The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), formerly known by the name International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America, is one of the largest labor unions in the United States. The union's name and logo reflect its origins as a craft union when founded in 1903: a teamster was originally a person who drives a team of oxen or a horse-drawn wagon.
The union expanded, however, beyond those narrow craft boundaries with the development of automotive transport, organizing "over-the-road" highway drivers, warehouse workers and dairy employees in the 1930s. The union expanded its jurisdiction even further after World War II, particularly after its expulsion from the AFL-CIO in 1957, raiding other unions' jurisdictions and organizing manufacturing, service and public sector workers.
The Teamsters developed, at the same time, a close relationship with organized crime at the International Union level and in a number of locals. That history of organized crime involvement in union affairs led the federal government to spend years prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa and his successors and to sue the union in 1988 to impose federal supervision over much of the union's day-to-day operations and its internal election procedures. That intervention, coupled with organizing at the rank-and-file level by dissidents within the union, led to the election of Ron Carey as General President in 1991. He was succeeded in 1998, after being expelled from the union in the wake of a scandal over misuse of union funds for his 1996 reelection campaign, by James P. Hoffa, the son of Jimmy Hoffa.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters was formed in 1903 in Niagara Falls, New York, as the merger of several different groups representing teamsters, two of which were Team Drivers International Union and Teamsters National Union. Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor had been instrumental in bringing about the formation of the TDIU in 1898. Gompers helped engineer the reunification of the TDIU and the TNU, which had split from the TDIU over whether union members could also employ others, in 1903.
The union, like most unions within the AFL at the time, was largely decentralized, with a number of local unions that governed themselves autonomously and tended to look only after their own interests in the geographical jurisdiction in which they operated. Teamster locals, however, by virtue of their key position in transport, often exercised a good deal of influence at the local level within central labor councils, the citywide bodies established by AFL unions. The Teamsters were, as an example, at the center of the City Front Federation strike of 1901, in which San Francisco unions engaged in something like a general strike.
While the San Francisco strike was largely successful, the union's strike against Montgomery Ward in 1905, on the other hand, was not. The national union was unable to offer much effective assistance to local unions and was weakened by internal factions during its early years.
Daniel J. Tobin , President of Joint Council No. 10, based in Boston, Massachusetts, became General President of the IBT in 1907. He held that post for another 45 years. Tobin attempted, but largely failed, to exert much power over the most powerful local unions.
Tobin undertook a long jurisdictional battle with the United Brewery Workers over the right to represent beer wagon drivers. While the Teamsters lost this battle in 1913, when the AFL awarded jurisdiction to the Brewers, they won when the issue came before the AFL Executive Board again in 1933, when the Brewers were still recovering from their near-elimination during Prohibition.
Organizing and growth during the Great Depression
Tobin was both cautious and conservative: he vigorously enforced the provisions of the union's constitution that barred strikes unless the union's membership approved strike action by a two-thirds vote, and imposed additional conditions, withholding strike benefits if the union had not made sufficient efforts to mediate the dispute before striking. A group of radicals within the union in the Minneapolis area, however, circumvented Tobin in 1934, successfully organizing nearly every trucking outfit in the city, a major distribution center in the upper Midwest, and the warehouse workers employed by those trucking companies in a series of strikes.
Those strikes, which featured pitched battles in which hundreds of picketers fought police and members of the Citizens Alliance, followed by the declaration of martial law by Governor Floyd B. Olson, which led in turn to a general strike , changed the history of the union. While Tobin distrusted the Trotskyist leadership of Local 574, he was in no position to displace them. Tobin attempted to expel them from the union in 1935 and to establish a new local under friendlier leadership to replace them, but gave up the attempt in the face of opposition from the rank and file and other Teamster leaders in the area.
Under the leadership of Farrell Dobbs, the Minneapolis Teamsters then began to organize regionally. Using the prestige that their victory in Minneapolis had brought them, they worked with Teamsters in other cities on a plan to organize the over-the-road drivers, whom Tobin had written off as trash and unorganizable. Beginning in Chicago, they used a combination of "quickie strikes" and secondary boycotts to tie up goods of non-union carriers, using each newly organized carrier as a tool to organize others. The union extended this campaign to other major distribution centers in the Midwest: Detroit, Kansas City and other smaller cities. The newly organized unions formed what later became the Central Conference of Teamsters; one of their most tireless and effective organizers was a former loading dock worker from Detroit, Jimmy Hoffa.
At the same time, Dave Beck was organizing in a similar fashion on the West Coast, using Seattle, Portland and San Francisco as bases to organize the drivers in those states. Beck used different tactics, on the other hand, to organize the independent owner-operators who hauled much of the agricultural produce from California farms; the union simply pulled the drivers out of their cabs and signed them up. Beck's politics also differed: he opposed radicalism of any sort, from the Industrial Workers of the World, who were active in Seattle when he began as a labor organizer, to communists who played a major role in labor in the 1930s and 1940s. He also took a dismissive attitude toward the rank and file of the union; as he once famously said, "I'm paid $25,000 a year to run this outfit. . . . Why should truck drivers and bottle washers be allowed to make decisions affecting policy? No corporation would allow it."
Tobin initially objected to these regional conferences, which represented a challenge to his authority, but supported Dobbs' organizing strategy and apparently developed a grudging respect for him. Tobin held no brief, however, for Dobbs' allies and, after Dobbs left the Teamsters to work for the Socialist Workers Party, Tobin attacked the local leadership of the Minneapolis local in 1941, sending in Hoffa and Beck to impose an International trusteeship on the local and to fight off attempts by the Congress of Industrial Organizations to absorb the rebellious local's membership. The final blow was delivered by the Roosevelt administration, which arrested and convicted Dobbs, much of the national leadership of the SWP and the former leaders of the Minneapolis local for violation of the Smith Act.
The CIO also attempted to gain a foothold among Teamsters in Detroit, starting with the carhaul drivers on the theory that their employers could be leveraged into dealing with the CIO more readily. The campaign never got off the ground, however, as Hoffa, who had used violent methods to organize carhaulers and other employers in the 1930s, sent organizers to do battle with CIO organizers. At the same time, the CIO's arm, the United Construction Workers Organizing Committee run by John L. Lewis' brother Denny, received little support from other CIO unions in the area, who were willing to reach informal understandings with Hoffa instead. John L. Lewis' resignation as President of the CIO that year effectively ended any chance that the campaign could succeed. While the union continued to fight jurisdictional battles with other unions, such as the Brewery Workers and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union , these were on the fringes of the IBT's traditional jurisdiction and localized.
Expansion during and after World War II
The union's membership had grown tremendously during the 1930s, passing 500,000 in 1941. The union continued to grow tremendously, extending beyond its traditional boundaries to organize airline workers, manufacturing workers, florists, undertakers, coat-check girls, and farmers. By 1949, its membership had topped one million.
Hoffa used his base within the Central States to negotiate a single collective bargaining agreement covering all freight drivers in the region in the years after the war, then pushed to achieve similar results in other regions. Hoffa first expanded the agreement to cover Ohio, overcoming the resistance of Teamster locals in the process.
He then moved South, where a number of unionized carriers had moved their operations in the hope of escaping unionization or obtaining lower wages, then expanded the agreement to cover city drivers who delivered the freight that over-the-road drives hauled. The collective bargaining agreement provided nearly the same wages and benefits in the South that Teamsters were getting in the Midwest; it also made no distinction between black and white Teamsters, although employers often shunted African-American drivers into lower-paying city driving jobs.
Organized crime's influence
Organized crime had been active in some Teamster locals, particularly in the garment industry in New York City, as early as the 1920s. labor racketeers made inroads in other cities, such as Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City and Detroit, in the 1930s. Hoffa and other Teamster leaders made strategic alliances with organized crime, in deals that benefited both the Mafia and its associates, who obtained sweetheart contracts , and the union leaders, who received kickbacks and other forms of assistance.
In many cases organized crime played an even more direct role. Hoffa depended on the support of a number of "paper locals" from New York established by Johnny Dioguardi , an associate of the Lucchese crime family , in running for the presidency of the Teamsters in 1957. Other locals were likewise controlled by racketeers, which exploited them by skimming dues, creating "no-show jobs" for associates, and extorting employers and selling sweetheart contracts. In some industries, such as garbage hauling in New York, the line between union and employer became blurred, as both sides might be controlled by the same crime family.
The reports of corruption, given nationwide publicity by the McClellan Committee, led the AFL-CIO to expel the Teamsters in 1957. Ironically, the McClellan Committee only served to strengthen the role of organized crime in the IBT by bringing about the conviction of Dave Beck, Tobin's successor as General President, for tax evasion and misuse of union funds. At the 1957 IBT convention held in Miami Beach, Florida, Jimmy Hoffa was elected president of the union, which then had 1.5 million members.
The rise, fall and disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa
Hoffa achieved his goal of unifying all freight drivers under a single collective bargaining agreement, the National Master Freight Agreement, in 1964. Hoffa was a skillful strategist who used the grievance procedures of the agreement, which authorized selective strikes against particular employers, to police the agreement or, if Hoffa thought that it served the union's interest, to drive marginal employers out of the industry. The union won substantial gains for its members, fostering a nostalgic image of the Hoffa era as the golden age for Teamster drivers. Hoffa also succeeded where Tobin had failed, concentrating power at the International level, dominating the conferences which Beck and Dobbs had helped build.
In addition, Hoffa was instrumental in using the assets of the Teamsters' pension plans, particularly the Central States plan, to support Mafia projects, such as the development of Las Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s. Hoffa was, moreover, defiantly unwilling to reform the union or limit his own power in response to the attacks from Robert F. Kennedy, formerly chief counsel to the McClellan Committee, then Attorney General. Kennedy's Department of Justice tried to convict Hoffa for a variety of offenses over the 1960s, finally succeeding on a witness tampering charge in 1967. After exhausting his appeals, Hoffa entered prison in 1971.
Hoffa installed Frank Fitzsimmons , an associate from his days in Local 299 in Detroit, to hold his place for him while he served time. Fitzsimmons, however, began to enjoy the exercise of power in Hoffa's absence; in addition, the organized crime figures around him found that he was more pliant than Hoffa had been. While President Nixon's pardon barred Hoffa from resuming any role in the Teamsters until 1980, Hoffa had challenged the legality of that condition. Hoffa disappeared in 1975.
Battles with the Farm Workers
The Teamsters had represented some farm workers in California employed by Bud Antle, a Salinas-area lettuce grower, in the 1960s. They had made steered clear, however, of any open competition with the United Farm Workers during the UFW's long grape boycott in the 1960s. That changed, however, in 1973, when the grape growers, after having been under contract with the UFW for three years, signed secret agreements with the Teamsters.
That led to warfare in the fields, as thousands of UFW members struck these employers, while other farmworkers, including a large number of Filipino workers, crossed the picket lines, The strike and attendant violence led to the deaths of three UFW members, the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in California in 1975, and lengthy anti-trust litigation that ultimately led the Teamsters to abandon their claim to represent most of these agricultural workers.
In 1979 Congress passed legislation that deregulated the freight industry, removing the Interstate Commerce Commission's power to impose detailed regulatory tariffs on interstate carriers. The union tried to fight deregulation by attempting to bribe Senator Howard Cannon of Nevada. That attempt not only failed, but resulted in the conviction in 1982 of Roy Williams , the General President who had succeeded Fitzsimmons in 1981. Williams subsequently resigned in 1983 as a condition of remaining free on bail while his appeal proceeded.
Deregulation had a catastrophic effect on the Teamsters, opening up the industry to competition from non-union companies who sought to cut costs by avoiding unionization and curbing wages. Nearly 200 unionized carriers went out of business in the first few years of deregulation, leaving thirty percent of Teamsters in the freight division unemployed. The remaining unionized carriers demanded concessions in wages, work rules, and hours.
Williams' successor, Jackie Presser, was prepared to grant most of these concessions in the form of a special freight “relief rider” that would cut wages by up to 35 percent and establish two-tier wages. Teamsters for a Democratic Union , which had grown out of efforts to reject the 1976 freight agreement, launched a successful national campaign to defeat the relief rider, which was defeated by a vote of 94,086 to 13,082.
The pressure on the freight industry and the national freight agreement continued, however. By the end of the 1990s the National Master Freight Agreement, which had covered 500,000 drivers in the late 1970s, dropped to less than 200,000, with numerous local riders weakening it further in some areas.
Challenges from within and without
The decline in working conditions in the freight industry, combined with long-simmering unhappiness among members employed by the United Parcel Service, led to the development of two nationwide dissident groups within the union in the 1980s: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, an assemblage of a number of local efforts sparked in many cases by industrializing members of the International Socialists, and the Professional Drivers Council, better known as PROD, which began as a public interest group affiliated with Ralph Nader that was concerned with worker safety. The two groups merged in 1979.
TDU was able to win some local offices within the union, although the International Union often attempted to make those victories meaningless by marginalizing the officer or the union. TDU acquired greater prominence, however, with the election reforms forced on the union by the consent decree it had entered into in 1989 on the eve of trial on a suit brought by the federal government under the RICO act.
The decree required the direct election of International officers by the membership, as TDU had been demanding for years leading up to the decree, to replace the indirect election by delegates at the union's convention. While the delegates at the union's 1991 convention balked at amending the Constitution, they ultimately capitulated under pressure from the government.
That consent decree might not have been possible, however, if it had not been for the testimony of Roy Williams , who described, in an affidavit he gave the government in return for a delay of his imprisonment, his own dealings with organized crime as the Secretary-Treasurer of a local union in Kansas City and as an officer of the International Union. The decree also gave the government the power to install an International Review Board with the power to expel any member of the union for "conduct unbecoming to the union", which the IRB proceeded to exercise far more aggressively than the Teamsters officials who had agreed to the decree had expected.
While the government was pursuing a civil case against the union as an entity it was also indicting Presser, who had succeeded Williams as General President, for embezzling from two different local unions in Cleveland prior to his election as President. Presser resigned in 1988, but died before his trial was scheduled to begin. He was succeeded by William J. McCarthy , who came from the same local that Dan Tobin had led eighty years earlier.
Ron Carey won a surprising victory in the first direct election for General President in the union's history, defeating two "old guard" candidates, R.V. Durham and Walter Shea. Carey's slate, supported by TDU, also won nearly all of the seats on the International Executive Board.
Carey acquired a fair amount of influence within the AFL-CIO, which had readmitted the Teamsters in 1985. Carey was close with the new leadership elected in 1985, particularly Richard Trumka of the United Mine Workers of America, who became Vice-President of the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney. Carey had also swung the Teamsters behind support for the Democratic Party, a change from past administrations that had supported the Republican Party. The new administration set out to break from the past in other ways, making energetic efforts to head off a vote to oust the union as representative of Northwest Airlines's flight attendants, negotiating a breakthrough agreement covering carhaulers, and supporting local strikes, such as the one against Diamond Walnuts, to restore the union's strength.
The Carey administration did not, on the other hand, have much power in the lower reaches of the Teamster hierarchy: all of the large regional conferences were run by "old guard" officers, as were most of the locals. Disagreements between those two camps led the old guard to campaign against the Carey administration's proposed dues increase; the Carey administration retaliated by dissolving the regional conferences, calling them expensive redundancies and fiefdoms for old guard union officers. and rearranging the boundaries of some joint councils that had fought against the dues increase.
The opposition responded by uniting around a single candidate, James P. Hoffa, son of James R. Hoffa, to run against Carey in 1996. Hoffa ran a strong campaign, trading on the mystique still attached to his late father's name and promising to restore those days of glory. Carey appeared, however, to have won a close election.
Shortly afterward in 1997, the union initiated a large and successful strike against UPS. The parcel services department by that time had become the largest division in the union.
Carey was removed from the union's leadership by the IRB shortly thereafter, when evidence that individuals in his office had arranged for transfer of several thousand dollars to an outside contractor, which then arranged for another entity to make an equivalent contribution to the Carey campaign. Carey was indicted for lying to investigators about his campaign funding but was acquitted of all charges in a 2001 trial.
In the 1998 election to succeed Carey, James P. Hoffa was elected handily. He became president of the Teamsters on March 19, 1999, and took the union in a more moderate direction, tempering the union's support for Democrats and attempting to come to terms with powerful Republicans in Congress.
The union has merged in recent years with a number of unions from other industries, including the Graphic Communications International Union, a printing industry union, and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, both from the railway industry.
1934 Minneapolis Strike - Successful strike led to the organization of interstate truckers
1985 National Automobile Transporters Association - 19 days
1985 Watsonville cannery strike - 18 months
- Airline Division
- Bakery and Laundry Conference
- Brewery and Soft Drink Conference
- Building Material and Construction Trade Division
- Carhaul Division
- Dairy Conference
- Freight Division
- Industrial Trade Division
- Motion Picture and Theatrical Trade Division
- Newspaper, Magazine and Electronic Media Worker
- Parcel and Small Package Division
- Port Division
- Public Services Trade Division
- Rail Conference
- Tankhaul Division
- Trade Show and Convention Centers Division
- Warehouse Division
1934 Minneapolis Stike Reprinted from Revolutionary History, Vol.2 No.1, Spring 1989. Marxist Internet Archive. Accessed April 3, 2004.
- Dobbs, Farrell. Teamster Rebellion. 218 pages. Pathfinder Press (NY); Reissue edition (July 1, 1994). ISBN 0873488458.
- Dobbs, Farrell. Teamster Power. 255 pages. Monad Press. 1973
- Dobbs, Farrell. Teamster Politics. 256 pages. Monad Press. 1975 ISBN 0913460397.
- Dobbs, Farrell. Teamster Bureaucracy. 304 pages. Monad Press. 1977 ISBN 0913460532.
- Garnel, Donald. The Rise of Teamster Power in the West. 363 pages. University of California Press 1972.
- James, Ralph C. and James, Estelle Dinerstein. Hoffa and the Teamsters: A Study of Union Power.
- Korth, Phillip. Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934. 228 pages. Michigan State University Press (April 1, 1995). ISBN 0870133853.
- Witwer, David. Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union. 312 pages. Series: Working Class in American History. University of Illinois Press (June, 2003). ISBN 0252028252.
Last updated: 05-15-2005 14:39:10