Rail victory extends Teamsters’ container supply chain reach

After years of decline, the Teamsters are making aggressive unionization pushes across the supply chain.

The Teamsters union scored another victory earlier this month in its national campaign to expand its footprint within the containerized supply chain, after intermodal workers at a BNSF Railway terminal outside Chicago voted to join the local Teamsters chapter.

The campaign to organize workers nationwide across different transportation modes will give the Teamsters more leverage and ultimately cost shippers more, a US labor expert told JOC.com. However, better compensation for drivers means a well-supplied workforce and more reliable service, he said.

“In the long haul, this will actually be something good,” said Michael Belzer, who teaches industrial organization and transportation economics at Wayne State University in Michigan. “The Teamsters are creating bargaining leverage. Shippers, they’ll pay a little bit more money, but it takes more money to get reliable service.”

That long haul is far from over, though, so the immediate impact of the recent vote is negligible, said Jason Hilsenbeck, president of Drayage.com and LoadMatch, an intermodal directory and container matching service based in the Chicago area. Labor activists efforts to organize outside of US port terminals and railways have faced significant pushback, particularly in the drayage sector, and major setbacks, particularly at major less-than-truckload (LTL) firms.

“It’s a very non-union environment,” said Hilsenbeck. “I think because of the competition. The railroad employment is very unionized, but truck driving is not. Because intermodal terminals are more trucking-related, the terminals will remain non-union.”

The Teamsters announced on July 12 that more than 500 intermodal workers at the BNSF terminal in Elwood, Illinois, employed by terminal operator Parsec, voted to join Teamsters Local 179. The move comes after workers at the company’s Commerce, California office voted to do the same late last year.

Before the vote, workers at the Elwood terminal were originally represented by the National Production Workers Union (NPWU).

“The employees did not vote to unionize — they have long been union,” Amy Casas, a BNSF spokeswoman told JOC.com. “The employees voted to change representation from one organization to another.”

According to the NPWU’s own characterization, the union “represents workers from all over in many different industries,” everything from medical assistants and bank tellers to mechanics and bricklayers. Workers at Parsec, who spoke with JOC.com under the condition of anonymity, said they have had disputes with the NPWU for nearly a decade and felt the group was not effectively representing them. The union has, for years, been embroiled in a number of Chicagoland scandals related to the Senese family.

The family, which has held high-ranking positions in multiple union chapters in the area, including Teamsters Local 703, has had ties and run-ins with criminal organizations in the Chicago area for decades, according to reports in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times.

“The Parsec workers reached out to the Teamsters Union, and they were interested in dignity, respect, and improving their work lives. They wanted a strong voice on the job and wanted to improve their families’ standard of living,” a Teamsters national spokesperson told JOC.com.

Parsec workers told JOC.com that the vote to join the local Teamsters chapter was driven by their relationship with Parsec and NPWU over pay and health care, and not a reflection of the workers’ relationship with BNSF.

Teamsters general president Jim Hoffa said the vote in Elwood not only strengthened unity among workers across Parsec’s terminals and offices, but for Teamsters across the supply chain, touching on the union’s growing footprint across modes.

“Following the victory at Parsec in Commerce, California, this victory in the Chicago area builds even more worker strength at the company,” Hoffa said in a statement. “The Teamsters continue to build power in the global supply chain, and this victory shows that workers who want a more secure future are turning to the Teamsters.”

The Teamsters will need more victories like those at Parsec, though, if the group intends to build power on a global level. The Teamsters have won victories at two Parsec operations and there are 21 major regional offices and locations within that company alone. The union has faced considerable setbacks attempting organize operations at major LTL players FedEx Freight and XPO Logistics, where they have had little to no success organizing terminals or winning contracts. The union has also faced pushback in the drayage sector, where drayage companies have argued that drivers are not able to organize as they are contracted owner-operators not employees. The Teamsters union has sued drayage companies, arguing that drivers are employees rather than owner-operators because of the control the drayage companies exert over driver schedules and load choice.

Contact Reynolds Hutchins at reynolds.hutchins@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @Hutchins_JOC.