What do flight simulator technicians, hearse drivers, cheese cooks and yogurt processors, locomotive engineers and graphic artists have in common with truck drivers? Depending on whom they work for, they all may be Teamsters.
“I always say the Teamsters union is A to Z, airline pilots to zookeepers,” Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa told the National Press Club last year. “So many people say we’re all truck drivers. Well, that’s not true. San Diego Zoo, thank you.”
The union has come a long way from the days when it primarily represented truck drivers and dock workers at companies such as Consolidated Freightways, P-I-E Nationwide and Yellow Freight.
In 1964, when iconic Teamsters President James R. Hoffa negotiated the first National Master Freight Agreement for truck drivers, the contract covered 450,000 freight-handling employees at trucking companies across the U.S.
Today, most of those companies are gone. Hundreds of unionized trucking firms collapsed in the decades following motor carrier deregulation in 1980. Of the three carriers mentioned above, only the former Yellow Freight survives as YRC Freight.
James P. Hoffa’s Teamsters now represent workers at only three large less-than-truckload companies, YRC Worldwide, UPS Freight and ABF Freight System.
Diversification has been key to the Teamsters’ expansion since the horse-and-wagon days, but efforts to expand the scope of the union moved to the fore after trucking deregulation and have propelled the Teamsters’ growth in recent years.
“We’ve organized more than 150,000 people in the last five years,” James P. Hoffa said at the NPC last fall. “We’ve been able to reach out to bus drivers and port workers, airline pilots and airline mechanics. We’ve been able to organize where other people haven’t, and our union, while other unions’ numbers have gone down, has kept its numbers.”
Earlier this month, for example, flight simulator technicians at United Airlines — 98 workers altogether in Denver and Houston — voted for sole representation by the Teamsters (former Continental employees in Houston previously were represented by the Transport Workers Union).
The Teamsters, however, haven’t had much success regaining ground in their old core business, trucking. The last major organizing victory in trucking came when UPS, the largest Teamsters employer, purchased Overnite Transportation in 2005.
That’s one reason the addition of more port drayage drivers to membership rolls would be quite welcome at the Teamsters.
Although the union’s presence in LTL trucking is much diminished — the top three unionized LTL operators accounted for 27 percent of total LTL revenue, according to SJ Consulting Group data, and the truckload industry, which accounts for the vast majority of for-hire trucking revenue, is solidly non-union — the union still represents transportation workers across supply chains, including car haulers, warehouse workers and drivers working for breweries and bakeries.
And don’t forget the more than 240,000 package workers at $54 billion UPS. Those UPS Teamsters this summer approved a new national contract but rejected several regional supplements and a UPS Freight contract. At ABF, Teamsters approved a national contract but also rejected several supplements.
Although the Teamsters have lost numbers and influence in trucking, they still have a voice that companies, whether carriers or shippers, can’t ignore.