Insurgent O’Brien slate wins Teamsters vote
“A Message to Corporate America” from Teamsters for a Democratic Union on Vimeo | video screenshot

BOSTON (PAI)—An insurgent Teamsters United slate led by Boston Local 25 member Sean O’Brien swept to victory in the union’s one-member-one-vote presidential election.

Nearly complete returns show O’Brien and his running mate for Secretary-Treasurer, Fred Zuckerman, trounced their foes, Steve Vairma of Denver and Ron Herrera of Los Angeles, by an almost two-to-one ratio in the nationwide balloting. Official certification will occur in December. And 16 of the 22 Teamsters United board nominees listed in the official pre-election roundup won seats.

The Teamsters win is nationally important for several reasons:

  • O’Brien made a point of being more militant than 22-year-incumbent Jim Hoffa, who was the main target of his ire. Hoffa and his Secretary-Treasurer, Ken Hall, are retiring.

“I’ve got a message for corporate America: You take one of us on, you take all of us on.” To his members, O’Brien added in that campaign video: “It’s a full-contact sport. Put your helmet on.”

That’s also in line with the increasing militancy of exploited workers nationwide, especially low-wage workers, whose conditions were exposed and emphasized by the crash due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • The Teamsters, with 1.4 million members in a wide range of professions—from trucking to railroads to airlines to printing and more—are influential within the union movement and outside it. That’s because they’re a key cog in the national transportation system, especially supply chains, which are right now under stress.
  • The Teamsters one-member-one-vote election, though originally imposed via a consent decree the George H.W. Bush administration forced on the union to rid it of mob influence, has become a template for other such votes.

A similar decree, for the same reason, now produces one-member-one-vote elections in the Laborers. And Auto Workers members are voting now on a referendum, also imposed by a court agreement in an anti-corruption case, on shifting to one-member-one-vote balloting. Before the decrees, the News Guild was one of the few, if not the only, union to elect its leaders by one-member-one-vote.

Hoffa’s retirement left the door wide open for the O’Brien-Vairma race, and O’Brien said the incumbent was too willing to sign sweet deals with employers, while he would not.  Throughout the campaign, including in face-to-face debates with Vairma, O’Brien took a more-militant stance towards corporate clients.

Backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, O’Brien also vowed a vigorous nationwide campaign to organize Amazon, the anti-union low-paying and oppressive behemoth which the Teamsters view as an enormous threat to workers overall, including Teamster members and their jobs.

Under Hoffa, the union recently set up a special department to create and run that organizing drive, saying it learned lessons about what to do, and what not to do, from a recent unsuccessful Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union attempt to organize the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

O’Brien said in one debate that setting up the Amazon department was the right thing to do, “but it should have been done ten years ago.”

And O’Brien particularly criticized the last contract Hoffa’s board, including Vairma, approved with United Parcel Service, which employs about one-fourth of the union’s 1.4 million members.

That pact didn’t get enough rank-and-file votes for ratification, so the Hoffa-led board, citing a little-used constitutional provision, overrode the members and approved it, angering thousands. In the campaign, both O’Brien and Vairma took credit for deleting that constitutional provision.

And in a debate, O’Brien also questioned the value of Teamsters membership in Change To Win, the group of unions that split off from the AFL-CIO, protesting the larger labor federation’s concentration on politics rather than organizing, in 1995.

That coalition, originally seven unions, has shrunk to three regular members: The Teamsters, the Service Employees, and the United Farm Workers. CTW’s website also lists the Communications Workers as a member, but CWA is also a key cog of the AFL-CIO.

In a posting on TDU’s website following the apparent win, O’Brien and Zuckerman looked forward to “five ways to turn the election rout into real union power.” Topping their points was “a mandate to fight in car haul, freight, UPS and more” contract negotiations.

“Unionism is a team sport and strong contracts aren’t just won at the bargaining table. To win, we need to engage and mobilize the rank and file,” it added. O’Brien said his team would start “on day one” preparing for the 2023 UPS talks and “potential strike needs” though the car haul contract expires before that.

And “Sean O’Brien has made it clear that there’s no organizing Amazon without winning a strong UPS contract–and he’s right,” the five points add.

He also plans to restructure the organizing department to put more people in the field, remake the union’s divisions so they can engage in massive nationwide organizing drives, and push for reform in local unions, where needed.

“Go-along, get-along unionism hasn’t just been a Hoffa problem. It has infected too many locals and turned off too many members. Teamsters took back our international union and we can do the same with our locals where we have to,” the points on the website said.

Turnout was heavier than in the last election, five years ago, and especially in pro-O’Brien locals. He won more than 90% of the votes in 34 locals from coast-to-coast, including his home local in Boston—a 95%-5% tally in a 33% turnout in a large local—two in Chicago, plus Cleveland, Akron and Columbus, Ohio, two out of three locals in Philadelphia, four in Connecticut, the Bronx, Albany and Long Island City in New York, Portland, Ore., Seattle and two in Richmond, Va. Vairma won over 90% in San Juan, P.R., two very small locals in the West. and three locals in the Montreal area. He carried his home local in Denver by a three-to-one ratio in a 25% turnout.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.