State of the Union- they’re not heavy, they’re my brothers
December 11, 2011
December 11, 2011
Canadians are no doubt sick of elections; we’ve had five provincial ones lately. But trucking enthusiasts will have noted Jim Hoffa’s re-coronation on Nov. 18 as general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
On a pedantic note, few people know that the word “teamster” literally means someone who can handle a team of animals, whether bullocks or horses. That’s what we are, drivers of metal and composite plastic horses. It’s an eons-old trade, probably going back to ancient Iraq and Sumeria where animals were first domesticated and used as beasts of burden.
But the modern Teamsters Union is a North American phenomenon older than trucks themselves. Drivers started organizing in British Columbia back in the 1890s. With 1.3 million members in the US, Canada’s 100,000 Teamsters are small potatoes, but it remains the biggest trucking union in this country (only rivalled by the CAW and Steelworkers). Teamsters Canada is an autonomous organization but it doesn’t have as much of a presence on the labour scene here as does the American parent-entity south of the border.
The Hoffa name has become synonymous with the IBT, largely because of the charismatic nature of the disappeared-and-presumed-murdered original Hoffa, James Riddle, the father of the present-day general president James Phillip Hoffa.
Jimmy Hoffa disappeared in 1975 but he’s not forgotten, despite the mediocre movie with Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito. Strange that Hollywood twisted a compelling story into fictional nonsense by addding the DeVito character and several other plot devices that don’t jive with what actually happened, notwithstanding that the real story is far more engaging than anything a hackneyed screen writer could fabricate.
With his upcoming third term as president, James Phillip, will surpass his father’s record at the helm of the two-horse union. It’s curious that the adopted son is looking more and more like his father as years go by. “He’s still got a long way to go to fill his father’s shoes,” one old timer told me in Hamilton one day. And maybe that’s true. But there are important differences between him and his benefactor.
James is a labour lawyer from Michigan, unlike his dad who came up through the ranks, at one time working in a grocery warehouse. Although never working as a truck driver, Jimmy’s home base was Teamsters local 299 of Detroit. The senior Hoffa was a Republican and hated the Kennedys (Robert Kennedy indeed put his ass in stir), while James is Democrat and an Obama supporter. James recently raised the ire of the neo-cons when he suggested “we ought to take out some of the (Tea Party) bitches” during a Labour Day picnic in Detroit where he was introducing Obama.
Hoffa’s victory in 2011 was never in doubt. He garnered 60% of the vote, out-distancing his two opponents, former ally Fred Gegare with 23% of the vote, and TDU-backed Sandy Pope who got 17% of the pie.
The extremely low voter turnout is a little shocking. Less than 20% of the eligible voters mailed in their ballots, and in Canada the electoral exercise was even more apathetic, with only one in ten Teamsters bothering to vote.
What does it mean? Incumbency is a factor, and most members are happy enough with the leadership that they don’t care to vote. Hoffa’s had a few missed steps, but no major scandals. There’s some criticism that his negotiating team gave away too much at YRC, and the car haulers seem to be an unhappy lot, but his overall performance seems solid enough.
He does have some opposition forming on the horizon, if the reformers can get organized and run one alternative candidate instead of two. This time the Teamsters for a Democratic Union threw its support behind Sandy Pope from New York, but it didn’t seem to have much impact. I also remember one senior Teamster, also in Hamilton explaining to me what TDU stands for: “Too Dumb to Understand!” he pretty well shouted at me.
Pope may have stumbled by not running with a slate, as did her opponents Gegare and Hoffa. Slates seem to be the way to go at the IBT. I don’t believe anyone’s ever won an executive position in my local 938, without running on a slate.
With about 9,000 members, Local 938 primarily has Purolator, UPS and some car haulers in its hegemony. Its the second largest bargaining unit in Canada, second only to Local 1999 in Montreal which has over 10,000 members, and is the nest from which Teamsters Canada president Bob Bouvier fledged.
The Teamsters may not be as influential on the labour front as their American counterparts, but they have had a few victories. Trucking is no longer their main focus and today’s Teamsters include railroad engineers and school board staff. So signing up drivers from Young’s System and Wilson’s must give some padding to an eroding membership base.
But I was curious when I read that local 938 had elected their executive by acclamation on Aug. 27. These are good jobs with a lot of perqs. With almost 9,000 members you’d think a few people would throw their hat in the ring. But this didn’t happen this time nor did it happen last election. The incumbent slate (with a few changes) ran unopposed, and five years ago altered the bylaws so it would be tougher to run for election to the executive. Members now have to attend 50% of general meetings for the preceding 24 months before the election, not always an easy thing to do considering card-holders are scattered throughout the province.
It’s no secret that president Craig McInnes pulls in 106 K plus change, with the other executives in 938 making slightly less. And I’m sure this includes a generous expense account, car allowance and pension. The pot is sweetened in that some of the executives pull in salaries to sit on Joint Councils, and Canada is allowed three vice presidents (of which McInnes is one, also running unopposed), who also rake in pretty good cabbage. I’m guessing Bob Bouvier, as head of Teamsters Canada makes at least $300,000.
So is this unreasonable, considering what CEOs get paid in North America? I think not. Union executives should be as equally well compensated as the private sector. Teamsters also have a reputation of getting contracts that set the bar within the industry. But I’d still like to see some more representation from the rank and file, rather than watching the same bunch acclaiming itself in perpetuity.
Local 938 has a long interesting history, some of it a little sketchy. Not so long ago it was put in trusteeship for three years by the above mentioned James Hoffa because of some hanky-panky with the books. It’s never been clear what exactly went on. So that’s another reason the executive should not run uncontested. That’s the way a functional democracy works. It has to have competition and an opposition in order to thrive, in order to be accountable to the people it serves.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs