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labor Trump Courts the Teamsters

Trump and the mainstream media have been playing up his courting of the Teamsters. But will the powerful union really endorse him? Don’t bet on it.

(Photo: Teamsters for a Democratic Union)

Sean O’Brien has been driving the Teamsters in a new direction since he led a coalition campaign that included Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) to topple the union’s
old guard in 2021.

Last year, O’Brien and TDU teamed up in a grassroots contract campaign at UPS that eliminated two-tier for delivery drivers, ended forced six-day work weeks, increased part-time wages from $15.50 to $23 an hour, and forced UPS to create thousands of more full-time jobs for part-time workers. 

Under his leadership, the Teamsters have brought back the strike weapon in force and used it to win strong contracts and organize the unorganized, including at DHL, Sysco, and US Foods.

O’Brien hit the stump with Senator Bernie Sanders and Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants to denounce white-collar crime syndicates like Amazon.
He’s spoken at the TDU Convention and Labor Notes, the biennial conference of the grassroots, troublemaking wing of the labor movement. 

So more than a few progressives were left scratching their heads when Trump hosted O’Brien in Mar-a-Lago January 4. Alarm grew when Trump met with Teamster leaders and members at IBT headquarters three weeks later.

Now, headlines are breaking that the union contributed $45,000 to the Republican National Committee. What the hell is going on?

Engaging with Members and the Issues

It’s understandable why Trump is courting the Teamsters. Fake populist, friend of the working stiff is the would-be dictator’s whole brand. Trump landing the endorsement of
the 1.2 million Teamsters would be a major coup and a disaster for Biden who needs labor’s support to win in the midwest and other swing states.

Could it really be that the Teamsters who have not backed a Republican for President since mobbed-up leaders endorsed Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s are
capitulating to MAGA? 

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Don’t bet on it.  But the Teamsters face the harsh reality that approximately half of their members support Trump. And they are not alone among unions in facing this problem. The union I worked for, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), faces a similar challenge of doing politics with a membership where Trump support is surprisingly strong in many locals.

Under the headline “Biden stakes his reputation on blue-collar workers, turns out they’re Trump voters”, a Bloomberg report using small-donor data documents that, “Mechanics and truck drivers give to Trump, while professors and scientists support Biden.”

This fact is a crisis not just for Biden, but for the entire labor movement. It defies an easy response if the goal is to engage and move more union members away from Trump in a
highly polarized and toxic political environment. 

Trump and other right-wing populists have been exceptionally effective at using wedge issues to win over white working class voters. Union voters are more likely to vote against Trump than their nonunion counterparts, but union leaders have largely struggled to persuade their members to break with Trump. 

In the Teamsters, many members resented the rubber-stamp endorsement of Democratic presidential candidates by former Teamster President James Hoffa, O’Brien’s predecessor and the son of Jimmy Hoffa. 

O’Brien is trying something different. The Teamsters are meeting with all presidential candidates. They even sat down with Cornel West, Marianne Williamson and Robert Kennedy, Jr. Rank-and-file members have been part of each roundtable and Q and A. 

Next month, members and Teamster leaders are scheduled to host President Biden.

The IBT donated $45,000 to both the Republican and Democratic convention funds and pledges to have members “on the ground and active in both Conventions.”

In the meantime, members will be polled on the issues and their views on union issues like organizing rights, the NLRB, and right to work will be compared with the candidates’

A more open process could leave some Trump supporters and undecideds in the union’s ranks more open to listening to the Teamsters Union’s statements and endorsements. 

Will it work? Who knows?

The Fallout

In the short term, there have been real downsides. Trump, the master pitchman, has effectively played up his Teamster appearances for publicity, leaving some union allies and members bewildered and alienated.

Many Teamsters want no part of Trump and resent their union being part of anything that could further validate or legitimize him.

“Trump’s visit to the IBT was a circus,” one attendee told me. “He didn’t answer a single question or address a single concern. Everything was just a rant about immigration. It was disgusting.” 

While the media has played up Trump’s courtship of the Teamsters, Trump himself hardly sounds confident. 

Asked at the press conference at the IBT what odds he would put on getting the Teamsters endorsement, Trump stammered, “Well, I don’t know, they never do that, they never give it but I felt, I felt, yeah, we have a good shot, I think.” 

Later Trump added: “I don’t know if the top people are going to support me, but within the union I have tremendous support.” 

Sadly, Trump’s  not entirely wrong about his support in the members and that fact goes a long way toward explaining not just the Teamsters endorsement process but the challenge confronting many union leaders.

Can the Teamsters  Help Defeat Trump?

Engineering Biden endorsements is not front of mind for many on the left.  In Michigan, progressive and Arab-Americans are calling for a people to vote “no preference” in the
Democratic primary to protest Biden’s capitulation to Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza. 

But no one in their right mind wants a Trump victory in November. If and when the Teamsters endorse Biden, it will surprise no one. But what will it take for it to make a
meaningful contribution to defeating Trump?

First, the Teamsters endorsement needs to persuade at least some Biden skeptics or soft-Trump supporters in their ranks.

More importantly, the union will have to put real money and boots on the ground to work in critical swing states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, and

The Teamsters intervened heavily in the Georgia senate race to help elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff to give Democrats the Senate majority in 2021. That new Senate majority passed the Butch Lewis Act, pension legislation named after a Teamster and TDU leader, that saved the pensions of over 400,000 Teamsters and millions of workers and their families. 

Today, the principal sponsor of the pension relief bill, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, will need the support of at least some Trump supporters to win reelection in Ohio, a state that will likely go for Trump in November. The Teamsters will be stumping for Brown. Already an ad aimed at working class voters features Teamster retiree leader Mike Walden crediting Brown for saving truck drivers’ pensions. 

Last summer, Democrats were bewildered and furious at Shawn Fain for critical remarks aimed at Biden that they said risked boosting Trump among UAW members. Those
concerns are now long-forgotten in the wake of the UAW’s Biden endorsement. Now, it’s the Teamsters turn in the headlines.

Trump has milked his appearances with the Teamsters for photo ops and publicity. That’s unfortunate and unseemly . But don’t miss the signal for the noise. 

At the IBT three weeks later, O’Brien followed Trump at the podium and told reporters: “There’s no question that the Biden administration has been great for unions.”

“Whatever candidate supports our issues is going to get our endorsement,” O’Brien added. 

The challenge for the Teamsters and the whole labor movement is to make such endorsements, and the GOTV programs that follow, effective in actually defeating

Thanks to the author for submitting this to Portside.

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 50 years working for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. With co-editor Glenn Perušek they have edited Labor Power and Strategy by John Womack Jr and available now from PM Press.