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State of the Union- they’re not heavy, they’re my brothers

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

Harry Rudolfs

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.
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3 Comments » for State of the Union- they’re not heavy, they’re my brothers
  1. Harry Rudolfs says:

    Here’s the article about port drivers that I tried to link to in the comments on Lou’s blog (unsuccessfully). I know Oakland port has had its share of unrest lately. One wonders, can conditions be this bad?
    DECEMBER 12, 2011
    We are the front-line workers who haul container rigs full of imported and exported goods to and from the docks and warehouses every day.
    We have been elected by committees of our co-workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York and New Jersey to tell our collective story. We have accepted the honor to speak up for our brothers and sisters about our working conditions despite the risk of retaliation we face. One of us is a mother, the rest of us fathers. Between the five of us we have 11children and one more baby on the way. We have a combined 46 years of experience driving cargo from our shores for America’s stores.
    We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.
    Today’s demonstrations will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?
    We love being behind the wheel. We are proud of the work we do to keep America’s economy moving. But we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part time at a fast-food counter. Especially when we work an average of 60 or more hours a week, away from our families.
    There is so much at stake in our industry. It is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. We don’t think truck driving should be a dead-end road in America. It should be a good job with a middle-class paycheck like it used to be decades ago.
    We desperately want to drive clean and safe vehicles. Rigs that do not fill our lungs with deadly toxins, or dirty the air in the communities we haul in.
    Poverty and pollution are like a plague at the ports. Our economic conditions are what led to the environmental crisis.
    You, the public, have paid a severe price along with us.
    Why? Just like Wall Street doesn’t have to abide by rules, our industry isn’t bound to regulation. So the market is run by con artists. The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We cannot negotiate our rates. (Usually we are not allowed to even see them.) We are paid by the load, not by the hour. So when we sit in those long lines at the terminals, or if we are stuck in traffic, we become volunteers who basically donate our time to the trucking and shipping companies. That’s the nice way to put it. We have all heard the words “modern-day slaves” at the lunch stops.
    There are no restrooms for drivers. We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs. An Oakland driver was recently banned from the terminal because he was spied relieving himself behind a container. Neither the port, nor the terminal operators or anyone in the industry thinks it is their responsibility to provide humane and hygienic facilities for us. It is absolutely horrible for drivers who are women, who risk infection when they try to hold it until they can find a place to go.
    The companies demand we cut corners to compete. It makes our roads less safe. When we try to blow the whistle about skipped inspections, faulty equipment, or falsified logs, then we are “starved out.” That means we are either fired outright, or more likely, we never get dispatched to haul a load again.
    It may be difficult to comprehend the complex issues and nature of our employment. For us too. When businesses disguise workers like us as contractors, the Department of Labor calls it misclassification. We call it illegal. Those who profit from global trade and goods movement are getting away with it because everyone is doing it. One journalist took the time to talk to us this week and she explains it very well to outsiders. We hope you will read the enclosed article “How Goldman Sachs and Other Companies Exploit Port Truck Drivers.”
    But the short answer to the question: Why are companies like SSA Marine, the Seattle-based global terminal operator that runs one of the West Coast’s major trucking carriers, Shippers’ Transport Express, doing this? Why would mega-rich Maersk, a huge Danish shipping and trucking conglomerate that wants to drill for more oil with Exxon Mobil in the Gulf Coast conduct business this way too?
    To cheat on taxes, drive down business costs, and deny us the right to belong to a union, that’s why.
    The typical arrangement works like this: Everything comes out of our pockets or is deducted from our paychecks. The truck or lease, fuel, insurance, registration, you name it. Our employers do not have to pay the costs of meeting emissions-compliant regulations; that is our financial burden to bear. Clean trucks cost about four to five times more than what we take home in a year. A few of us haul our company’s trucks for a tiny fraction of what the shippers pay per load instead of an hourly wage. They still call us independent owner-operators and give us a 1099 rather than a W-2.
    We have never recovered from losing our basic rights as employees in America. Every year it literally goes from bad to worse to the unimaginable. We were ground zero for the government’s first major experiment into letting big business call the shots. Since it worked so well for the CEOs in transportation, why not the mortgage and banking industry too?
    Even the few of us who are hired as legitimate employees are routinely denied our legal rights under this system. Just ask our co-workers who haul clothing brands like Guess?, Under Armour, and Ralph Lauren’s Polo. The carrier they work for in Los Angeles is called Toll Group and is headquartered in Australia. At the busiest time of the holiday shopping season, 26 drivers were axed after wearing Teamster T-shirts to work. They were protesting the lack of access to clean, indoor restrooms with running water. The company hired an anti-union consultant to intimidate the drivers. Down Under, the same company bargains with 12,000 of our counterparts in good faith.
    Despite our great hardships, many of us cannot — or refuse to, as some of the most well-intentioned suggest — “just quit.” First, we want to work and do not have a safety net. Many of us are tied to one-sided leases. But more importantly, why should we have to leave? Truck driving is what we do, and we do it well.
    We are the skilled, specially-licensed professionals who guarantee that Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart are all stocked with just-in-time delivery for consumers. Take a look at all the stuff in your house. The things you see advertised on TV. Chances are a port truck driver brought that special holiday gift to the store you bought it.
    We would rather stick together and transform our industry from within. We deserve to be fairly rewarded and valued. That is why we have united to stage convoys, park our trucks, marched on the boss, and even shut down these ports.
    It’s like our hero Dutch Prior, a Shipper’s/SSA Marine driver, told CBS Early Morning this month: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
    The more underwater we are, the more our restlessness grows. We are being thoughtful about how best to organize ourselves and do what is needed to win dignity, respect, and justice.
    Nowadays greedy corporations are treated as “people” while the politicians they bankroll cast union members who try to improve their workplaces as “thugs.”
    But we believe in the power and potential behind a truly united 99%. We admire the strength and perseverance of the longshoremen. We are fighting like mad to overcome our exploitation, so please, stick by us long after December 12. Our friends in the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports created a pledge you can sign to support us here.
    We drivers have a saying, “We may not have a union yet, but no one can stop us from acting like one.”
    The brothers and sisters of the Teamsters have our backs. They help us make our voices heard. But we need your help too so we can achieve the day where we raise our fists and together declare: “No one could stop us from forming a union.”
    Thank you.
    In solidarity,
    Leonardo Mejia
    SSA Marine/Shippers Transport Express
    Port of Long Beach
    10-year driver
    Yemane Berhane
    Ports of Seattle & Tacoma
    6-year port driver
    Xiomara Perez
    Toll Group
    Port of Los Angeles
    8-year driver
    Abdul Khan
    Port of Oakland
    7-year port driver
    Ramiro Gotay
    Ports of New York & New Jersey
    15-year port driver

  2. Bill Aboudi says:

    The teamster organizers want you to think that drivers are making $8.00 hour or $30.00 per trip, actually if you read all the propaganda put out by Clean Safe Port Coalition, ebase, change to loose and the teamsters organizers they lie and manipulate data and still they don’t get it right.
    Most of the drivers working at the Port of Oakland are Independent Owner Operators that make a decent living, would they like to make more money, well duh… who doesn’t want to make more money?
    The Port is a growth mode and conditions could be better, shorter lines, faster turnaround time, lower penalty rates for containers and chassis, a grievance process for minor violations or terminal rules (you can get kicked out from a terminal for a month for going one mile over the speed limit without due process just by the security guard saying so) abuse of drivers by terminal employees …ect.
    The selfish teamster campaign has slowed the progress of resolving these key issues by inserting themselves and claiming to represent the Owner Operators/Driver working at the Port. In reality the teamsters only have less than a hundred company drivers that a members of the teamsters out of 5,500+ trucks operating at the Port of Oakland.
    Abdul Khan is one of the peer consular hired by the teamsters when they put him out of business by supporting a draconian CARB rule that he could not comply with and some 1,300 Oakland Truckers almost where going to be put out of business until our City of Oakland Mayor stepped in and forced CARB to extend the deadline while they found last minute grant funding to help the Owner Operators comply with the CARB rules.
    teamsters in current state are not representing workers not even their members they are liars, power hungry, manipulative, extortionist, crooks, gangsters, anti-American, selfish, users, abusers. I don’t see much of a difference between them and the 1%.
    The teamsters union gives a bad name to all the good unions out there that work to protect workers; I would be ashamed to be associated with this corrupt corporate so called union.
    They have no real power only corrupt abusive power and you will see people standing up to them. The truth will always prevail.
    They do not represent or speak for the Oakland Trucker working at the Port of Oakland.

  3. Harry Rudolfs says:

    Interesting response Bill. Well if you read between the lines and rhetoric of the “open letter”, it would seem what they want is more washrooms, better wages and a grievance procedure. In my experience banging cans out of the CN Intermodal yard in Brampton, pay was ok but not outstanding. Frequent delays and red tape and frustration were the order of the day. Washrooms were sparse. And I understand your trepidation at signing an IBT card. Some owner-operators are fiercely independent and would sooner lose an appendage rather than join a union. On the other hand, many others these days pay dues and work under collective agreements, something you’d never see 20 years ago. So what is your solution to the Ports impasse, Bill. Who will you get to represent your concerns?

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