When UPS executives sit down to negotiate a new five-year contract with the Teamsters union next year, they’ll face a very familiar negotiating team.
James P. Hoffa’s re-election as general president of the Teamsters union ensures he and General Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall — director of the Teamsters’ package division — will head up talks with UPS in 2013 and put their stamp on several important contracts over the next five years.
This election was supposed to be Hoffa’s toughest fight since he first ran and lost to Ron Carey in 1996. Instead, he walked away with 60 percent of the vote, easily beating two challengers.
That means Hoffa will be in charge when the Teamsters negotiate the next National Master Automobile Transporters Agreement in 2015 and contracts with major trucking employers YRC Worldwide, UPS Freight and ABF Freight System.
Hoffa and Hall face unresolved issues such as multi-employer pension reform and the 22-year federal oversight of the Teamsters. They already are committed to supporting President Obama and other embattled Democrats in next year’s elections.
The Teamsters also are struggling to halt their decline in the trucking industry, the union’s core when Hoffa’s father negotiated the first National Motor Freight Agreement in 1964. Today, only three of the top 10 less-than-truckload carriers are unionized, as are only seven of the top 30 LTL carriers ranked by revenue. Compare that to 1994, when 23 LTL carriers were shut down for three weeks by a strike.
In the package and express arena, the Teamsters have long targeted FedEx and its subsidiaries, so far unsuccessfully. Attempts to change the labor laws governing the company’s express operations to make them easier to organize have failed. The Teamsters also are fighting a broad political battle to organize port truckers.
Companies that have negotiated labor pacts with the Teamsters over the past 12 years will likely be more reassured than shaken by Hoffa’s re-election. His two election opponents slammed him for being too cozy with employers, demanding tougher enforcement of contracts and a more confrontational approach in talks.
“We need to start enforcing our contracts, which hasn’t been happening,” candidate Sandy Pope said at the Teamsters presidential debate Sept. 7, singling out UPS.
Although Hoffa has taken a hard line in speeches at labor rallies and political events, decrying a corporate “war on workers” and backing Occupy Wall Street, the 70-year-old son of legendary Teamsters leader James R. “Jimmy” Hoffa has earned a reputation for pragmatism when it comes to negotiating with employers.
“To get good wages today, you really have to worry about the employers,” Hoffa told journalists at a National Press Club luncheon shortly after negotiating the last National Master Freight Agreement in 2008, which gave LTL trucking companies more operating leverage to compete against non-union firms. “And we worry about the health of UPS; we worry about the health of YRC and ABF.”
In the case of YRC, there was a lot to worry about. The Teamsters deserve much of the credit for saving the troubled trucking company from bankruptcy. The union gave the LTL operator wage and pension concessions three times in return for a leading role in its reorganization, an ownership stake in the $4.3 billion company and two seats on its board of directors. Without those concessions, YRC almost certainly would have folded in 2009, taking 50,000 Teamsters jobs with it. Instead, YRC shed about 25,000 jobs.
Dissident Teamsters are frustrated they lost what seemed their best shot at unseating Hoffa in 10 years. In Pope, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union had a charismatic candidate, a former truck driver and president of New York Local 805 who drew national attention to the contest as the first woman to run for the top Teamsters job. Instead, Fred Gegare, an international vice president and former Hoffa ally turned opponent, split the anti-Hoffa vote, winning 23 percent of the ballots cast. Pope claimed only 17 percent of the ballots. But Pope and Gegare combined still finished far behind Hoffa, claiming only 40 percent of the total vote.
Pope and Gegare weren’t just fighting Hoffa; they had to battle widespread apathy among rank-and-file Teamsters just to turn out the vote. Although their supporters were motivated, most Teamsters didn’t bother to return the ballot.
Only 233,317 Teamsters voted, about 17 percent of the union’s 1.4 million members. That’s almost a 15 percent drop from 2006, when 272,820 Teamsters re-elected Hoffa by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Twenty years ago, 28 percent of the Teamsters voted in the 1991 election won by Carey, the first direct vote by members for a general president.