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The Pulse

Democracy and the Teamsters:
no cartoon characters here

Richard Day


It is irrefutable that these are hard times for organized labor. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of the workforce in a union was 36 percent in 1945, 26 percent in 1975, and 16 percent in 1990. The Roper organization reports union membership in 1990 as 10 percent.

There are some bright spots. Among those with some college education, union membership has increased from 20 percent in 1974 to 45 percent in 1990. Public employee unions have also grown. Today, the largest single "union" in the country is the National Educational Association (NEA) with 2.1 million members, more than 50,000 of them in Illinois.

The change in our economy from a manufacturing to a service base has prompted membership losses for steel and autoworkers' unions. The decline in manufacturing and reduced regulation of trucking firms has hurt the Teamsters, whose membership tumbled from 2.1 million in 1978 to about 1.6 million today.

The Teamsters Union, the largest after the NEA, has other problems. In 1989 the union's leadership signed a consent decree with the federal government acknowledging past corruption and, in effect, turning the union over to the government until a government-run election was held.

I have had the benefit of a view of the troubled Teamsters Union from a very interesting perspective: as an adviser to Teamster presidential candidate R.V. Durham and his Unity Team slate at the recent national convention. Working for the Unity Team, our firm has conducted probably the first comprehensive sample survey of Teamster rank-and-file members.

As a result of the consent decree, the federal government has literally moved into Teamster Headquarters in Washington. The decree stated that International Teamster leaders and candidates could not criticize the government's administration of Teamster affairs. The union also agreed to pay all bills that the government deemed necessary to run the union and its first ever wide-open election.

All unions and associations that I am familiar with elect their presidents and trustees at their annual conventions. The government has ordered something quite different for the Teamsters. First, the government required that there should be a rank-and-file open election for delegates to the national convention. The cost of this election was in the millions of dollars and netted a turnout of 30 percent or less in nearly every local.

Second, at the convention these democratically elected delegates got to vote on a series of issues with the government's approval. They voted unanimously to abolish what members called the "Teamster air force," a fleet of five jets. They also voted to increase the strike benefit for members from $50 to $200 per week. Unfortunately, one protracted strike against a large employer could wipe out the strike fund. And, since not all members are well-paid, a strike benefit of $200 could be an attractive alternative to working.

Finally the democratically elected delegates got to vote for their favorite candidate for president and other officers. With the current President William McCarthy in ill health and stepping down after his term, the campaign turned on three slates headed by: R.V. Durham, Walter Shea and Ron Carey. The winner got mostly bragging rights, since any slate or candidate who got 5 percent of the convention vote will be included on ballots mailed to each teamster in November.

Working this convention and polling rank-and-file members provided three insights for me:

26/October 1991/Illinois Issues

1. If democracy is good for Eastern Europe, it should be good for the Teamsters. At the same time I don't know of my union, professional association or corporation in which the president and board are elected, not by delegates, but by rank-and-file members. Certainly, the way that major corporations elect trustees would never pass muster if it were done by the Teamsters.

2. The press has a cartoon vision of the Teamsters as an organized crime-infested, beer-bellied, crude, indifferent organization, except where the power or perks of the top leaders are concerned. With this concept in mind, the press went out to get stories to illustrate it.

At the convention any anti-government rhetoric from the floor was a headline. What each slate brought to the convention in terms of vision or electoral savvy was mentioned not at all or only in passing. There was little mention of the changes that the organization is facing and how the union was coping.

My week at the Teamster convention yielded very few of the cartoon characters. I found working people who put in a lot of time and effort to help elect their candidates. While I spent no time with the other two states, I was impressed with the hard work and genuine decency of the people with whom I worked.

3. Government control may, in the long term, be good for the rank-and-file Teamster member. However, the union is paying the government tens of millions of dollars, for the "privilege." Although members are proud of their union, there is much in the history of the Teamsters that is not worthy of praise. In many respects they may have earned this takeover, a takeover that may also be a strong signal for other unions to clean their houses.

However, most of the scandals that I have been reading about in the papers involve large corporations defrauding the defense department or financial service companies and banks misappropriating funds. In none of these cases has the penalty to the corporation been as severe as that leveled against the Teamsters. Is it because one is labor and the other business? Would things have been different if the national administration were Democratic and pro-labor, instead of Republican and pro-business?

Richard Day owns his own survey research firm, Richard Day Research, in Evanston.

October 1991/Illinois Issues/27

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