Shakeup in Teamsters leadership

Sean O’Brien, 4th-generation Teamster and head of Boston Local 25, will begin as general president of the 1.2-million-member union in March.

By Don McIntosh

One of America’s most storied unions may be heading for a left turn. Teamsters General President Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., is stepping down at age 80, and on Nov. 18, final votes were counted to determine who will next lead the 1.2-million member union. It wasn’t close. Longtime Boston Local 25 president Sean O’Brien beat Hoffa’s preferred candidate Steve Vairma by more than two-to-one. 

O’Brien ran at the head of a national leadership reform slate called Teamsters United, while Vairma topped a slate called Teamster Power. All 24 candidates in Teamsters United won, including Portland Local 162 president Mark Davison and O’Brien’s running mate Fred Zuckerman, who was elected secretary-treasurer. Zuckerman is president of Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, challenged Hoffa, Jr., in 2016, and came just 6,024 votes short of defeating him. All told, 173,585 Teamsters voted this time.

O’Brien and Zuckerman say the status quo has failed, and they want to rebuild the Teamsters as a militant, fighting union from bottom to top.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one of just a few U.S. unions that elect top leadership by direct member vote. Most top union leaders are elected at conventions by delegates who are elected at each local.

MEET THE NEW WESTERN REGION VICE PRESIDENT: Mark Davison, 52, grew up in Southern California in a union family.  In 1994, looking for a job that would provide benefits for his young family, he got a job loading trucks in Portland for UPS. Within six months he became a union steward, and went to work full-time for the union in 2000. He was elected president of Local 162 in 2009 and re-elected ever since.

“There’s been a major disconnect between the International Union and the local unions and the membership,” said Mark Davison, the president of  7,300-member Teamsters Local 162 in Portland. Starting March 2022, Davison will serve a five-year term on the General Executive Board as vice president for the Western Region.

It takes considerable effort to win the leadership of America’s sixth largest union. Teamsters United began campaigning two years ago and built a grassroots network of local leaders and rank-and-file activists. Davison says since he joined the campaign 18 months ago, he travelled thousands of miles and talked with Teamsters in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California and Nevada. The slate’s first hurdle was the June 2021 convention, where Teamsters United was able to pass several changes to the Teamsters Constitution. One says union contract bargaining committees must include rank-and-file members who work under the terms of the contract. Another says that no contract can take effect without a majority vote of bargaining unit members—the previous rule was that a contract recommended by the leadership could take effect if less than half the members vote on it, and less two-thirds of members vote to reject it. That’s what happened with the 2018 UPS contract.

Talking with the Labor Press, Davison was critical of the previous administration, saying Hoffa Jr. called few meetings, ceded a lot of decision making to consultants, and failed to robustly enforce the terms of national contracts. But Davison also made it clear the new leadership intends to put internal divisions behind them: “Regardless of who members supported in the election, we must all unite as Teamsters because our fight is with the employers.”

The new leadership takes office March 2022, and its first challenge will be bargaining a new contract at the package delivery company DHL to replace the one that expires in April. That will be a prelude to the main event—UPS. UPS employs over 300,000 Teamsters, and its current contract expires July 31, 2023. O’Brien and Zuckerman say their top priority will be to eliminate a two-tier arrangement in which some members at UPS work weekends and get lower pay. They also say they agree with the pledge Hoffa made this June to unionize Amazon, but they say the Teamsters will first need to show Amazon workers that the union can win big improvements, and that means getting a fair contract at UPS.

Hoffa Jr.’s departure marks the end of an era. He has led the Teamsters since 1998, and he’s the son of Jimmy Hoffa, who led the Teamsters from 1957 to 1971 and famously disappeared on July 30, 1975, after meeting with Mafiosi.

Sean O’Brien joined Mark Davison Oct. 11 for a campaign appearance at UPS in Tualatin.

2 Comments

  1. Since retiring from Glaziers Union Local 2001, Las Vegas, Nevada, I feel starved for countrywide union activity. Your site is a life saver. Thanks, John Connolly, Las Vegas, Nevada

  2. Very disappointed that your coverage did not mention that the Teamsters United Slate was a coalition that included Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the longest lived rank and file caucus in a U.S. union, and that the trail to victory was blazed by Oregon’s own Tom Leedham, who challenged the Hoffa regime three times and kept democracy alive in the Teamsters Union.

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