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labor Happy Birthday: TDU Turns 37

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has since become the longest-lived, most successful rank and file movement in U.S. labor history. Many labor historians have noted TDU’s role in winning rights, cutting mob influence in the Teamsters, and giving rank and file Teamsters a voice.

On this weekend in 1976, a small group of courageous Teamsters met in Kent, Ohio, to form Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). They had little going for them except guts, principles, and a vision of a union driven by rank and file power.

At the time of TDU's founding, the IBT General Executive Board and many local unions were dominated by organized crime. Contracts could be imposed even if the majority voted against them. Members who spoke up could be met with violent intimidation. Teamster General President (and FBI informant) Jackie Presser organized the Brotherhood of Loyal Americans and Strong Teamsters (BLAST) goon squad to attack TDU meetings and the founding Convention. Presser announced at the 1986 Teamster Convention that "Today you've just witnessed the funeral of TDU." The following year, he was indicted for racketeering while TDU grew.

TDU has since become the longest-lived, most successful rank and file movement in U.S. labor history. Many labor historians have noted TDU’s role in winning rights, cutting mob influence in the Teamsters, and giving rank and file Teamsters a voice.

That struggle continues today, because there is a lot more history to make.

Know Your History To Make More History: The Battle For Our Contract Rights

We have a legal right to a fair and informed vote on our national contracts. But our rights have not come without Teamsters for a Democratic Union taking on big battles.  Here is a summary of some key legal – and membership – victories involving our rights in national Teamster contracts.

We Won the Right to a Fair and Informed Vote

Bauman v Presser.  This case set a precedent for a “fair and informed” vote.  We obtained an injunction stopping a UPS national contract vote and requiring a do-over on fair terms.  As Bill Bauman (who was a steward in St Louis Local 688) stated at the time: “We won a democratic voice in collective bargaining for Teamster members.”   Without this victory, Hoffa-Hall could mail out proposed contracts or supplements for a vote without any prior information available or adequate time for debate among members.

We Won the Right to Vote on Supplements and Riders

Davey v Fitzimmons.  In this case we claimed that some supplements to the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA) were so different, they required separate membership votes. We lost; the court gave the IBT leadership wide latitude to interpret the IBT constitution, and said we had to change the constitution if we wanted separate votes on supplements and riders. TDU Organizer Ken Paff was one of six plaintiffs.

We then built a movement to do just that, and succeeded at the 1991 IBT Convention; working closely with a good Teamster leader, then Harrisburg Local 776 president Tom Griffith, and with some fine work by reform delegates to the Convention to overcome the opposition of the IBT officials. That victory gave members more power to win better contracts.

Without this victory, the UPS contract would have been all over back in June.

We Won the Right to Observers at the Contract Vote Count

McCuiston v Hoffa. A consent order coming out of this carhaul contract case gave us the right to have rank and file observers at contract vote counts. Prior to this, the Hoffa administration handpicked a few observers – and not from all supplements and riders – who were not independent and kept secret from members what happened at the count.  This is a crucial step for transparency and fair contract votes.

We Won Majority Rule on Contracts

In the Harmon case, we challenged a national contract vote where 64% voted no, but the union imposed the “2/3 to reject a contract” rule.  We argued some members had been denied ballots, enough to possibly make it 2/3 No. Pressure built on the issue, and finally the IBT leadership conceded, and granted Teamster members majority rule, which is written into the IBT Constitution. This was a huge victory – UPS knew they only had to get 1/3 of voters to approve a contract. TDU fought to win majority rule for years, and it was finally won.

We Won the Right to Access all Proposed Supplements and Riders

In the Braxton case we won the right to get all tentative agreements for all supplements and riders, at the time of the “two-man” meeting, so that we can make them available to all members before voting. Prior to this victory, members only had access to their own supplement to the national contract and “highlights” or IBT PR. John Braxton was a UPS worker in Philadelphia who also worked for Teamster president Ron Carey. Now you can find the supplements and riders posted on www.TDU.org, and the IBT (in response to TDU) posts them as well.

We Won the Right to Quarterly Central States Fund Financials

When the Central States Pension and Health and Welfare Funds refused to give members access to quarterly financial and special-counsel reports which were filed with the court, we intervened and won in court. (The lead plaintiff, Tommy Burke, is a retired UPS driver in North Carolina.) The quarterly financial and analytical reports are available to members only on www.TDU.org.

Members of TDU are proud of this history. We believe these victories have made our union stronger, and given members a seat at the table. We thank the members who made this possible through their support, and we thank our great legal team.

You can help us make a lot more history with your support of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the national network of Teamster reformers working together for a strong and democratic Teamsters Union.

TDU History

How the Reform Movement Has Changed the Teamsters Union (1976-1979)
In 1976 the Teamsters Union was in big trouble. Union leaders had allowed organized crime to infiltrate the highest levels of the union. Read more.

Winning the Fight for Democracy (The 1980s)
The 1980s were a difficult time for working Teamsters. They were years of economic recession, freight industry deregulation, and concessionary bargaining. Read more

Rebuilding Teamster Power (1991-1997)
Rank-and-file Teamsters won the right to vote for top Teamster officers after a decade-long fight led by TDU. In the 1990s members used that right to elect new leaders and change our union’s direction.

Read more

The Fight to Save Our Union (1998-2007)
After the UPS strike victory in 1997, the Teamsters stood at the forefront of the American labor movement. But there were tough times ahead. The coming years would see Ron Carey’s reform efforts as IBT President ended and the restoration of old-guard leadership at the IBT. Read more