captured the Teamsters presidency in 1991. The socialists and progressives who started TDU played a significant role in returning the Teamsters to its militant roots and deserve enormous credit for the victory against UPS. Arrayed against the reform movement today is a powerful combination of the trucking industry, bureaucrats led by Jimmy Hoffa Jr., organized crime, and the American government. Washington has ordered new Teamsters elections that will pit Jimmy Hoffa Jr. against Ron Carey. When Hoffa Jr. says that he is trying to return the Teamsters to the traditions of his father, nobody should misunderstand his goal. He wants to turn the clock back to a period of bureaucracy, goon squads and theft.

In 1933, Farrell Dobbs had a job shoveling coal in Minneapolis where he met Grant Dunne, a truck driver, who was unloading a shipment of coal. Dunne invited him to an organizing meeting of Teamster Local 574. The union sought to organize coal-yard workers. Grant Dunne was the brother of Vincent Ray and Miles Dunne. The Communist Party had expelled the three Dunnes for backing Trotsky. Unlike many of the other early adherents to the Trotskyist movement, the brothers were not members of the intelligentsia. They were workers who had taken part in the International Workers Movement's struggles in the early part of the century. They hoped to build powerful industrial unions in the 1930s during the depths of the Great Depression. Such unions could play a role not only in defending the standard of living of working people, but serve as a battering ram against the capitalist system as well.

Dobbs was happy join an organizing drive for personal reasons at least. His pay was $18 for a sixty hour week and had recently learned that his boss would cut his wages to $16 for a forty hour week. While Dobbs was no socialist, he knew firsthand what injustice meant. So in the dead of winter, Local 274 struck just as a severe cold wave hit the city. The coal-yard bosses conceded as quickly as they did in the recent UPS strike and the union movement gained a feeling of power and self-confidence. The political and organizing skills of the Dunne brothers impressed Dobbs to such an extent that he decided to join the Trotskyist movement.

The next step in the Teamsters organizing drive in Minneapolis was to bring truck drivers into the union. On May 13, 1934, Local 274 voted to strike the trucking industry in Minneapolis. The union rented a large building where it set up offices, a garage, a field hospital and a commissary. Union carpenters and plumbers helped to set up the building and the Cook and Waiters Union organized 100 volunteers who served 4,000 to 5,000 strikers and family members each day. The union organized the strike like a military operation. Sentries stood guard on fifty roads leading into the city with orders to block all scab traffic. Teenagers on motorcycles acted as couriers, bringing news from the field to strike headquarters. Ray Dunne and Farrell Dobbs were the main coordinators of strike. In less than a year, Dobbs had evolved from an ordinary worker to a strike leader. This happened countless times in the 1930s when a powerful mass movement helped ordinary people discover latent talents.

On July 20, 1934 the cops opened fire on ten unarmed pickets. When other strikers came to their aid, the police shot at them as well. They wounded sixty- seven people, including many whom the cops shot in the back while trying to escape. Two eventually died. Instead of intimidating the workers, the opposite happened. The strike deepened and mass support grew. Four hundred thousand workers attended a mass rally, one of the largest in Minneapolis history. The bosses finally relented in August and recognized union representation for the truck-drivers.

The victory in Minneapolis encouraged the Teamsters to organize over-the-road truckers next. In "Teamster's Power," Dobbs described their working conditions:

"The workers aimed at in this drive toiled under inhuman conditions. Hours of labor varied widely. Trips of from 80 to 120 continuous hours--with catnaps snatched here and there--were quite common. Even longer stretches of continuous driving were obtained through the use of sleeper-cabs.

"Usually the 'sleeping' device consisted of a flat slab behind the drivers' seat with a thin, hard, often lumpy mattress. Two drivers were assigned to these operations, alternating between a turn at the wheel and 'resting' on the slab. Genuine relief from exhaustion was impossible under these rude, unsanitary conditions in a moving truck. Yet the bosses often sought to deduct bunk time from the drivers pay, claiming that they were 'not working.'"

Dobbs put an organizing committee together that included James R. Hoffa, a young trade union militant from Detroit Teamsters Local 299. Hoffa had led a successful work-stoppage involving trucks loaded with highly perishable strawberries. From that moment on, other unionists paid respect to Hoffa as the leader of the "Strawberry Boys." Hoffa, like Dobbs, knew what it meant to be poor. His father was coal miner who died when Hoffa was seven years old. He quit school at the age of fourteen and went to work as a stock boy for $12 per hour. By the time Dobbs had initiated his organizing drive, Hoffa had a reputation for physical courage. In fights with scabs or the cops, he never retreated. In "The Trials of Jimmy Hoffa, he said, "My scalp was laid open sufficiently wide to require stitches no less than six times during the first year I was a business agent of Local 299."

The big difference between Hoffa and Dobbs was political. Hoffa's vision of the labor movement was as a means to advance the interests of working people, and his own career. Over the years the latter goal became much more important than the first. Dobbs, on the other hand, thought that the only way working people could end exploitation was through socialist revolution. The union movement was simply a means toward this end.

When Dobbs met with Teamsters president Dan Tobin in 1939, he received an invitation to become a careerist. Dobbs listened politely, but spurned Tobin's offer. He explains why in "Teamsters Power":

"As the discussion [with Tobin] in its entirety revealed, the IBT head did not contemplate indefinite retention on his staff of an organizer who was a revolutionary-socialist. He obviously relied on the corrupting effects that he assumed high wages and soft living would have upon me. With the passage of time, he expected that I would become just another business unionist. For a period he would have tolerated my continued radicalism, because my special knowledge about the union's newly developed activities in the long distance trucking industry; but only as a part of a transitional process. In the end, either I would have allowed my principles to become compromised, or moves would have been undertaken to oust me from the staff. With the country about to enter World War II, there could be no question that these were the alternatives."

Dobbs' socialism and trade union militancy made him the enemy of the trucking company bosses as well as the Teamsters bureaucracy. Furthermore, his revolutionary opposition to World War Two caused the Roosevelt administration to view him and his co-thinkers as an obstacle to American war aims. Although Hoffa respected the dedication and skills of Farrell Dobbs, he joined up with his enemies with no hesitation. When Tobin decided to purge the Trotskyists from the Minneapolis trade union movement, he enlisted the support of the brawling Hoffa. Hoffa recruited a goon squad from Local 299 and travelled to Minneapolis to do battle.

The Trotskyists and Hoffa's goons had a number of violent clashes, but government repression was what finally drove the Trotskyists from the Teamsters union. The Justice Department brought sedition charges against Dobbs and twenty-seven other members of the Socialist Workers Party and union militants under the provisions of the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate revolution. This was the best way to silence revolutionary opposition to World War Two. A jury found eighteen guilty and the judge sentenced Dobbs to twelve to eighteen months in jail. Tobin immediately put Hoffa in charge of the Central State Drivers in the office vacated by Dobbs. Hoffa threw himself into the organizing drive with his customary single-minded drive and energy. He wanted to organize as many drivers as he could. Each additional union member represented additional revenue that could yield higher salaries for Hoffa. Hoffa may have been for the improvement of working people, but he was also very much for the improvement of Jimmy Hoffa as well.

Another major difference between Hoffa and Dobbs was over what was the best source of power that could challenge the employers, cops and scabs during an organizing drive or strike. Dobbs the socialist believed in mass mobilizations of working people, while Hoffa believed in sheer muscle. He built a staff of violent bullies who were blindly loyal to him. These men had the mentality of prize- fighters rather than revolutionaries. Dobbs and other socialists believed in self- defense, up to the point of armed struggle but this power must rest on the organized mass movement rather than goon squads.

Some of the muscle men Hoffa hired as union organizers had ties to organized crime. He drew upon them during a jurisdiction battle with rival Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organizers in 1941. David Johnson, one of Hoffa's top aides, says that "The CIO had tougher guys than us expected. So Jimmy went to see Santo Perrone." (Dan Moldea reports this connection in the "The Hoffa Wars," a valuable account of Hoffa's use of organized crime figures.) Perrone was a anti-union thug in the 1930s who had spent two years in prison for liquor violations. Like many other gangsters, Perrone could make a switch to the union side if the money was right. Hoffa made his connections to the mob through a former lover, Sylvia Pagano, who had a clerical job with a labor union. After splitting up with Hoffa, she married Sam Scaradino who had ties to Perrone and other gangsters. She was the go-between who initially introduced Hoffa to the mob.

The Teamsters union's ties to organized crime deepened throughout the 1940s and 50s. This alliance took various forms. The gangsters went to work as organizers or business agents. In this capacity they intimated or punished dissidents working for trade union democracy. More importantly, the Teamsters began loaning money from their vast pension funds to businesses owned by the Mafia, particularly to hotels in Las Vegas. The Dorfman family owned the insurance company that handled Teamster investments and had had extensive ties to the mob. Paul Dorfman introduced Hoffa to his associates, Paul DeLucia and Joseph Glimco, who in turn had connections to Sam Giancana, a major Mafia boss.

Also, the union failed to provide a pension when a worker moved from one local to another. The funds were not transferable. Many old and sick workers lived in poverty while union bureaucrats socialized at expensive restaurants and country clubs on money siphoned from pension funds.

The Dorfmans not only stole money from pension funds, they loaned it interest- free to mobsters like Moe Dalitz, who owned the La Costa Country Club. Dalitz met Hoffa through Sylvia Pagano and they became close friends and allies. Dalitz was the head of the "Purple Gang," a group of Jewish bootleggers who were an important part of the Cleveland crime syndicate. Dalitz had close ties with Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky, the two most powerful criminals in American history.

(Years later, Hoffa and these mobsters organized a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, according to reporter Dan Moldea. Lansky had extensive holdings in Havana, Cuba. Castro had announced plans to throw the Mafia off the island, including Lansky's gang. Lansky and Hoffa hired assassins to kill Castro before the Bay of Pigs invasion. Their payment was mob money laundered through the Teamsters union. Moldea also believes that Hoffa was behind the Kennedy assassination as well. In a final twist, Jack Ruby, who had ties to both the Teamsters union and organized crime, murdered Oswald. Much of this is impossible to prove, just as it is impossible to establish who murdered Hoffa himself. Moldea concludes that the CIA was behind the murder of Hoffa since he knew too much about the Castro and Kennedy assassination plots.)

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, there was simmering discontent with the corruption and autocracy of the Teamster officialdom. Every so often a local union would become the battleground between reformers and the goons loyal to Hoffa. The goons usually came out on top. What made these victories possible was not just sheer muscle. These were prosperous years in the United States and a powerful Teamsters union could win strikes without too much trouble. Steady wage increases and goon squad intimidation made for a generally complacent membership.

The status quo began to unravel as the American economy itself began to unravel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The rank and file Teamster rebellions that began in this period eventually led to the election of Ron Carey. It took the trade union movement nearly thirty years to get rid of Hoffa's gangsters and bureaucrats. The story of this revolt is available in Dan La Botz's essential "Rank and File Rebellion." La Botz himself was one of the founders of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and tells a gripping story.

The first significant rebellion took place among steel-hauling owner-operators in 1967. The teamster bureaucracy viewed these truck drivers who owned their own rig with utter disdain. They responded by forming their own group, the Fraternal Order of Steel Haulers (FASH). Their goal was to split from the IBT since they had special needs that the union was not addressing. The biggest problem they faced is that the companies refused to pay them as they waited for products to be ready for shipment. This layover time ate into the workers' income. In addition, the rising cost of gasoline became an onerous expense. Many of these workers, while nominally self-employed, found themselves becoming impoverished.

The steel-haulers went on strike on August 21, 1967, and the Teamster bureaucrats ordered them to go back to work immediately. The strike became increasingly violent as individual truckers began throwing bricks or shooting rifles at scab trucks. The strike ended after eight weeks on terms favorable to the dissidents. They struck again in 1969 and the Teamster bureaucracy attacked it with all its power. An Ohio teamster official organized an army of 120 thugs to attack the FASH strikers. Both sides had guns and the fighting left eight men wounded and one dead. From this point on, steel-haulers would look sympathetically upon any attempt to rid the Teamsters of bureaucracy.

The next big rebellion took place a year later in 1970. This time it involved various Teamsters locals that rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had with student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that "Communists" were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest "Communists" one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).

In 1971, the lawyer Arthur Fox started a new reform group called Professional Drivers Council (PROD) Since Fox worked for Ralph Nader, the group focused on health and safety issues. Since the Teamsters were so bureaucratic, the group inevitably became an outlet for rebellious rank and file workers who wanted a clean sweep of the union. By 1976, PROD had become convinced that the only way that the union could address health and safety issues was by throwing out the unresponsive union leadership. La Botz reports that the PROD leadership came to the 1976 Teamsters convention with a 177 page book detailing Teamster ties to the mob and financial abuses.

The final building block in the reform movement that became Teamsters for a Democratic Union was the Teamsters for a Democratic Contract (TDC). Activists such as Mike Friedman started TDC. La Botz reports that Friedman had been a cabdriver and truck driver for fourteen years and a member of Teamsters local 407 in Cleveland. Friedman was also a member of International Socialists (IS), a small socialist group that emerged from a split in the Trotskyist movement just prior to World War II.

The Trotskyists disagreed over the character of the USSR. Max Schachtman no longer considered it to be socialist. Dobbs, the Dunne brothers and party leader James P. Cannon thought it was a "degenerated workers state," in line with Trotsky's definition in "The Revolution Betrayed." Schachtman drifted the right over the years while the left-wing of his movement started International Socialists. The primary ideological influence on IS is Hal Draper, who wrote a four-volume study of Karl Marx and who advocated "socialism from below."

It was a sign of the maturity of the American left that Friedman and his comrades did not make the correct theory of the Russian workers state pivotal to their work in the Teamster reform movement. Instead Friedman concentrated on fighting the labor bureaucracy. He came to the founding meeting of TURF in Cleveland and pitched in with organizing efforts. Friedman was a Vietnam antiwar movement activist and brought skills learned from that movement into the trade unions. According to La Botz:

"It was while working for Boss-Linco that Friedman became active in the Cleveland chapter of TDU. Mike Friedman and a few other socialists involved brought a wealth of experience in other social movements to enrich the struggle for reform in the Teamsters. They were also well educated and had technical skills such as the ability to put out leaflets and newspapers, and they were experienced organizers who had put together meetings and conferences. But perhaps most important, they brought their idealism and dedication to building a grass-roots movement."

Eventually Teamsters for a Democratic Union became powerful enough to unseat the bureaucracy. The TDU candidate was Ron Carey, who came from the UPS Teamster local in New York City, a long-time reform stronghold. Ronald Robert Carey was born in New York City, son of a driver for United Parcel Service and a strong union man.

After leaving the Marines in 1955, Carey took a job at UPS, delivering packages in New York City. In 1958 he became a shop steward for Teamsters local 804 which, having over 6,000 members, was one of the largest UPS locals in the country. Like many others, Carey became dissatisfied with the bureaucracy and ran in elections for local trustee in 1962 and for recording secretary in 1965. Eventually the union elected him president of the local. When Carey decided to run for the office of local president, his boss told him that unless he withdrew his wife would be told that he was having an affair. Informants friendly to Carey warned him that such a threat was in the works and he secretly tape-recorded the conversation which he played at a union meeting. He swore to the members that he would never give in to such intimidation. He won landslide elections to eight three-year terms.

Carey fought management to improve members' wages and working conditions. He led a strike that allowed drivers to retire after 25 years instead of 30 years and negotiated contracts that doubled the salaries of UPS drivers. After Carey became president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1991, he cut his own salary from $225,000 to $175,000, and sold off limousines, jets and a Caribbean condominium owned by the union.

The Teamsters were successful in the strike against UPS because the company underestimated the determination of the union and its leadership, and support it would generate among working people. Also, it could no longer rely on a vast reservoir of the unemployed to supply what the bourgeois press euphemistically calls "replacement workers." An improved economy had generated job growth across the United States, especially in those areas where UPS workers worked. This has an analogy with the Great Depression when the big CIO organizing drives only began to take place after the economy had picked up a bit in 1933. When the unemployment rate stood at 25 percent, workers were simply too afraid to strike. Too many unemployed workers could replace them.

New York Times reporter Stephen Greenhouse reported that four months before their contract expired, UPS workers were holding rallies in 30 cities around the country that morning to prepare the ranks for a strike. The media paid little attention to these preparations. However, they turned out to be part of an unusual mobilization effort that was instrumental in the Teamsters' winning most of what they sought in their 15-day strike against UPS. According to Greenhouse:

"The Teamsters' yearlong mobilization included scores of rallies at UPS sites as well as other major efforts, like sending questionnaires to 185,000 Teamsters asking what they wanted from the UPS negotiations and collecting 100,000 signatures backing the union's demands. But the union did not neglect minor details: at one point, it distributed 50,000 whistles for use at the rallies.

"By the time the July 31 strike deadline approached, the Teamsters had turned their UPS membership into a well-oiled juggernaut that the company's leaders underestimated. In dozens of interviews with UPS, union and federal officials, the union's mobilization and the company's misreading of it emerge as the keys to the Teamsters' victory."

Closely related to this miscalculation was the employer's belief that the American people would be hostile to the strike. What they did not count on is the hostility that fifteen years of "downsizing" has generated. When Ron Carey spoke to television reporters about "corporate greed," there is little doubt that millions of Americans agreed with this characterization.

In an article that analyzed the growth of working class solidarity, Times reporter Greenhouse discussed the attitudes of part-time UPS worker Gloria Harris:

"'This sent a message to other companies that you can't keep pushing people so hard, and expect to get away with paying them part-time,' said Ms. Harris, a single mother who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the rough-at-the-edges Chicago neighborhood of Englewood.

"Except for those who crossed the picket lines, Ms. Harris said, the strike brought people together in a way that company picnics and bowling leagues never could.

'We now feel more like brothers and sisters than co-workers,' she said, noting the diversity of the strikers, who, until the walkout, had often kept to their own racial or ethnic group. 'We all learned something about color. It comes down to green.'"

The most astute analysis of the class relationships that determined the outcome of the strike came from Stephen Roach, the chief economist and director of global economics for Wall Street investment bank Morgan Stanley. He took note of the leverage of organized labor in an improving economy and observed that, "One strike hardly makes a trend. But there can be no mistaking the message from the nation's most significant work stoppage since 1983. Today, with the unemployment rate at a 24-year low, labor unions were emboldened to take action."

Since American corporations are highly profitable, as reflected by the bull stock market, Roach raises the question of why the workers should not receive a well- deserved raise. The notion of a raise is popular among some politicians and labor leaders. John Sweeney, the new president of the AFL-CIO, has written a book titled "Why America Needs a Raise." The answer Roach gives is not one that encourages a collaborationist relationship between unions and the capitalist class. He states that corporate profits are not the result of increased productivity, but the result of slashing the work-force. Roach says:

"Indeed, in the Commerce Department's just-completed comprehensive revision of the national economic accounts, the poor productivity performance of the 1990's was left essentially unaltered. It found that the United States experienced average annual gains of slightly less than 1 percent over the past six years, little different from the disappointing performance of the 1980's and less than half the gains of the 1950's and 1960's."

The explosion in the rate of profit makes sense in only one way: there has been a change in the way the pie is sliced, but the pie is not growing. The employer's slice is growing at the expense of the worker's. The facts speak for themselves. Roach admits that "Corporate profits surged to 9.6 percent of gross domestic product in 1996, the highest share in 28 years, and labor compensation stood at 58 percent of gross domestic product in 1996, well below the high of 59 percent hit in the late 1980's."

That is why strikes for higher pay will challenge corporate profitability. If productivity is not increasing, the slice of the pie to labor will become larger only at the expense of capital. This is a formula for class struggle and it has the bourgeoisie worried. In a notable commentary "The Left Rises from the Almost Dead", the Economist magazine raises the same sort of concerns as Roach:

"In sum, the new stirrings of strength on the left take two forms. One is the impulse towards union revival and class warfare; the other is the interventionist, but reasonable, progressive idea. Neither has a majority following in the country, but nor should either be ignored. Over the next two years, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore will need to keep a balance between the two. What emerges may be a Democratic Party once again worthy of being distinguished from the Republicans; or, alternatively, a backward-looking party of resentment that stops the recovery in its tracks."

American socialists will be certain to strengthen the first impulse toward "union revival and class warfare." The recent victory over UPS will serve as a powerful inspiration.

Louis Proyect