Teamsters’ gamble worth watching

by Brian Clarey

These are interesting times for working men and women.

On July 25, the Teamsters union, along with the Service Employees International Union, split from the AFL-CIO in the biggest action the labor movement has seen since the 1930s, when the CIO was formed by AFL dissidents who were dissatisfied with the practices and leadership of that organization. (see Dirt story page 7)

The situation today bears some similarities to the time, more than 70 years ago, when unions striking in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo, Ohio, elicited neither support nor sympathy from the American Federation of Labor. The Congress of Industrial Organizations was born out of this movement, striving to create pressure to the system from below as opposed to the technique of working within the system employed by the AFL.

And the scene is very different from the last rift between the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO in 1957, when the Teamsters were expelled from the labor federation amid allegations of corruption and cronyism during the early days of Jimmy Hoffa’s reign as president.

But there’s a new Hoffa driving the wagon for the Teamsters, James P. Hoffa, son of the man who disappeared in 1975 (and is rumored to be buried under the goalposts at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ).

‘“In our view, we must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers’ rights in the country,’” said the younger Hoffa in a statement to the press on July 25.

‘“The AFL-CIO has taken the opposite approach.’”

The AFL-CIO’s membership will decrease by about a third without the Teamsters and six other organizations, who have formed the Change to Win Coalition to further their goal of increased union membership. Among the dissident groups is the United Food and Commercial Workers, whose president, Joe Hansen called the differences between the factions ‘“fundamental’” and ‘“principled.’”

Basically the Teamsters want to bolster their ranks as a way to solidify their position in the pecking order. The AFL-CIO believes that political contributions and lobbying efforts are the way to go, and, according to the rebels, are unwilling to direct sufficient resources to organizational growth.

Many labor analysts and sympathizers view the dissolution of this relationship as a step backwards for the American labor movement, which gathered its initial strength in the 1880s and has helped weave the economic and social fabric of our country ever since.

But we at YES! Weekly don’t see it that way. The AFL-CIO, while affecting a general leftist stance, seems bent on maintaining the status quo even while union memberships steadily decline ‘— about 12 percent of all workers today are unionized, as compared to about a third when the AFL and CIO merged in 1955.

And current techniques don’t seem to be working ‘— the national minimum wage still provides an income just at or below the poverty level; the rift between economic classes continues to grow as the middle class shrinks and, perhaps most confounding of all, blue-collar workers are voting the Republican ticket in a dramatic shift from the principles of the labor movement.

By breaking with the AFL-CIO, Hoffa and company make a grand gesture and a strong stance. If they can succeed in strengthening their position with more recruits, it will be a maelstrom well worth watching over the next few election cycles.